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Seneca Nation files notice of claim against Olean for wastewater spills

The Allegheny runs from the bottom left corner to the middle of the right side of the photo. Forests line both sides of the river. A small farm house sits in a clearing on the right side of the river. A cliff face can be seen in the distance on the left side of the river.
Tony Webster
Wikimedia Commons
Seneca Nation President Rickey Armstrong called protecting the Allegheny River — known as Ohi:yo’ in Seneca — from wastewater pollution a "sacred responsibility." This photo of the river was taken in Emlenton, Pennsylvania.

The Seneca Nation is one step closer to suing Olean over the city’s overflowing wastewater treatment plant.

The nation’s legal department served a notice of claim on the city's government, tribal officials announced Tuesday, allowing the nation to file a lawsuit against Olean at a later date. The move comes after two overflows from Olean’s treatment plant in April and June collectively spilled more than 300,000 gallons of wastewater into the Allegheny River, which runs through the Seneca Nation’s Allegany Territory.

“The river, which we call Ohi:yo’, has been under decades of attack in the form of the continued, dangerous and unlawful discharges from the Olean Wastewater Treatment Plant,” Seneca Nation President Rickey Armstrong Sr. said in a statement. “The health and safety of Ohi:yo’ and the many people who utilize and depend upon its waters, including the Seneca people and many of our neighbors, must be prioritized and protected.”

Olean Mayor Bill Aiello acknowledged that the city had received the nation’s notice of claim. He added that Olean is preparing a request-for-proposal process to hire an engineering firm “to assist us in addressing the situation.”

“We understand the importance of this matter to our residents and neighboring communities, including the Seneca Nation,” Aiello said in a statement.

Olean’s wastewater treatment plant has untreated sewage into the Allegheny River for years, mostly during severe rain. The Seneca Nation has issued several public health warnings and advisories in response to those discharges, which it says have elevated the river’s levels of fecal coliform, E. coli, enterococci and nitrates.

The first spill of this year came on April 3, when two overflows discharged a collective 46,500 gallons of untreated sewage into the river, according to the city.

The plant overflowed again on June 20, when a rainstorm dumped 4.4 inches of rain on Olean and caused approximately $430,000 in damages, according to the National Weather Service and the Cattaraugus County Office of Emergency Services. About 200,000 gallons of untreated sewage spilled into the Allegheny River over the course of four hours, and another 80,000 flowed into the river’s tributaries, according to the Seneca Nation.

The New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) has cited the Olean Wastewater Treatment “numerous” times for violating the terms of its pollutant discharge elimination system permit, according to the nation.

The DEC ordered Olean to upgrade its wastewater treatment system to stop the overflows into the river in 2001. That order has been revised several times, giving the city until 2042 to fully comply.

The nation has threatened legal action against the city before. In 2022, lawyers for the Seneca Nation sent city officials notice that they intended to take action against Olean for violating the Clean Water Act.

“We have a physical and cultural connection to Ohi:yo’, and it is our responsibility to defend the river,” Armstrong said in a statement. “In fulfilling our sacred responsibility, we want to make sure that the city finally honors its own responsibility to comply with the laws and permits that call for the safe and responsible operation of its facilities. The river and the concerns of the Seneca people cannot be dismissed and ignored.”