By Jeff Mays and Olivia Scheck
HARLEM — A three-day unchecked flow that sent hundreds of millions of gallons of untreated sewage into the Hudson River was halted Friday night, said officials from the city's Department of Environmental Protection.
Two of five engines knocked out by a fire and explosion at the North River Wastewater Treatment Plant Wednesday are working and sewage began undergoing partial treatment as of about 9:30 p.m., DEP officials announced in a statement.
"DEP is now pumping wastewater flow into the plant at a rate that is processing current flows, as well as any remaining sewage that has been stored in the system while the plant was down," read the statement.
All wastewater passing through the plant is only receiving a primary treatment that removes solids and adds chlorine. That process is enough to restore the discharged water quality to the point where water advisories in place at four city beaches could be lifted. Those advisories remain in effect tonight.
An additional part of the treatment process where bacteria is used to kill other dangerous bacteria will not be on line for another couple of days because the colonies of "good" bacteria were wiped out when the treatment plant went offline.
Up to 130 million gallons of raw sewage per day was flowing into the Hudson River following Wednesday's fire and explosion at the Harlem plant that sent a thick black plume of smoke high into the air.
Some 200 million gallons had made their way into the water by Friday, officials said. A cause for the fire and explosion has not been determined.
The DEP ordered New Yorkers to stay out of the Hudson, East and Harlem rivers and advised people to stay out of the water at four beaches in Staten Island and Brooklyn on a day that broke record temperatures.
"It's the hottest weekend of the year and there's water, water everywhere but not a drop to play in," said Larry Levine, senior attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council. "Thousands of New Yorkers use the rivers and bays all around the city for recreation, swimming and fishing."
In an effort to prevent further disruptions, DEP has installed an additional pumping system. Plant employees and contractors are still repairing equipment, assessing the damage and performing necessary clean up.
During the fire, parks officials evacuated thousands of people from Riverbank Park, built atop of the treatment plant on the Hudson River, from 137th Street to 145th Street.
"There's a lot of heroic work being done...to get these plants back on as quickly as possible," said Deputy Mayor Stephen Goldsmith during a Friday afternoon press conference. "We're in a much better place right now than anyone would have expected."
City officials also continued to downplay the long-term effects of millions of gallons of sewage being spewed into the Hudson. Mayor Michael Bloomberg said the sewage "doesn't have a very big impact," during his weekly radio talk show with WOR's John Gambling.
"There should be no long-term impact from these discharges but of course we will continue to test the water quality," said Holloway.
But environmental advocates disagreed and State Senator Adriano Espaillat called for an investigation into the cause of the plant fire.
“I am deeply alarmed and concerned about this serious accident and the fact that millions of gallons of raw sewage has been dumped into the Hudson,” he said in a statement. “I am calling for a swift and through inquiry into what caused the initial explosion and why the plant and the Dept. of Environmental Protection were not better prepared for such an accident.”
Some environmental advocates blasted the city Friday for being slow to tell New Yorkers to avoid using the Hudson for recreation.
As late as Thursday, members of Riverkeeper, a watchdog and advocacy group that monitors the Hudson and its estuaries, found kayakers in the water not far from the plant. Riverkeeper water testers also found people swimming in the water near Dyckman Street in Inwood.
"This is not a minor matter. It's a real public health concern," said Phillip Musegaas, Hudson River Program Director for Riverkeeper.
DEP officials say they have restricted access to the river at the 79th Street Boat Basin and placed signs prohibiting recreational water activities at all city boat launch sites along the Hudson and other affected areas. The police department's harbor unit also began patrolling near the plant to keep boaters at a safe distance, the DEP said.
The North River plant was first proposed in 1914, but the Harlem location was not chosen until 1962, according to the city Department of Environmental Protection's website.
The 26-acre facility started preliminary treatment of waste water in 1986, stopping the daily flow of raw sewage into the Hudson for the first time, according to DEP.
The $100 million Riverbank Park, which has an Olympic-size pool, a skating rink, cultural center, 2,500-seat athletic complex and a restaurant, was a key part Harlem's agreement with the city in accepting the controversial plant. Several other neighborhoods fought against locating it in their areas.
In the wake of the 2003 blackout, investigators reportedly found that a lack of working generators at the plant posed the risk for a "catastrophic explosion." The generators powered a flame that burned methane gas produced there.
At the time, the DEP denied that there was a danger.
Peggy Shepard, the executive director of the Upper Manhattan advocacy group WE ACT for Environmental Justice, sued the city to try to stop construction of the plant in 1985 and again in 1992 over its operation. She said the group has long had concerns over maintenance at the plant.
Raw sewage can contain more than 200 times the recommended levels of bacteria, said Musegass. The group is currently sampling to determine current bacteria levels in the river. City officials also say they are awaiting water quality test results.