OLEAN — A report issued Wednesday of higher bacteria levels in the Allegheny River due to a sewage discharge last week was in error, the Cattaraugus County Department of Health reported.
Eric Wohlers, head of environmental health for the department, said a report issued by accident to local media indicated there were higher-than-normal bacteria levels in the river between Olean and Allegany. The report called for residents to avoid swimming, boating, fishing or wading in the river following a discharge Aug. 6-7 of around 330,000 gallons of untreated wastewater.
“We did collection sampling last Thursday that indicated the bacteria level was going down,” Wohlers said. “We have no new data this week. The problem was last week, not this week.”
On Aug. 7, a state Sewage Pollution Right to Know Act notification was sent out through the state’s NYAlert system stating approximately 330,000 gallons of untreated wastewater was discharged into the Allegheny River over the previous 21.5 hours.
The source of the discharge was the Fourth Street pump station, which pushes wastewater to the city’s treatment plant through a 3-foot line. The line carries about 75 percent of the city’s wastewater — upward of 9 million gallons a day during storm events. A brief power outage Aug. 6 caused the pump to go offline, but the radio system informing the city’s Department of Public Works was disabled. It was not until the next morning that a routine daily check of the pump station showed the system was offline.
The station is the same one which discharged roughly 200,000 gallons of untreated wastewater into the river on Aug. 17, 2018. That loss was attributed to heavy rains and a four-hour power outage at the station.
Discharges into the river have been a longstanding concern for the city, but are far less common now than they were 20 years ago. Since the late 1990s, the state Department of Environmental Conservation had put the city on notice about discharges caused by heavy rains and a dilapidated infrastructure and wastewater treatment plant. In the mid- 2000s, the DEC and city agreed to two consent orders — one to cover the recent $23.25 million overhaul of the wastewater treatment plant, which tended to overflow and dump sewage into the river during heavy rains and snow melts, and another to invest at least $250,000 a year for decades into sewer line repairs in order to keep runoff out of the system.
Wohlers noted that the river flows continually, diluting any discharges and washing them downstream — meaning there are few lasting effects in the immediate area.
“Within probably 24 hours it’s safe, but just to be cautious and safe, we said 48 hours,” Wohlers said. “The kayak launch was unposted (as unsafe) Friday.”
He added the health department and the city will be meeting in the upcoming weeks to look into the effects of the discharge and how to avoid similar discharges in the future. City officials have also indicated that plans are being put into place on avoiding similar situations again.