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DEP Must Improve Water Quality Warnings, Advocates Say

By Jeff Mays | October 14, 2011 7:26pm
Another view of the fire that closed Riverbank State Park.
Another view of the fire that closed Riverbank State Park.
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Kevin Boursiquot/Twitter

LOWER MANHATTAN — The Department of Environmental Protection must implement a better system of notifying New Yorkers when untreated sewage flows into the city's waterways, environmental advocates and government officials said Friday at a state Senate hearing about July's fire and explosion at the North River Wastewater Treatment Plant in Harlem.

DEP Commissioner Carter Strickland said New York Harbor is the cleanest it has been in a century and defended his agency's response to the July 20 fire and explosion, which allowed untreated sewage to flow unchecked for days into the Hudson River. He also said his agency was working to implement better procedures to notify the public.

"As we continue to improve our notifications with the public and the boaters, business owners, and environmentalists who are most interested in our work, DEP will be able to make timelier or more frequent notifications about routine events as well as emergencies such as the one we had at North River," Strickland said at the hearing of the Senate Environmental Conservation Committee with state Senators Adriano Espaillat and Mark Grisanti.

The North River fire and explosion sent upwards of 260 million gallons of untreated sewage into the Hudson after all five engines at the plant, which drive the effluent pumps, were crippled.
Riverbank State Park, built on top of the plant, was evacuated. In addition, the Hudson River and Harlem River were closed to recreational users and four beaches in Staten Island and Brooklyn were closed.
The DEP should have the results of a study from an independent contractor to determine the cause of the fire in a few weeks.

The state Department of Environmental Conservation also issued a notice of violation to DEP after the fire and is also conducting an investigation, said Regional Administrator Venetia Lannon. As a result, the DEP will have to take corrective action, although it's not clear what that would entail.

While the North River fire has drawn new attention to the issue of sewage overflow into the city's waterways, 30 billion gallons of rain runoff and untreated sewage are sent annually into the city's waters every time it rains because of the way the century-old sewer system is designed.

The North River Wastewater Treatment Plant alone sends 800 million gallons of untreated sewage into the Hudson each year.

The city's combined sewer overflow system, which transports both rainwater and sewage for treatment, dump the effluent to prevent the system from becoming overwhelmed when there is as little as a half inch of rain.

Because of this, boaters, swimmers, kayakers and fisherman need to be better notified of these individual events to increase safety, environmental advocates said. DEP water quality test results are often released years or months later, they say.

"People are using our waterways in ways they didn't 10 or 20 years ago," said Gregory O'Mullan, a Queens College microbiologist who has been testing samples from the Hudson for five years. "Information must be available for single events like discharges and combined sewer overflows."

And Tracy Brown of Riverkeeper, a watchdog group that monitors the Hudson and its estuaries, said: "We believe unsafe water quality should be added to the daily list of notifications people know and have come to rely upon."

A recent Riverkeeper study of Hudson River Water quality over four years found that 21 percent of water samples failed Environmental Protection Agency guidelines for safe swimming on an average of 1.5 days per week. In comparison, only seven percent of beaches nationwide failed to meet EPA standards during the same period.

That's why average testing standards used by DEP don't give the full picture of water quality safety, said O'Mullan.

"The public can never be notified quick enough," said Lannon.

Espaillat is using the hearing to shape his "Sewage Right to Know Law" which will be introduced during the new session in January.

The bill proposes that state agencies collect water quality level data on a regular basis and use it to create computer-generated predictive models of water quality. The DEC and Department of Health would use the data to create a coding system that would provide real-time updates and advisories  to the public about current water quality.

"We must protect the public's health by stopping the release of untreated sewage into our waterways and establish strong notification systems that prevent New Yorkers from coming into contact with dangerous pollutants," said Espaillat.