To determine the extent of implementation of the three recommendations included in our initial audit report, Compliance With the Sewage Pollution Right to Know Act and Monitoring and Enforcement of State Pollutant Discharge Elimination System Permit Requirements (Report 2019-S-54).
About the Program
New York State is rich in surface and ground water resources, with over 70,000 miles of rivers and streams and more than 7,600 freshwater lakes, ponds, and reservoirs that are used for drinking, bathing, and recreation. As the State’s environmental regulatory agency, the Department of Environmental Conservation (Department) is responsible for improving and protecting this vast network of water resources, including preventing, abating, and controlling pollution. Wastewater has been identified as one of the top sources of pollutants, including bacteria and other pathogens, which impair or impact the quality of State waters and, in turn, pose health risks to those who use them. Two key pieces of legislation specifically related to wastewater were enacted to protect the State’s natural resources and the health of its residents: the 2013 Sewage Pollution Right to Know Act (Act) and Article 17 of the Environmental Conservation Law, which created the State Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (SPDES) program. Across New York State, over 600 wastewater treatment facilities process billions of gallons of wastewater per day to purify it for reuse. During sewage overflow events, which may result from heavy rainfall, snow melt, or “dry weather” events, such as blocked or broken sewer lines and power outages, untreated or undertreated sewage may be discharged into ground and surface waters, posing risks to the customers of public water systems that may draw from these waters. These events may also pose risks to people who use the waters to swim, boat, or fish. Timely reporting of overflow events to the public is therefore crucial so they can avoid exposure. Generally, the Act requires publicly owned (e.g., municipal) treatment works (POTWs) and publicly owned sewer systems (POSSs) to report untreated and partially treated sewage discharges to the Department and local health department within 2 hours of discovery and to notify the public and affected and adjoining municipalities within 4 hours of discovery. To ensure appropriate notification, the Department requires POTWs and POSSs to register for and use the NY-Alert electronic notification system to report overflow events and any subsequent updates.
Our initial audit report, covering the period April 1, 2017 through February 27, 2020, was issued on October 19, 2020. The audit objectives were to determine whether the Department was ensuring applicable entities were complying with the 2013 Act, and was adequately monitoring and enforcing requirements of the SPDES to ensure safe discharge into public waters. We found the Department had established procedures to help ensure that applicable entities comply with the Act; however, the audit identified many potential POSSs that were not registered for NY-Alert and were not reporting overflow events. In addition, the Department had not followed up with potentially non-compliant facilities or verified whether events were reported timely. Furthermore, the audit found inaccuracies in the Department’s historical overflow reporting. The audit also found that the Department had established procedures to help ensure that permit holders meet SPDES permit requirements. However, some permit holders were not responding timely to actionable follow-ups resulting from inspections and/or not submitting reports of non-compliance, as required.
The Department made progress in addressing the problems we identified in the initial audit report. Of the initial report’s three audit recommendations, one has been implemented and two have been partially implemented.
Officials are given 30 days after the issuance of this follow-up to provide information on any actions that are planned to address the unresolved issues discussed in this review.
State Government Accountability Contact Information:
Audit Director: Nadine Morrell
Phone: (518) 474-3271; Email: [email protected]
Address: Office of the State Comptroller; Division of State Government Accountability; 110 State Street, 11th Floor; Albany, NY 12236