HARLEM — The 200 million gallons of raw sewage that flowed into the Hudson River after a fire at Harlem's North River Wastewater Treatment Plant last week has been described as "calamitous" and "devastating" by environmental advocates.
But spilling raw sewage into the waterway is nothing new for the plant, according to experts. In fact, every time it rains — even as little as half an inch — untreated waste is expelled into the river.
"We are all concerned about the discharge, but this is a continuous problem," said Phillip Musegaas, Hudson River Program Director for Riverkeeper.
"Every time there is more than half an inch of rain there is sewage sent into the Hudson River. Over the course of the year you probably have billions of gallons of sewage going out into the Hudson."
Larry Levine, a senior lawyer with the Natural Resources Defense Council, said official DEP data shows an estimated 800 million gallons of untreated sewage and polluted runoff flows into the Hudson per year from the North River Wastewater Treatment Plant alone.
"The reality of it is that when it rains, some 30 billion gallons are typically discharged into waterways around the city and there is no warning to the public and no public advisories unless they affect a beach," said Larry Levine, a senior lawyer with the Natural Resources Defense Council.
"But the beach is only a small percentage of the shore line, so most of the time there is no advisory."
DEP workers and contractors said they were able to end the most recent flow of sewage from the plant into the Hudson at about 9:30 p.m. Friday.
But an electrical problem at the plant caused by a manhole fire once again allowed sewage to flow into the river Saturday. Officials estimated that sludge spilled at a rate of 15 to 20 million gallons a day until it was stopped again at 3:30 p.m.
Experts say even when fire is not involved, wastewater treatment plants regularly expel sewage into the city's waters because the combined sewer system transports both rainwater and sewage for treatment. When it rains, the volume of water headed to the city's sewage treatment plants increases.
The North River plant treats 125 million gallons of wastewater during dry weather, but can handle up to 340 million gallons during wet weather. To prevent the facilities from becoming overburdened, the mixture of polluted rainwater and sewage is jettisoned into waterways such as the Hudson River.
There are often notices near the pipes that discharge the sewage along with general warnings to stay out of the water at rivers and certain beaches for up to three days after it rains, said environmental advocates. They also say the measures are inadequate.
Bacteria levels spike after the runoff is dumped into the Hudson. On June 27, Riverkeeper samples showed no Enterococcus, a bacteria found in feces that can cause severe health problems, near the 125th Street Piers, a new access point for fishing. It had not rained in the five days before.
Enterococcus counts of 104 per 100 milliliters of water are considered unacceptable by Environmental Protection Agency standards.
But tests from May 16, after 1.1 inches of rain fell in the five days prior, showed Enterococcus levels of 218 per 100 milliliters of water.
Bacteria levels have also spiked after the plant fire. DEP tests from Pier A at the Battery on Thursday showed Enterococcus levels of 400 per 100 milliliters of water.
"If you are exposed to water or ingest water that has higher levels of bacteria you are at increased level of getting gastrointestinal illnesses and rashes. Anytime you have a discharge of untreated sewage it presents a health risk," said Musegaas.
People swimming in the river, as many people do near Dykman Street for example, or kayakers who come into contact with the water, are at risk.
City officials played down the impact of the approximately 200 million gallons of raw sewage that had been pumped into the Hudson by Friday afternoon, saying there would be no long-term effect on the river.
"There was a time when dumping the sewage into the river — that was considered sewage treatment," DEP Commissioner Cas Holloway said Friday.
But the regular flow of sewage into the river is cause for concern, Levine said.
"The fact that sewage is pumped into the Hudson all the time does not mean it is acceptable," Levine 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 Friday, a day that broke record temperatures.
During Wednesday's fire, parks officials evacuated thousands of people from Riverbank State Park, built atop of the treatment plant on the Hudson River, from 137th Street to 145th Street. With the park re-opened on Saturday, visitors said the discharge and regular flow of sewage into the river was disturbing.
"You could always smell the sewage," said Alex Brown, 24, a musician who moved to Brooklyn from Hamilton Heights last year "I thought it had to be terrible for your health. I was not crazy about it but it was the apartment I could afford."
Richard Collazo, 40, a choreographer who was walking a dog with Laura Folque, a teacher, near the plant at 135th Street and 12th Avenue, said he was unaware of the sewage plant and regular discharges.
"It makes me want to move away right now," Collazo said. "When it rains, I'm going to stay away from this area."
State Sen. Adriano Espaillat has called for an investigation into the fire and sewage output. Area groups, who resisted the plant being placed in the neighborhood three decades ago, also say they want answers.
"We were told the plant would not have an adverse impact on our community. Now, we want to know why this terrible accident took place and what steps will be taken to make sure nothing like this ever happens again," said L. Ann Rocker, president of the Friends of Riverbank State Park.
Rather than embarking on an expensive repair of the city's antiquated sewers or building giant underground holding tanks to store the runoff until it can be treated as some cities do, an improvement of the city's "green infrastructure" is in order, said Levine.
That involves planting trees and grasses whose soil can help absorb the rain and eliminate the amount of runoff into the sewer system. Green roofs, which also have a layer of plants, could also help in the effort.
The plantings have the added benefit of providing green open space and cleaning the air. Philadelphia has pledged $1.5 billion to green that city over the next 25 years and New York City is already changing planting requirements for new developments.
"The traditional upgrading of heavy infrastructure, such as clearly separating sewer lines and building huge underground storage tanks to hold the flow and pump it back to the treatment plant after the storm, costs billions of dollars and doesn't provide any community amenities," said Levine.
But the public has to understand how the water system works to push for those changes.
"Public awareness is critical, not just about this spill but about how our water infrastructure works on a day-to-day basis," Levine said.