Since the 1970s, scientists and officials have been aware that the Lake George Waste Water Treatment plant has been discharging unacceptably high levels of nitrates through ground water, into West Brook and ultimately, into Lake George.
“Nitrates are probably the single, biggest influence on the water quality in the West Brook watershed, and the treatment plant is the single largest source of nitrates,” says Lake George Waterkeeper Chris Navitsky.
According to Navitsky, excessive levels of nitrate stimulate the growth of weeds and algae and can endanger fish life, the quality of drinking water, recreation and even human health. “Fortunately, we haven’t reached that level yet,” he said, adding that after Lake George Village completes the second phase of improvements to its waste water treatment plant, which it has committed itself to undertaking after being cited by the state’s Department of Environmental Conservation, we won’t.
Lake George Village Mayor Bob Blais said that a lack of funding was all that prevented the Village from making the necessary improvements until now. “We welcomed the Consent Order, which requires the Village to correct the nitrate discharge, because it puts us in line for state grants,” said Blais. In 2009, Lake George Village applied for a grant from the state’s Environmental Protection Fund that would have allowed it to install equipment to remove nitrogen from effluent, but the request was denied, according to Blais.
The consent order, which was issued June 27, said the plant had exceeded the permissible levels of nitrate discharge in 29 of the last 32 months. The Village was also fined $3,900 and ordered to develop an engineering plan that, when implemented, will bring the plant into compliance with New York State rules and regulations.
Navitsky said his research indicated that the plant has failed regularly to meet state standards for the past two decades. “We brought that to the attention of the DEC,” Navitsy said. “We were concerned about operations at the plant and used the Freedom of Information law to obtain records. We couldn’t understand why the nitrate levels were high but the plant, at least on paper, appeared to be functioning.”
According to Navitsky, the plant operator at the time, Reggie Burlingame, altered the reports from a laboratory analyzing the contents of effluents, which he then submitted to the DEC. In its Order of Consent, the DEC noted that a new plant operator discovered in 2011 that the reports had been falsified, a fact which Village officials immediately reported to the department. Navitsky attributed the DEC’s decision to finally cite Lake George Village for violations at the wastewater plant to the falsification of reports. “I think that was the straw that broke the camel’s back,” he said.
Officials at the Department of Environmental Conservation refused to comment. Mayor Blais said there was no connection between the two events. “We’ve been working with the DEC for a long time. We knew we were out of compliance and we were prepared for the Order of Consent,” the Mayor said.
Blais said he viewed Navitsky as an ally rather than an adversary in the efforts to improve the waste water treatment plant. “Chris has been very positive; he wants to help,” said Blais.
Navitsky, with Lake George Watershed Coalition executive director David Decker and Jim Sutherland, a retired DEC scientist, have volunteered to serve on a Project Control Committee to assist the Village meet the stipulations of the consent order. The three have begun monitoring the plant’s nitrate discharge, which they will continue to do every two weeks for 18 months. “We’re taking samples from wells, from West Brook and where water seeps out of the ground,” said Navitsky.
The committee has also reviewed responses from engineering firms interested in designing the improvements to the wastewater treatment plant. A firm will be chosen by August 14 to recommend a process capable of removing nitrates, said Blais.
According to Eric Siy, the executive director of The Fund for Lake George, that organization can help the Village find the funds that will be necessary to correct the plant’s flaws. “We can be a catalyst. As we showed through our collaboration with the municipalities to raise money for the mandatory inspection program, local governments and not-for-profit organizations can work together to identify major problems and advance the means of remedying them,” said Siy.
Lake George’s waste water treatment plant “should be state-of-the-art,” said Siy, and recommended building a new plant rather than continually attempting to repair the existing one. The plant, which serves roughly 4,000 people in the off-season and approximately 40,000 people in the summer, was constructed in 1939 as a federally funded, public works project.
In the 1980s, more than $500,000 was invested in making the plant more effective, but it remained, according to the DEC, “in serious need of upgrades.” A $951,000 distribution from the Lake George Basin Sewer project funded more improvements, which were completed in 2001.
More recently, the Village’s Board of Trustees agreed to borrow $2.2M in 2012 from the state’s Environmental Facilities Corporation to make more improvements to the plant, including new sandbeds. But, Blais said, the Village has no room to build a new waste water treatment plant. Nevertheless, he added, once the mandated improvements are in place, “Lake George’s waste water treatment plant will be as good as a new one.”
Blais said making the plant an up-to-date one will cost between $2 and $4 million. “Whatever the cost, bringing our plant into compliance is our first priority,” the Mayor said.
Photos: Above, the South Basin of Lake George (Lake George Mirror File Photo); and below, Chris Navitsky, PE, Lake George Waterkeeper (left) and David Decker, PE, director, Lake George Watershed Coalition (right). Photo by Buzz Lamb.