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NF Water Board apologizes for "dark water" dump into river

WBFO's Mike Desmond
Niagara Falls Water Board Chairman Dan O'Callaghan (at podium) reads statement on steps of the board's headquarters.

The Niagara Falls Water Board is apologizing for the sewage dump into the Niagara River on Saturday. Water Board Chairman Dan O'Callaghan read a prepared statement and refused to take questions, during a quick appearance Thursday afternoon outside board headquarters.

On Wednesday, the board said it was at least a week away from having a news conference. However, backlash has been very vocal and angry from both sides of the border. At this Thursday appearance, the chairman came out onto the steps of the Water Board headquarters, read a statement and disappeared back inside.

In his statement, O'Callaghan said Water Board has been backflushing the tanks in its sewage treatment plant since 1970 and dumping that waste into the Niagara River. The board did it again on Saturday afternoon during high tourism season and something went terribly wrong, resulting in a rush of smelly black water into the river, seen around the world.

O'Callaghan said that because of possible human error or mechanical malfunction, more waste water was released into the river than expected, creating the "dark water." He maintained the board's earlier explanation, that the dumping was normal procedure, but something went wrong.

"Carbon filters at the Niagara Falls wastewater plant are needed to flush periodically to keep the systems properly operating," he said. "That's how the systems work properly and retained and maintained. That's why they were designed to operate. Because of the carbon filters, the backwash is black. In this case, the backwash water was treated to remove solids."

O'Callaghan said that did not mean all of the solids were removed. He said various factors make explanations something for the future.

"Everybody wants to clear the air and we are at the relatively early stage of the inquiry and have not yet drawn conclusions to every aspect under consideration," he said. "Similarly, there are matters that will be taken up with the regulatory bodies about which it is too early to comment on."

The board is meeting with the state Department of Environmental Conservation to discuss what happened and if the entire procedure met state regulations.

The Governor ordered an investigation and the Niagara County Legislature will meet in special session next week to discuss possible criminal charges. Congressman Brian Higgins wants Washington and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to probe what happened, while the Ontario government has been asked to actively probe what happened in the river it shares with New York.

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.