By Tuan Nguyen, Tom Liddy and Jeff Mays
MANHATTAN — New Yorkers are being told to stay out of the East, Harlem and Hudson Rivers after a massive fire crippled a Harlem sewage treatment plant, officials said.
The warnings against swimming, kayaking and other water activities Thursday came as untreated effluent from the plant, which processes more than 100 million gallons of wastewater a day, continued to stream directly into the Hudson.
Officials expect the ban to last at least through Sunday, as New Yorkers try to cope with a crippling heat wave, according to the city's Department of Environmental Protection.
Sludge from the North River Wastewater Treatment Plant was first released into the Hudson Wednesday evening, after a four-alarm fire ripped through the plant.
"Starting around 5:15 p.m. ... untreated wastewater started to be directly discharged into the Hudson River," the DEP said in a statement.
The agency said the plant, located west of the Henry Hudson Parkway from 137th Street to 145th Street, needed to be shut down as it reached full capacity and stopped treating the waste.
The plant, which serves the west side of Manhattan from Bank Street in the Village to Inwood, treats about 125 million gallons of wastewater every day when the weather is dry. When it rains, it processes about 340 million gallons.
A small portion of the sludge is being diverted to the Wards Island Wastewater Treatment Plant on the East River, but the vast majority is being released into the river, said DEP spokesman Farrell Sklerov.
The DEP is also applying chlorine to sewer outfalls near the North River Plant to reduce bacteria levels.
While the fire raged, officials evacuated Riverbank State Park, which sits on top of the plant. The park remains closed until further notice, the DEP said.
Upset parkgoers were turned away from the gates Thursday.
"It's a surprise," said Dan, a hockey coach who came to work out. "It probably affects people who live in the area more."
But Dennis Williams, who came from The Bronx to see a concert scheduled for Thursday, took the park's closure in stride.
"You can't control the situation," he said.
Meanwhile, crews had been working through the night to get the plant running again as soon as possible.
"DEP is working as quickly as possible to get the plant running again," the agency said in a statement. "DEP staff and contractors are inside the facility assessing damage, performing cleanup activities and working toward re-energizing the facility, which is the first step toward bring the plant online."
It is not clear when the work is expected to be completed.
In the meantime, the city Health Department warned swimmers and kayakers to stay out of the Hudson River. And on Thursday afternoon, the warning area was extended to the Harlem River and the East River from the RFK/Triborough Bridge to the Verrazano Bridge, according to the DEP.
The release could also force the city to close area beaches, which are expected to be packed with New Yorkers trying to escape temperatures forecast to top 100 degrees on Friday.
However, as of Thursday afternoon, "water quality modeling indicates that there is no immediate impact to permitted beaches due to the dilution capacity of the river," the DEP said in a statement. New Yorkers can get updates on beach condtions at www.nyc.gov/health, www.nyc.gov/dep or through 311.
DEP officials said it would take at least 48 hours of continuous discharge of sewage before the waste affected beaches.
They NYPD Harbor Unit will be patrolling near the plant to keep people away and the city Parks Department will be restricting access to the 79th Street Boat Basin.
Officials said that signs prohibiting "kayaking, canoeing, and other recreational activities" will be placed at all city boat launch sites in the affected area. The Hudson River Park Trust and Battery Park City Authority will do the same in their jurisdictions, the DEP said.
Crews also conducted air quality tests, but had not found any indication of airborne contaminants, Sklerov said.
On Wednesday, an explosion triggered a roaring blaze in the plant that forced the evacuation of thousands of people from Riverbank State Park and spewed a 30-foot plume of fire into the air.
The inferno, which also snarled traffic on the West Side Highway, broke out in the engine room of the plant, at 725 W. 135th St., at 11:46 a.m., an FDNY spokesman said.
Several workers told DNAinfo that they had been having problems with one of the engines on Tuesday.