Cornell's College of Veterinary Medicine accidentally released animal carcass waste into Ithaca’s sewage system on Friday. Workers attempting to transport the wastewater were forced to use their “emergency” disposal method of using the sewage system when a remotely controlled valve “didn’t function correctly,” said Simeon Moss, deputy University spokesperson.
The incident was the first time the College of Veterinary Medicine has experienced a malfunction of its alkaline hydrolysis digester, a new method of waste removal that the college has run several tests with since August, Moss said. He said that the pump was immediately disabled, and stressed that the water had already been “completely treated” by the digester.
The illegal release was “unpermitted,” said Bill Gray, Ithaca’s superintendent of public works. The city is expecting a report on how it happened and how to prevent it from happening again in the future.
However, there is “no reason to believe [the waste] will cause a problem,” Gray said. Cornell was “upfront” about the mistake, reporting the error immediately and providing all the information necessary to help rectify the problem, he said. Now, city and University officials are cooperating to ensure the waste is treated properly.
The accident may have come at a bad time for the College of Veterinary Medicine, which is currently applying to use a wastewater treatment plant co-owned by the city of Ithaca and the towns of Ithaca and Dryden. Currently, the college trucks its animal waste to a plant in Watertown. Administration officials hope to use the closer Ithaca plant to cut down on trucking costs in the future, though Moss said it was not yet clear whether the switch would actually save the University money.
Using Ithaca’s plant would represent a “greener” alternative, since the University would not have to truck its waste long distances, Moss said.
Town of Ithaca Supervisor Herb Engman said that, although the disruption would probably not have an impact on the final decision to approve Cornell’s use of the plant, the incident “does indicate that something is wrong with the system at Cornell for loading the materials [that] will have to be fixed.”
Engman warned that “if it can happen once, it can happen again,” so “Cornell will need to figure out how to control” its system.
But Engman stressed that the incident would not tarnish the “recently improved” relationship between the college and city.
Worries about the processed animal carcasses stem from prions found in the raw material. These prions may be correlated with neurological disorders such as degenerative brain diseases and mad cow disease, according to medicinenet.com.
Moss said that the discharged waste from Friday was both screened and tested for prions. The tests were negative.
Cornell previously disposed of waste through an incinerator. The incinerator, however, no longer “compl[ies] with requirements of the NYS Department of Environmental Conservation,” according to the Cornell Waste Management Facility website.
A discussion between the Ithaca community and Cornell led the University to scrap the incinerator altogether, shifting its disposal mechanism to the alkaline hydrolysis digester. Moss predicted that the issue would come up again when the city is forced to vote on the hydrolysis report.
DEC Regional Director Ken Lynch and EPA Regional Administrator Judith Enck have launched inquiries into the spill, according to the Ithaca Journal.