KEUKA OUTLET, June 18, 2018 — Along the waterfront near Dresden, residents don’t dare drink their tap water, which is drawn directly from one of the most polluted sections of Seneca Lake.
Their water is being fouled by the Keuka Outlet, an eight-mile watercourse that flows east from Keuka Lake past Penn Yan to Dresden, where it empties into Seneca.
The outlet carries tainted runoff from agricultural lands and an overtaxed wastewater treatment plant in Penn Yan. Runoff pollution is magnified many times when heavy storms wash fertilizer and animal waste off Yates County farms and fields and the treatment plant is overwhelmed.
In water flowing into the lake, levels of coliform bacteria, including E.coli, are often tens or hundreds of times recommended limits in wet weather. Such “red flag” readings of coliform point to pathogens related to human and animal waste, which make it risky even to use bay water for washing dishes or clothes.
Meanwhile, the abundant phosphorous and nitrogen that pours into the lake from the outlet are key nutrients for cyanobacteria, or toxic algae.
Algal blooms have steadily increased on Seneca the past three summers — particularly on its northern end. There’s no sign they will abate this season. The outlet is the main source of water flowing into that section of the lake.
Several lakeshore homeowners are incensed that the state Department of Environmental Conservation hasn’t acted more decisively to address either the immediate threat to their tap water or the looming lake-wide threat of toxic algae blooms.
“This situation is completely unacceptable, not to mention unhealthy and potentially dangerous,” Dr. Denise DeConcini, a pediatrician who owns a year-round home about two-thirds of a mile north of the outlet’s mouth, wrote the DEC in March. “We need clean, safe water coming into our homes.”
The DEC classifies virtually all of Seneca Lake as Class AA drinking water. The only exceptions are the extremely shallow northern and southern tips of the lake and the area within a one-mile radius of the Keuka Outlet, which are all Class B. Those waters are generally OK for swimming and fishing, but not for drinking.
Keuka Outlet itself is rated Class C, which is acceptable for fishing but not for swimming.
The two key sources of pollution in the outlet are Jacobs Creek, a small tributary that feeds into it at Birkett Mills in Penn Yan, and Penn Yan’s wastewater treatment plant less than one mile to the east.
Jacobs Creek drains farmland north of Penn Yan, and its water has extremely high levels of E.coli, phosphorous and nitrogen, according to water sample tests by Seneca Lake Pure Waters Association, an environmental non-profit.
SLPWA has been sponsoring water tests at six sites along Keuka Outlet since 2014 in partnership with the Community Science Institute in Ithaca, a licensed water testing lab.
Water samples from the treatment plant site have also shown “very high levels of bacteria and nutrients,” a 2017 SLPWA report said.
Two decades ago, the treatment plant used ultraviolet light to kill bacteria in the water it discharged into Keuka Outlet. But in 1999 the DEC quietly granted the plant’s request to stop the disinfection program. Not all downstream water users were informed at the time of the change in practice.
After SLPWA’s relatively recent water test results became public, several residents began pressing the DEC to require the plant to resume disinfection. That campaign has had limited success.
The DEC has proposed requiring the plant to begin disinfecting its effluent for six months a year — from May 1 to Oct. 31.
Affected residents consider that idea woefully inadequate.
“We feel that this is an error by the DEC as there are many homes in the area who use this water 12 months a year,” lakeshore resident Eileen Moreland wrote in a June 9 letter to an aide to state Sen. Tom O’Mara, chairman of the Senate Environmental Conservation Committee, which oversees the DEC. The outlet falls within O’Mara’s legislative district.
Moreland argues that her local property tax bill of more than $10,000 should at least guarantee potable water for her and her husband at their year-round home.
Linda Downs, Moreland’s neighbor, said a local code enforcement officer told her that potable water was a requirement for a house’s certificate of occupancy.
“Why do we in that mile north and south (of Dresden, where water is rated Class B, undrinkable) even have certificates of occupancy, much less pay the high taxes we do?” Downs said.
The DEC’s plan to require the treatment plant to disinfect its discharges seasonally came in a September 2017 draft of a renewal permit for water discharges.
The plant’s existing discharge permit, issued by the DEC in 2012, expired in January 2017. Although the Clean Water Act requires five-year terms for such permits, the DEC considers a plant’s filing of an application to renew a permit as a license to operate indefinitely with an expired permit.
In fact, it’s long been common practice for the agency to let industrial operations throughout the state operate under such “administratively continued” permits. “Zombie Permits” is the term a law professor used for them in his 2005 analysis published in the Pace Law Review. “The biggest casualty of this substituted review cycle is public participation,” Karl S. Coplan wrote.
