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Solar power could clean up WNY beaches

woodlawn beach

Published May 31, 2013

Contaminated waters often keep our local beaches closed when it's hot and everybody wants to swim.

Every summer after a heavy rain, high bacteria levels force the closure of many beaches, including Woodlawn Beach in Hamburg.

Assemblyman Sean Ryan said, "Because it's a cove in a bay, the water doesn't move in and out as much."

The Southtowns Sewage Treatment plant is right next to the beach, taking in most of the sewage from the southtowns, treating it with chlorine and releasing it back into Lake Erie.

Deputy Commissioner of Erie County Sewage Management Joseph Fiegl said, "We disinfect the wastewater coming out of the facility around the clock. It's analyzed every three minutes, the chlorine being injected into the water."

The treated water is pumped out into the lake through a half mile underwater pipe right in front of the beach, but this is less than half of what leads to high bacteria levels, according to UB geology student Chris Wood.

"They have a very large storage capacity, so there have only been three times since 2003 when sewage was literally pumped out of untreated," Wood explained.

Wood and other UB students have studied the issue of high bacteria levels for months and determined a much larger source of the bacteria may be coming from the north end of the beach, where Rush Creek empties into the lake.

"This brings all sorts of bacteria and contaminants from miles and miles upstream and it puts it right into this swimming beach," Assemblyman Ryan said.

And unlike what comes out of the treatment plant, this creek water is untreated. It includes the fertilizer runoff from farms and gardens, backyard dog feces, and after a heavy rain, sometimes sewage mixes into the drainage pipes in Blasdell and Hamburg.

The DEC permits pumping stations, like one in Blasdell, and when there's a heavy rain, to drop the overflow of that mixture right back into Rush Creek.

Deputy Commissioner Fiegl explained, "We actually have a plan in place to eliminate those overflows It's actually called 'Rush Creek Interceptor Project.'"

Erie County has set aside $8 million and is close to getting $5 million more from the state to eliminate several older pumping stations and send more water directly to the Southtowns Treatment facility for proper disposal. But that project could take years to finish.

The UB students studying the issue are floating some quicker fixes, like a solar-powered water circulation machine, which costs about $50,000. It's been used with success in a lake in North Dakota to stir up the bacteria at the lake-bottom so that the sun's rays can kill it instantly.

Geology student Jennifer O'Neil explained, "It's actually bringing up E. coli, which is then killed by UV radiation."

The sun's rays are free and could also kill the bacteria that lies dormant in the sand at Woodlawn if it was raked down at least a foot and turned over. O'Neil proposes raking it in sections and designating the overturned sections as family-safe zones.

"The contamination risk for children or anyone who's going be playing in the sand is then decreased," she said.

Assemblyman Ryan added, "We don't have to build a new sewer system to stop our pollution problem. There are other ways around it."

A new law went into effect just a few days ago that changes the requirements regarding warning the public about pollution. Now publicly-owned treatment plants and sewer systems need to notify the DEC and Department of Health within two hours for all discharges of untreated or partially treated sewage. The DEC will then make those warnings public on their website.