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Sewage Pollution Right to Know

Sign up with GovDelivery to receive information about sewage overflows and bypasses, public sewage systems, and updates on the implementation about sewage pollution right to know law via email (check the "Sewage Pollution Right to Know Law" box under "Water").

The Sewage Pollution Right to Know law was enacted in 2013. The law requires that discharges of untreated and partially treated sewage discharges are reported by publicly owned treatment works (POTWs) and publicly owned sewer systems (POSSs) within two hours of discovery to DEC and within four hours of discovery to the public and adjoining municipalities.

What does the law do about sewage pollution?

The law builds public awareness about where sewage pollution is entering waterbodies and helps to document wastewater infrastructure needs. The notification will help the public avoid contact with waterbodies that may contain bacteria that can cause illness while boating, fishing or swimming.

The law will help to build public awareness about the need to upgrade wastewater infrastructure with new technologies to maintain and/or increase the plant's ability to treat wastewater. Over 600 municipally owned wastewater treatment facilities treat sewage and wastewater from homes and businesses before the water is returned to NYS waterbodies.

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What is sewage?

Sewage is water mixed with human or animal wastes from residences, buildings, industrial establishments or other places. This water is called wastewater and is conveyed (through a collection system) to wastewater treatment facilities to be treated.

How does sewage become pollution?

If the wastewater does not reach the treatment facility and is not treated, the sewage may pollute waterbodies. Interruptions in the flow of wastewater to wastewater treatment facilities can happen for many reasons, including:

  • Weather conditions (heavy rains, snowmelt events, storm events)
  • Blockages in the sewer system
  • Insufficient system capacity
  • Structural, mechanical, or electrical failures
  • Collapsed or broken sewer pipes
  • Vandalism

How sewage is collected and carried to wastewater treatment plants

There are two types of sewer systems: combined and separate. Combined sewer systems (CSSs) are large underground pipes that carry residential and industrial sanitary sewage and stormwater (when it rains) to wastewater treatment plants in a single pipe system. Separate sanitary and stormwater sewer systems (SSSs) collect and carry residential and industrial sanitary sewage and stormwater runoff using two separate systems of pipes.

Combined Sewer Systems

Combined sewer systems (CSSs) were originally built to capture and transport wastewater (sanitary wastewater as well as stormwater runoff) away from populated areas . The wastewater was discharged into nearby waterways. As health concerns rose because of pollution of the waterways downstream, communities started to construct centralized municipal wastewater treatment plants that would collect and treat the sewage captured by the CSSs.

Most of the time these systems do not have any problems collecting and transporting sewage to wastewater treatment plants, but during wet weather and snowmelt events water flow can exceed the system's capacity resulting in an overflow. These are called combined sewer overflows (CSOs) and are generally associated with older sewer systems which are common in older cities and municipalities. The excess water released from the system may contain untreated sewage mixed with stormwater that will reach streams, rivers, coastal waters, or estuaries.

A drawing showing the difference between dry and wet weather on how storm water will enter water body
During wet weather events, when storm water enters the sewers, the
capacity of the combined sewer system may be exceeded and the
excess water will be discharged to waterbodies. The water may
contain untreated sewage (bacteria) that can cause illness.
Image: Environmental Protection Agency

In New York State, there are 76 facilities with combined sewer systems (CSS) and nearly 1000 combined sewer overflow (CSO) locations, which are required to have a State Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (SPDES) permit.

SPDES permits ensure that treated water is within certain pollutant limits and that the quality of the receiving waterbody is not impaired. These permits also require Best Management Practices (BMPs) and a Long Term Control Plan (LTCP) for communities with CSOs.

Best management practices are operational and maintenance procedures that optimize the treatment facility and combined sewer system to maximize the capture and treatment of CSOs.The LTCP outlines practices and technologies in addition to BMPs, that reduce the frequency of CSO discharges or eliminate CSOs entirely. For more information on LTCPs, visit Long Term Control Plan (LTCP) Requirements web page.

Find out if you live or recreate in a CSO community

All CSO locations in New York State, can be found on the "Combined Sewer Overflow (CSO) Outfalls" Google Map. The map provides general facility information, location, and receiving waterbody for each CSO outfall.

