Update: Sludge spill raises questions, wrath

Gwen Chamberlain

Update: A spokesperson for the Department of Environmental Conservation provided the following information after print publication deadline: "After the spill, DEC and DOH alerted downstream public water supplies to take standard precautions, monitored for turbidity in the outlet, and determined that lake samples would not provide information to drive additional actions.  DEC’s preliminary determination is that operator error caused the release of 66,000 gallons of partially disinfected and diluted digester sludge, of which an estimated 35,000 gallons entered the water. DEC's investigation of the spill is ongoing. DEC is not currently planning to modify the water classification cited, but that status is regularly subject to further review based on new information."

An accidental spill from the Penn Yan Wastewater Treatment Plant Aug. 24 resulted in up to 35,000 gallons of treated sludge entering the Keuka Outlet. While the signs warning people to not enter the water in the outlet between the treatment plant and Seneca Lake have been removed, there are still questions about the incident and any lasting effects, if any, on private drinking water systems.

A spokesperson for the Department of Health says drilled wells should not be impacted if they are located and constructed according to state design standards. But, notes Jill Montag, public information officer for DOH, shallow shore wells are influenced by surface water and can contain bacteria, parasites, viruses and other contaminants. “The Department of Health strongly recommends against the use of shore wells as a drinking water source for individual residences,” she wrote in an email.

The Department of Health, working with local health officials, say no public drinking water systems were affected by the spill, and the state agencies will monitor area systems to ensure drinking water is not impacted.

While initial reports reveal operator error, the Department of Environmental Conservation has launched a full investigation into the incident, which Penn Yan Mayor Leigh MacKerchar says will likely result in recommendations to prevent a similar event from happening in the future. “And we’re working on that in house as well,” he said Monday afternoon.

Dave Reeve, a board member of Friends of the Outlet and a Penn Yan Village Trustee, says he learned through a conversation with DEC officials that the spill into the outlet was probably of shorter duration and fewer gallons than originally reported.

Original reports were that the sludge was being transferred to a reed bed for dewatering, and a valve was left open for several hours.

Reeve says his concern is that there appeared to be a bureaucratic circle between the two state agencies. “Hopefully, any serious risk to the public has passed. But I still wish we could find a resource to help should we ever face something like this again,” he wrote in an email message.

The Keuka Outlet flows from Keuka Lake to Seneca Lake, entering Seneca at the southern edge of Dresden. It is the largest tributary to Seneca Lake. According to a 2016 water quality summary prepared by Seneca Lake Pure Waters Association, “the Penn Yan WWTP effluent is also a source of nutrients and bacteria, neither of which are regulated by its DEC SPDES permit.” SLPWA conducts water quality testing at six locations on the Keuka Outlet, seeking information about bacteria (E. Coli and total coliform), nutrients and dissolved oxygen. In the 2016 report, 68 percent of the samples failed to meet the limits for bacteria, and 93 percent failed to meet the limits for total phosphorus.

“Sampling of the Penn Yan Waste Water Treatment facility has shown very high levels of bacteria and nutrients,” the report states.

Penn Yan Village officials issued a warning advising that no one should enter the water of the Keuka Outlet until further notice. Those signs have been removed. The flow gates at the Main Street bridge were opened fully for increased flow of water along the waterway to help clear the spill and reduce the chance of algae growth.

MacKerchar says he can understand the frustration the spill has caused for people downstream.

George Thompson is a resident of Perry Point on Seneca Lake. He has been a strong voice in the movement to extend the Dresden water system to the neighborhood. He and others in the area point to the state’s classification of the lake water in the area as not suitable for consumption, and they say Penn Yan’s waste water treatment plant contributes to the problem. Torrey Town and Dresden Village officials and residents of the neighborhood have not been able to reach an agreement with Penn Yan that they feel is fair, so they are opening discussions with the town of Geneva to supply water to Torrey.

In a letter to the editor found on page 4, Thompson writes, “We hope that Penn Yan’s MUB corrects whatever went wrong. We hope the DEC and NYS Health Department in Geneva investigate to reveal the cause of the spill and offer solutions. We hope the reports are made public. The folks on Keuka Lake would not appreciate a spill like this into their lake. They are fortunate to be upstream, eight miles away and 274 feet above Seneca Lake.”