A DEC official said last week that the public comment period for the Penn Yan plant’s discharge permit renewal ran out in January but declined to estimate a date that the renewal permit would go into effect.
The Town of Torrey has a lot riding the agency’s final ruling, as expressed in a Jan. 10, 2018 letter from Town Supervisor Patrick Flynn to the DEC.
Among Flynn’s concerns:
— While the DEC’s draft renewal permit for the treatment plant limits coliform to 200 colonies per 100 milliliter of water, certified tests have show readings in the outlet as high as 100,000 colonies per 100ml. — 500 times the official limit.
— In a sampling of tap water at 30 lakeshore homes in Torrey, the town found evidence of E.coli and coliform in about 80 percent of the cases.
— Penn Yan’s treatment plant will be further stressed by three new hotels, 40 new condominium units and a new manufacturing facility.
— The treatment plant accidentally spilled 35,000 gallons of sludge into Keuka Outlet in August 2017. The DEC imposed a $5,000 fine.
— The remediation plan outlined in the DEC’s draft renewal permit calls for implementation by May 2022.
That’s not soon enough, Supervisor Flynn wrote.
In defending its draft permit, the DEC has asserted that it’s 1999 decision to allow an end to disinfection was based on an earlier finding by the state Department of Health. The DOH had said disinfection wasn’t necessary because no municipal water system relies on the Keuka Outlet’s flows.
An aide to Sen. O’Mara has warned that the DEC could be dragged into court for requiring full-year disinfection. Jesse Pollard wrote in an May 22 email to Moreland that Penn Yan residents, angry over being required to pay for the upgrade, might sue.
Furthermore, no amount of regulation imposed on the treatment plant would reduce very high coliform readings upstream of the plant, Pollard added.
Results of SLPWA-CSI water tests tend to support Pollard’s assertion. On a dry day in April, a sample upstream of the plant had a higher reading (4,995 colonies per 100 ml at Birkett Mills) than a downstream sample (3,320 colonies per 100 ml at Charles Street Bridge near the mouth of the outlet).
A July 2017 test of total coliform during stormwater conditions found 100,000 colonies per 100 ml at each site. (The DEC permit restricts fecal coliform to a daily average of 200 colonies per 100 ml. over a month.)
O’Mara, who met with Moreland, Downs and local officials over the issue in May, did not respond to questions last week about whether he agreed with Pollard.
Neither did he say whether he favored full-year, half-year, or no disinfection requirements for the Penn Yan plant.
Flynn’s letter to the DEC also noted the treatment plant’s potential contribution to the growing toxic algae threat because of high levels of phosphorous and nitrogen in its effluent.
SLPWA has enlisted dozens of volunteers to patrol the shores of Seneca for algal blooms, which often look like pea soup or spilled green paint. But not all algae is dangerous. It must be tested to see if it contains cyanobacteria.
The most common type of cyanobacteria found in the Finger Lakes last year produces microcystin, a nerve and liver toxin.
Contact with the toxins from swimming or breathing can cause irritation of the skin, eyes, nose and throat.
Scientists are exploring possible links between exposure to algal toxins and irreversible neurological diseases, such as dementia, Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease).
Since 2014, the SLPWA/CSI partnership has monitored phosphorous and nitrogen levels in four key Seneca tributaries: Keuka Outlet, Catharine Creek, Reeder Creek and Big Stream.
“Keuka Outlet appears to transport more phosphorus, nitrogen and E. coli to Seneca Lake than the other three streams,” according to a slide show presented by CSI’s executive director, Steven Penningroth, in Dresden in October 2016.
SLPWA tests found that phosphorous levels were particularly high in Reeder Creek, which empties into the northeastern portion of Seneca Lake. Those high readings have been attributed to munitions activity at the former Seneca Army Depot.
Algal blooms are also know to be encouraged by ample sunlight and warmed water.
The Greenidge Generation power plant, which restarted last March after a six-year hiatus and a change in ownership, has permits to discharge more than 100 million gallons of coolant water a day into the Keuka Outlet at temperatures up to 108 degrees.
The DEC issued a policy paper in 2011 that called for new industrial facilities to install water recycling systems, which cut water discharges by more than 90 percent. But that requirement has not been imposed on Greenidge.
Gregory Boyer, a Syracuse biochemist who specializes in toxic algae, said in a recent affidavit that Greenidge’s warm water discharges could spur algal blooms in the Dresden bay area of Seneca Lake.
Keuka Outlet also receives untreated toxic leachate from the Lockwood Hills landfill associated with the Greenidge Generation plant (see waterfrontonline blog posting June 12). The landfill also operates under an expired DEC permit to discharge, another so-called “Zombie Permit.”
Excellent reportage, as always, Peter. Beautiful.