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Niagara Falls sewer dumping now an international incident, possible criminal probe

It is now an international incident - and soon to be a possible criminal investigation. Canada and the Niagara County Legislature are calling for further investigation into the sewage dumped into the Niagara River over the weekend.

The black, smelly material was dumped into the river in what the Niagara Falls, NY Water Board called routine maintenance. However, Gov. Andrew Cuomo ordered staffers to probe the dumping and the state Department of Environmental Conservation has said the board's action violated clean water rules and regulations.

While the Ontario Ministry of the Environment has been saying the event is a New York State matter, Niagara Falls Provincial Parliament Member Wayne Gates said dirty water does not stop for the border. He said it affects tourism on both sides of the river.

"I certainly do compliment the governor of New York for taking the lead on this on this and trying to get to the bottom of what transpired," he said. "But when you see the picture of the boat surrounded by all that black stuff that was dumped into the river and the boat is full with tourists - and it's certainly not a memorable experience when that happens - it doesn't matter whether it's in Niagara Falls, New York or on our side."

Gates said his constituents want more than the Ministry's dismissal, so he wrote Ontario Environment and Climate Change Minister Chris Ballard a strongly worded letter saying so. He said the Ontario government has to be involved in the investigation.

"It's really, really a ridiculous comment on behalf of the minister and that's why we decided to write a letter and try and heighten the awareness of what's going on, not only from your side which I think the governor is doing a good job of, but also from our side to say, 'Okay, how did this happen? Let's make sure this never happens again.' We certainly don't want a black eye anywhere when the number of tourists that are coming to both our municipalities."

Niagara Falls Water Board officials met with an Environmental Conservation Department official Wednesday to talk about what happened. In a written statement, the board said it is cooperating after "open, candid and informative" discussions. The board said it may hold a formal news conference next week.

Niagara County lawmakers also are getting involved. The Legislature will be summoned to a special meeting next week to take up four resolutions that urge the leadership of the Niagara Falls Water Board to resign and call for criminal investigations into last weekend's incident.

“The Board’s conduct here is beyond defense and they have lost our confidence,” said Niagara County Legislature Majority Leader Randy Bradt in a statement. “We will ask the Niagara County District Attorney and Attorney General Schneiderman to examine the facts surrounding this matter and to determine if criminal charges should be brought.”

Bradt said news reports that the Governor and DEC were casting doubt on Water Board claims that it followed proper procedures warranted the decision to move forward with a package of four resolutions that seek the resignations of the entire Water Board and senior management, as well as a call for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and others to investigate possible criminal charges.

“The local tourism promotion agency released figures two years ago that said Niagara County tourism was an $827 million-a-year industry,” Bradt said. “Since Saturday, Niagara Falls has been in every major media outlet around the country and most around the world. The last time they got this much attention, Nik Wallenda was walking across a tightrope—and that had a massive positive economic impact on the region. We can only imagine the damage done to tourism-related businesses due to this mismanagement by the Water Board.”

Bradt and fellow Republican legislators Rebecca Wydysh, Kathryn Lance and Will Collins drafted four resolutions Wednesday. Wydysh cited a news report on radio station WBFO that quoted DEC Spokesman Sean Mahar as saying the discharge was “clearly” a violation of water quality standards.

Bradt says he is confident that the Legislature has the votes to pass all four resolutions.

On Thursday, Congressman Brian Higgins also released the letter he wrote to the EPA, calling for a full investigation into the discharge into the river, noting "the importance of this water body and its international nature."

Mike Desmond is one of Western New York’s most experienced reporters, having spent nearly a half-century covering the region for newspapers, television stations and public radio. He has been with WBFO and its predecessor, WNED-AM, since 1988. As a reporter for WBFO, he has covered literally thousands of stories involving education, science, business, the environment and many other issues. Mike has been a long-time theater reviewer for a variety of publications and was formerly a part-time reporter for The New York Times.
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