By Ashley Welch
Special to DNAinfo
CHELSEA — Kayak polo player Nancy Brous didn’t hesitate to jump into the Hudson River off Pier 66 during practice with 15 other members of her team on July 20th, 2011, just hours after an explosion at Harlem’s North River Sewage Treatment Plant. She had heard about the accident, but wasn't worried — any leaked sewage would not have reached them by that time, she thought.
The next morning, Brous learned that sewage was not only released from the uptown accident site, but was also diverted to "outfalls" — pipes that lead directly into the river. One of these outfalls was at the site of the New York City Water Trail Association's kayak storage area at Pier 66 at West 26th Street.
"We basically played for three hours in a stew of sewage, and no one warned us," she said.
The fire and subsequent firefighting efforts sent more than 260 million gallons of untreated sewage into the Hudson and sent neighboring residents and those who use the city's waterways into a panic.
Brous and her fellow kayakers decided to harness their fears to launch a program called the New York Harbor Citizens Water Quality Testing Program, which teamed up with the River Project lab at Pier 40 to test nine public access points along the Hudson over a six-week period, ending in early December. Testing the water cost approximately $15 per sample, for a total of $600 so far.
The results were too scattered and too small a sample to be trusted, according to the group, but the experience spurred them to apply for a grant to continue their work.
The volunteers have applied for an $8,000 grant from the Hudson River Foundation's Hudson River Improvement Fund in hopes of continuing the testing for a 30-week period starting in the spring.
“The ultimate goal is to come up with a predictive model that will allow us to know ahead of time when it is and isn’t safe to enter the water,” Brous said.
This involves not only gauging the presence of sewage, but also looking at factors such as rainfall, high and low tides and the direction of currents, Brous said. During heavy rainfall, the city’s wastewater infrastructure becomes over-burdened and releases excess sewage and storm runoff directly into the city’s waterways. Brous said that while most people who use the river regularly know not to go in after heavy rainfall, they’re not sure how long to wait before the water is clear again.
The New York City Department of Environmental Protection releases yearly water quality reports and samples the city’s harbors weekly during the summer, and monthly throughout the rest of the year. But Brous and other advocates note the readings can be misleading because the tests are done mid-channel — and not at the public access areas of the river.
Corey Chambliss, a spokesman for the DEP, said that although the testing is mostly done in the middle of the river, the department has "recently updated signage at all outfall locations, which advises the public against swimming, kayaking or fishing following storms."
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, waterborne illnesses normally cause mild symptoms, like diarrhea, vomiting and fever, with children and the elderly being more susceptible. However, more severe cases could potentially be linked to cancer and even death, though it is difficult to prove whether an illness is directly caused by contaminated water.
The NYC Water Trail Association recently co-hosted an event with Riverkeeper, an environmental watchdog group, to discuss testing plans and a push to pass a law that would require public notification of the presence of sewage in New York state waterways.
"The most recent accident, which led to millions of gallons of untreated sewage being released in our waters, demonstrates the need for a strong, uniform notification system," said Ibrahim Khan, a spokesman for Espaillat. "We are working closely with environmental advocates and other experts to draft comprehensive legislation that will protect New Yorkers from coming into contact with polluted waters."
Kayaker Jonathan Popolow attended the event and said it gave him a lot to think about before heading back into the water.
"I think I may have been better off when I was blissfully ignorant," he said with a laugh.
He said he supports the Right to Know Law and NYC Water Trail Association’s testing program.
"I’ve been using a personal predictive model for years," he said. "I know when it rains to stay out of the water for a day or two. But it’d be great if we could develop predictive models based on actual testing and numbers."