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Sewage plant board declares ‘emergency’ after wastewater floods facility

Sewage Plant Update WEB

VESTAL, NY (WSKG) — The board overseeing the Binghamton Johnson City Joint Sewage Treatment Plant declared an emergency “for procurement and waste compliance” Wednesday after an incident left one of its buildings inundated with partially treated sewage last week.

During an emergency meeting Wednesday, the Joint Sewage Board passed the measure, allowing it to make purchases and establish contracts related to the cleanup and repair work of the damaged portion of the facility through July 1 outside of the normal procurement process required by its policy and state law.

Shortly after 5 a.m. Friday, a 16-inch pipe separated from a wall in a basement portion of one of the plant’s buildings causing it to flood with wastewater, according to an email the plant’s superintendent sent to Binghamton and Johnson City officials Wednesday afternoon.

Plant staff made emergency alert notifications and were able to isolate the affected areas while maintaining part of the process of treating wastewater coming into the facility.

Photos sent to WSKG by a plant employee, who preferred not to be named due to fear of retribution, showed several feet of wastewater throughout the building. Crews worked over the weekend to pump the water out of the building. But significant amounts of “media” or leftover solids from the wastewater treatment process, remained as of Tuesday. Electricity also had to be shut off in the building for safety reasons.

“Access is a problem,” Sewage Board member Edward Crumb told Binghamton City Council members Tuesday evening. “While they've been able to dewater the area, they still have this media that needs to be removed, so it's not possible to get a good look at some of the area.”

Crumb said the facility is continuing “primary” treatment of wastewater at the facility, which services 10 municipalities in Broome County, including the City of Binghamton.

The Department of Environmental Conservation inspected the site Friday and remains in contact with plant staff.

“The release is not anticipated to cause any impacts to public drinking water supplies,” a DEC spokesperson wrote in a statement to WSKG Tuesday afternoon, prior to the meeting. “During inspection of the river, DEC staff did not observe any discernable difference between the condition upstream and downstream of [the plant], and measured turbidity to be low, even given increased runoff from recent rainfall and rapid snowmelt.”

The emergency legislation passed by the Joint Sewage Board Wednesday asserts that effluent flowing from the plant into the Susquehanna River may be negatively impacted by the damage to the plant, possibly leading to public and environmental health risks.

“The quality of the plant's discharges into the Susquehanna River are negatively impacted, which condition could affect public and or employee health as well as the health of the local river environment,” the legislation reads in part, according to a reading by Crumb before its passage.

The DEC largely reiterated its statement when asked how public health and health of the river environment has been impacted by the situation at the plant.

Following passage of the emergency legislation, the board moved to go into executive session to discuss potential litigation.

Under New York Open Meetings Law, public bodies are allowed to close their session to the public for “discussions regarding proposed, pending or current litigation.”

WSKG asked for clarification as to what litigation was being discussed and how a discussion of facts surrounding the current situation would constitute a proposed, pending or current litigation.

"It's possible as to who the responsible parties are, if any, for this situation," the board’s attorney, Al Paniccia said in response.

After being presented with an advisory opinion from the Committee on Open Government, Paniccia reiterated that he believed potential litigation is synonymous with proposed litigation in this case.

“I think the board is proper in going into executive session to discuss proposed litigation,” Paniccia said.

The Sewage Board and its owners have been engaged in separate litigation over the 2011 collapse of part of the wall to the plant. That case is set to go to jury trial in September.

The Binghamton-Johnson City Joint Sewage Treatment plant is co-owned by the two municipalities. The Joint Sewage Board contains three representatives from each municipality.

Vaughn Golden has been reporting across New York since 2016. Working as a freelancer while studying journalism and economics at Ithaca College, Vaughn has reported for a number of outlets including the Albany Times Union, New York Post, and NPR among others. Prior to coming to WSKG full-time, Vaughn was a reporter for the Watertown Daily Times. Vaughn now covers government and politics for WSKG.