For more information about CSO advisories, potential impacts of CSO discharges, and links to municipal CSO web sites, visit the CSO Wet Weather Advisory web page. For more information about CSOs, visit the Combined Sewer Overflow (CSO) web page.

Separate Sanitary and Stormwater Sewer Systems

New sewage collection systems, sanitary and stormwater sewer systems (SSSs) are separated to prevent sewage pollution from reaching surface waters. Because SSSs have separate pipe systems for sewage and stormwater, communities with these systems are less likely to have overflow events during wet weather.

a drawing shows how separate system will make sure that the untreated sanitary water will not enter the waterbody in web weather
Separate sanitary and stormwater sewer systems collect and carry
residential and industrial sanitary sewage and stormwater runoff using
two separate systems of pipes. Image: Environmental Protection Agency

However, these systems may still have overflows that may release untreated or partially treated sewage into waterbodies, out of manholes and onto city streets or other land areas. These are called sanitary sewer overflows (SSOs) and may be caused by pipe blockages, problems with maintenance or operation, failures of aging equipment, or high levels of infiltration of groundwater and inflow from storm drains.

Sanitary sewer collection systems are a valuable part of the nation's infrastructure. EPA estimates that our nation's sewers are worth a total of more than $1 trillion. For more information about SSOs, visit the Sanitary Sewer Overflow web page.

What can the public do about sewage pollution?

Conserve Water

Conserving water can help to reduce pollution of our waterbodies. Excess water used in our homes means more water to be treated at our wastewater treatment facilities. Taking the following actions may help to reduce the volume of water requiring treatment and decrease the potential for CSO and SSO discharges during wet weather events:

  • Shut off faucets when not in use
  • Repair leaking faucets or pipes
  • Take shorter showers
  • Install low flow devices on faucets and showerheads and install low flow/dual flush toilets
  • Replace older dishwashers and washing machines with newer, higher energy efficient and water conserving models
  • Install rain catchment systems for your house to use rainwater to water your gardens

For more information about conserving water, see DEC's web page about ways to save water.

Don't dump fats, oil and grease down drains

Another common problem that can cause a wastewater collection system to overflow is the build-up of fats, oils, and grease. Dumping grease or fatty substances down kitchen sinks, as well as when restaurants discard oils and grease down drains, can build-up in sewer pipes.

a crosssection drain pipe with fat buildup
Don't dump fats, oil and grease down drains. These
build up in sewer pipes and can cause sewers to
overflow or back up into homes and businesses.
Image: Town of Tyngsborough, MA

These build-ups can cause overflows or backups of sewage into private residences. Homeowners should never dump fat, oil or grease directly into the kitchen sink. These substances should be allowed to cool and disposed of in the trash.

Watch the video of London's Fatberg! A build up of fat, oil and grease and baby wipes stuck in the sewer pipes prevented residents from flushing their toilets. The 15-ton mass was removed before causing serious sewage overflows. A link to the video is on right side under "Links Leaving DEC's website".

What Not to Flush

Wastewater treatment facilities have several process controls to keep foreign objects from damaging system components or blocking flow, which can lead to discharges of partially or untreated sewage. Certain materials that are commonly flushed down the toilet or dumped into kitchen sinks can damage collection systems and wastewater treatment equipment, including:

  • diapers
  • baby wipes, and
  • personal hygiene products

It is not recommended to flush any of these items, no matter how small, down the toilet.

How discharges are reported to DEC

POTWs and POSSs submit the Sewage Discharge Report Form (PDF, 1.1 MB) to DEC. The discharge reports submitted to DEC are forwarded to the Department of Health.

More information about the discharge report form, form guidance and other resources are on the Sewage Discharge Reporting Toolbox web page.

Where can I find a summary of the discharge reports?

Information received from POTWs and POSSs is summarized and updated daily on the Sewage Discharge Reports web page. The information is available to the general public including adjoining municipalities.

Annually DEC will prepare a report of the discharges. The report will contain the total number of discharges, the volume and duration of discharges and the remedial responses, if any, for discharges.


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