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DIGGING DEEPER: Time running out to clean up Susquehanna River

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BINGHAMTON (WBNG) -- Environmental experts say the wildlife population and even human health are at risk, if more is not done to clean up the Susquehanna River.

12 News has reported on the wastewater and industrial contaminants the DEC said are treated and dumped into the Susquehanna River on a daily basis by sewage treatment plants. Officials with The Chesapeake Bay Foundation explained those contaminants go far beyond the Southern Tier and Pennsylvania.

"The Susquehanna River is unquestionably the most important river in the Chesapeake Bay watershed... unfortunately it's also the largest source of Nitrogen pollution entering into the Chesapeake Bay," said Pennsylvania's Director of Science Policy and Advocacy for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, Harry Campbell.

The Susquehanna is the largest river, flowing entirely in the U.S., that drains into the Atlantic Ocean. It serves around four million people from Cooperstown, NY all the way through the Southern Tier, Pennsylvania and Maryland.

"There's release of raw sewage and increased amount of phosphorus and nitrogen gets in the river and that increases productivity and there are other issue with that. It's in general not a good thing to have," said Broome County Soil and Water Executive Director Chip McElwee.

He's referring to when we get heavy rain and wastewater--like sewage--is released into the river untreated. It happens because the systems can't always handle the large intake of storm water.

Problems like that lead to river contamination, an issue plaguing the Susquehanna for decades.

McElwee said the issue is getting better as sewage treatment plants upgrade their facilities, but there's still a ways to go.

"New York State has a goal that they need to reach in terms of reduction so it's on the shoulders of agencies like mine and the DEC to try and address some of the pollution the runoff that gets into the river," McElwee explained.

The Chesapeake Bay Foundation reports contaminants like animal waste and fertilizers, storm water runoff and wastewater from sewage treatment plants all lead to the nitrogen pollution in the Susquehanna River and Chesapeake Bay.

"We're finding more and more potential impacts to not only our own health but the health and conditions of the rivers and streams," said Campbell.

Even if you're not swimming or fishing in the river, many of us drink that water. The City of Binghamton and many communities in Pennsylvania use the Susquehanna as a source of drinking water. It's filtered first at a water treatment plant before hitting your faucet, but like any tap water, the annual water quality reports show not all contaminants can be removed.

"The water treatment plants have a big problem with turbidity in the river," McElwee said. "It's tough for them to get a lot of the sediment out and other things come a long with the sediments; parasites and pathogens."

The effects on the fish in the river are tremendous. Middle Susquehanna Riverkeeper John Zaktansky said the studies are concerning.

"100 percent of the small mouth they studied in the final project had some kind of micro fibers from plastic residue in fish stomachs," he explained.

That's not good news for people who want to eat the fish, or for the health of the wildlife population.

"I know that there's also concerns with antibiotics and other things in the river that are going to inhibit fish reproduction, those are the kinds of things I worry about," said McElwee.

He explained a lot of progress has been made in New York to reduce contaminants going into the Susquehanna, by better treating wastewater before discharging it to the river. He fears, however, even that might not be enough.

"We need to reach these goals by 2025 or the EPA says they'll come in and regulate," McElwee told 12 News.

For the Chesapeake Bay and the millions living along the Susquehanna, time is also ticking.

"We should inherently have a concern downstream neighbors all the way down to the Chesapeake Bay... we're a society that's reliant on our community," said Campbell.

The Environmental Protection Agency has put a plan in place to reduce contaminants going into the Chesapeake Bay. By putting pollution control regulations on states like New York and Pennsylvania, the EPA's goal is to restore the bay and its rivers by 2025.

McElwee works with farms and oversees sources of river contamination to assist in reducing what goes into the Susquehanna, but he fears it may not be enough, which means the EPA may have to step in if their goals aren't met.

Chloe Vincente

Chloe Vincente is an Evening News Anchor at 12 News.

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