Aging infrastructure causing problems for area residents
by Jennifer Sipple
Over the past few years, Beacon residents George Mansfield and KazumiTanaka’s many encounters with city sewage in their home has made them Beacon’s poster children for sewage run amuck. The problem has haunted the homeowners since early 2002. It was then that sewage-laden water first began to seep through the foundation of the building and flood the basement.
ignored at first. “I decided that I
needed to start raising my voice to make this a priority for the city.” The
more time that elapsed, the more urgent their flooding problem became. At times, the couple could hear sewage water
pouring into the basement, and during warmer weather, Tanaka says, “It smelled
really strong!” “To give the city some
credit, they seem to be thinking of the whole picture rather than just one
person’s house,” said
In January 2005, there were 30 inches of sewage in
After heavy rain on April 3, the problem returned, with two more feet of sewage in their basement. In response, city engineer John Russo dropped by to assess. He told Mansfield that the flooding was due to heavy rain and that it was probably mostly water in the basement. Mansfield replied, “But this only happens when the manhole cover outside my house blows out sewage. Also, it doesn’t smell like water -- it smells like sewage.” According to Mansfield, Russo suggested that when Mansfield and Tanaka built their studio addition they might have interfered with the sewage system.
To find out exactly what kind of water was in his basement, Mansfield had two samples tested: one from the manhole on Churchill Street, the other, from the basement of his building. The results were identical: both samples contained fecal coliforms. An employee of the lab where Mansfield took the samples told him that he had raw sewage in his basement.
“I sent an e-mail after this last event to the mayor and two city councilmen,” said Mansfield. “I said, ‘I’m tired of the sympathy and I want to see some action.’” In response, on April 18, the city resolved to reimburse Mansfield and Tanaka for all expenses and to excavate alongside the building to divert water and sewage overflow from the house. “It doesn’t solve the greater problem because water and sewage will be diverted into the creek, but they finally came to some resolution for me personally and sewage will no longer pollute our basement.”
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Raw sewage is also routinely flowing into Fishkill Creek, contaminating a stream that many local residents use for swimming in the summer months. After heavy rains, the sewage starts flowing out of loose manhole covers, and straight down into the waterway. Last September, the Hudson River environmental organization, Riverkeeper, Inc. filed a notice of intent to sue the City of Beacon if the city sewers continued to overflow into Fishkill Creek. According to Sara Froikin, a Riverkeeper Program Associate, the organization has not yet filed the suit because it wants to work with the city to resolve this sewage problem constructively and amicably.
Beacon’s first attempt at a solution was made in November, 2004, as city engineers decided to raise and bolt down the sewage manhole covers nearest to the creek. Unfortunately, in January, 2005, that plan backfired when rainwater flooded the system, building up pressure when the sewage was unable to escape through the manhole covers. As a result, it found other means of escape. To George Mansfield, that explains why his house had its worst flooding ever during that period. In fact, in the midst of the flooding, Mansfield telephoned city officials, the Poughkeepsie Journal, and “anyone else I could think of.” The city responded that same day by sending a crew to unbolt the manhole covers.
According to Bill O’Keeffe, Director of the city sewage treatment plant, Beacon creates 3 – 3-1/2 million gallons of sewage on an average day. “During a rain event,” says O’Keefe, “it’s more like nine or ten million gallons a day.” Why is the system is so overburdened during bad weather? It would seem to make sense that there should be two separate disposal systems: one for sewage and one for storm water.. Riverkeeper’s Sara Froikin, City Administrator Joe Braun and Beacon’s Superintendent of Water and Sewage, Jamie McCollum, agree that the cause of the sewage problem is three-fold and it is going to take many years to repair.
First, the experts blame an antiquated system. Many parts of Beacon’s system are believed to be between 50 and 100 years old. “When pipes have holes, groundwater can enter those holes as the water table rises, and this increases the pressure on the sewage system, forcing leaks and bursting manhole covers,” Froikin says. McCollum estimates that cameras have been sent down sewer lines to check the condition of the pipes in at least two-thirds of the city. “The pipes are all different ages, so the goal is to detect collapsed pipes and to determine the overall state of each pipe.” This research has taken place over the past 15 years.
