No authorities contacted about Berne sewage spill

Enterprise file photo — Marcello Iaia
The treatment facility for Berne’s sewer district opened in 2014. Public sewage systems must follow certain guidelines for reporting spills, according to New York State Environmental Law.

BERNE — Neither the state’s Department of Environmental Conservation nor the county’s health department were aware of an incident last summer where a grinder pump — part of the sewer system in the hamlet of Berne — stopped working with effluent possibly reaching the nearby Fox Creek.

By law, any spill in a public sewer system is to be reported to the DEC, the local health department, and the public, within hours, whether it enters a nearby body of water or not.

In a June 11 email to Berne Town Board members, which The Enterprise obtained through a Freedom of Information Law request, Supervisor Sean Lyons said that the town’s handling of the incident “was a fine example of Representative Government” due to Councilwoman Karen Schimmer being contacted by the resident using the pump and the supervisor and other town officials finding a solution.

“It could have easily escalated into an Enterprise event and TBM [town board meeting] disruption, thankfully it will not be,” Lyons wrote in the email. “If we could foster this type of community involvement it will definitely help us run the town government more efficient and with less public distress at our meeting.”

Lyons responded to Enterprise questions about the incident in an email, saying he would comment after speaking to the town attorney. No comments were received before press time.

The hamlet’s sewer system, which was in the works for two decades, was finally completed in 2014. The state had required it be built because septic systems in the hamlet had been polluting the Fox Creek.

Roger Wright told The Enterprise about last summer’s incident. He said his house had shared a grinder pump with a neighboring home that had was unoccupied. When a transformer gave out and caused a power outage at the neighboring home, the shared pump stopped working. Wright said he was not concerned by the incident, as the town quickly replaced the system.

“As you know, the system’s are fairly new up here,” said Wright. “I think it was something that hadn’t happened before that nobody quite knew how to deal with it.”

Wright said that repairs by the town took about three weeks, and during that time a generator was used to operate the grinder pump, which Wright said has a capacity of about 30 to 40 gallons. The pump on occasion would spill some sewage into his yard, he said.

“It stays part-way full all the time and if it’s not being pumped down the last 30 or 40 gallons will overflow; it’s normally liquid, a liquid overflow,” he said.

Wright, who lives near the Fox Creek, said he did not believe the spills reached any bodies of water.

“It’s not like it was running down the yard or anything like that,” he said.

Wright said the town handled the incident well, and he eventually paid for an electrician to hook up the pump system to his electricity.

Schimmer confirmed that she had been contacted by Wright about the pump failure and that she then contacted the town. She said the extent of her involvement ended there, but said she believed that the pump had overflowed a number of times and that authorities had not been contacted.

The state’s Department of Environmental Conservation was not notified of the incident, according to a DEC spokesperson.

The town of Berne’s sewer system is classified by the state as a publicly-owned treatment works, or POTW. Within two hours of a spill or overflow, owners and operators of such a system are required by law to report to the DEC and the local health department or, if there is none, the New York State Department of Health. Within four hours of a spill, the town supervisor must be notified, as well any other towns affected by the spill. The public must also be notified within four hours. The exception to these requirements would be if partially treated sewage is discharged as part of an approved plan. A daily report must also be made for each day the spill continues except in weather-related incidents.

Mary Rozak, a spokeswoman for the Albany County Executive’s Office, said that the county department of health is notified if an incident occurs in a public sewer system, not privately-owned equipment. She said that the department had not heard of an incident involving Berne.

More Hilltowns News

  • Berne’s town attorney Javid Afzali informed the town board at its July 22 meeting that the controversial Switzkill Farm property may have been acquired illegally because the 2014 town board did not allow for a permissive referendum following the purchase authorization. Then-supervisor Kevin Crosier tells The Enterprise that no referendum was required.

  • Berne-Knox-Westerlo has published its reopening plan on its website. Governor Andrew Cuomo will determine the first week of August whether schools will reopen statewide. 

  • A state audit has revealed that Knox Town Clerk Traci Schanz failed to deposit more than 300 fee collections within the legally required timeframes and made reporting errors that left the town with an unremitted cash balance of more than $3,000, according to a report from the Office of the New York State Comptroller. Schanz said she is grateful for what she learned from the audit and new procedures have been put in place.

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