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Seneca Nation considering legal action against Olean over wastewater spills

The center of the photo shows a green highway sign that reads, "Entering Seneca Nation Territory." The statement is also translated into Seneca. Interstate 86 is visible on the left side of the photo. The sky is blue, but there are some white clouds.
Andre Carrotflower
Wikimedia Commons
The Allegheny River runs down the length of the nation’s Allegany Territory. The Seneca Nation says the spills prevent nation citizens and non-citizens alike from using the river for drinking water and recreation.

The Seneca Nation’s Legal Department is set to “explore potential options for further legal action” against the City of Olean after the city’s wastewater treatment plant overflowed into the Allegheny River last week, Nation President Rickey Armstrong Sr. announced on Friday.

About 200,000 gallons of untreated sewage spilled into the Allegheny River over the course of four hours last week, according to the Seneca Nation. Another 80,000 gallons spilled into the river’s tributaries. The Allegheny River runs down the length of the nation’s Allegany Territory.

The incident is the second major wastewater spill in recent months. On April 3, two overflows at the plant discharged a collective 46,500 gallons of untreated sewage into the river, according to the city.

The nation has threatened legal action against the city before. In 2022, lawyers for the Seneca Nation sent Olean officials notice that they intended to take action against the city for discharging pollutants and enterococci bacteria in violation of the Clean Water Act.

“The dangerous overflows of harmful, untreated sewage from the Olean Wastewater Treatment Plant into the Allegheny River are not rare occurrences,” Armstrong said in a statement. “The Seneca people are outraged, as I am, that we are forced to continue to deal with this situation… This has to end.”

The spill was the result of severe rain that hit Olean last week. The city’s emergency services responded to 55 calls — ranging from downed powerlines and stranded cars to a partially collapsed building and felled trees — during and after the storm, the Olean Fire Department said in a statement. No injuries were reported.

Shortly after the April 3 wastewater spill, Olean Mayor William Aiello said that the city “takes public health and environmental compliance very seriously” and has spent $22 million on “the upgrade and expansion” of its wastewater treatment facility.

“The City of Olean is aware that wastewater discharges to the Allegheny River during significant wet weather events causes the community a great deal of distress, [and] we can assure the public that we do everything in our power to reduce the frequency, duration and impact of these events,” Aiello said in a statement on April 5. “As unfortunate as these events are, it’s an acceptable emergency measure taken to protect public health by keeping this material out of homes, businesses and public occupied spaces.”

The State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) has cited Olean for its “chronic” overflow problem “numerous” times, according to the Seneca Nation. The DEC ordered the city to upgrade its wastewater treatment facility in 2001, but Olean has been unable to fully comply with the order, despite several updates. Olean currently has until 2042 to fully comply with the order.

“The Seneca Nation will not be complacent to wait decades for a solution,” Armstrong said. “We will fight to protect the health and safety of our people and our many neighbors who live along, depend on, and enjoy the river.”