City Administrator Joe Braun says that five years ago, the city received a grant of one million dollars from the state of New York to improve the sewage system. More recently, $850,000 was granted to continue making improvements. General opinion among city officials is that regardless of funding, the necessary changes are going to take a long time to make.
Employing flow meters is another method of detecting holes and cracks in pipes. According to, Braun there are eight flow meters placed in the sanitary sewer system in order to determine where storm water is getting into the sewage pipes. “We read each meter once a week -- they’re in manholes which are mostly in the middle of streets so it’s difficult to get to the meters everyday,” says Braun. The plan is to move meters from where there’s low flow and put them closer to meters with high flow in order to pinpoint the infiltration of storm water.
The second part Beacon’s sewage problem reflects the behavior of city residents. McCollum claims that roof leaders (used for gutter drainage) and sump pumps are overburdening the system. In order to track down which residents are illegally dumping into the sanitary sewer system, a smoke generator is used. Braun explains, “This generator pumps smoke into the system, and where there’s a hook-up to people’s gutters you’ll see smoke rising from the gutter. Illegal hook-ups happen because it’s more convenient to dump in the sewage system or there may not be a storm sewer nearby.”
McCollum says that when an illegal hook-up is detected, residents receive a notice giving them 30 days to alleviate the problem. After 30 days, if the pump or roof leader is not taken off the sewage system, the resident receives a fine. According to McCollum, smoke testing is an ongoing process.
Residential home sump pumps and gutter drains add stress to an already dilapidated system. But the third reason that experts give for the increasing sewage troubles in Beacon relates to the issue of an antique sewage system in a modern-day town. Not only are the pipes themselves old and deteriorating, but apparently, throughout the city, there are stretches of storm water pipe that feed into the sewage system.
Joe Braun says, “During the rebuilding of 9-D we put in for project funds to replace the sanitary sewer line and the storm sewer line and while doing so, we discovered the two lines were combined so that all the storm water collected from Bob’s Corner Store to the creek were going in the sanitary sewer. Now, [the city engineers] have designed the storm system along that drainage basin to keep the two separate.” Jamie McCollum says that he’d like to find a total network of catch basins, but they’re scattered throughout the city. “We’ve smoke-tested about 3/4 of the city and have found two near Dutchess Terrace,” he said. McCollum and his crew have yet to test the northwest part of the city.
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Riverkeeper’s Sara Froikin believes that sewage overflow is not Beacon’s problem alone. “Many towns and cities along the Hudson have outdated systems.” She says that cities such as Newburgh, Kingston and New York function with combined sewage overflow systems, which means that storm water and sewage are sent through the same pipes to the nearest sewage treatment plant. During the rainy season, when that plant reaches full capacity, then the sewage overflow bypasses the plant and travels directly to the Hudson. McCollum and Braun say that Beacon used to function with a combined sewage system which is why so many street drains and storm water pipes around town are connected to sewage pipes.
Froikin and McCollum also believe that Beacon’s current sewage situation may be caused by the rapid rise in development in the area. “We might have to think about getting bigger pipes,” says McCollum. Froikin explains, “The current sewage system does not meet the demands of development nor the loss of permeable surfaces.” As more open spaces are covered with buildings and asphalt, rainwater is forced into sewage and storm drains rather than being absorbed by soil and filtered back into the water table. This increases pressure on the system.
When asked about Riverkeeper’s broad-based solution to the sewage problem in the Hudson Valley, Froikin replied, “First: upgrading antiquated sewage systems, second: getting illegal storm water hook-ups off line, and third: discouraging over-development and encouraging green development throughout the Hudson Valley.”
The pipes are getting older. Development pressures continue to grow. Will Beacon lead the Hudson Valley in creating a sewage system that meets 21st century demands? The answers to these questions rely on residents and city engineers alike. Fortunately, there is hope: ongoing efforts are being made by residents and city officials to update Beacon’s Master Plan, to ensure that Beacon’s infrastructure can accommodate any future development. While the results of these planning meetings are yet to be determined, it is clear that George Mansfield and Kazumi Tanaka are not the only Beacon citizens who want action.