HARLEM — When the North River Wastewater Treatment Plant began expelling sewage into the Hudson after a fire and explosion last week, Mike Samuel of the Downtown Boat Club was at Pier 96 at West 56th Street helping with a kayak rescue class where participants were required to immerse themselves in the river.
He was unaware that a few miles upstream, the plant had begun funneling millions of gallons of raw sewage into the water.
"We had people in and under the water and we had no idea this was going on," said Samuel. "If we had been notified we would have gotten those people out of the water."
Because of instances like that, the Department of Environmental Protection should be required to notify area residents and those who use the city's waterways when sewage is expelled, state Sen. Adriano Espaillat said Wednesday.
Standing in Riverbank State Park, located on top of the North River plant, Espaillat also called for a state hearing into the fire that ravaged the plant and an end to the regular expulsion of sewage into the river. The explosion at North River last Wednesday sent more than 200 million gallons of sludge into the Hudson.
"We feel this was a clear and present danger that occurred behind our backs. We were not notified and people in the water were in danger," said Espaillat, who is a member of the Senate's environmental conservation committee.
The fire crippled the five engines at the plant, sending untreated effluent into the Hudson River. Both the Hudson, Harlem and East rivers remain off-limits to recreational users such as kayakers and swimmers. Three Staten Island beaches also remain closed, the DEP said Wednesday.
Hours after the explosion, environmental group Riverkeeper says they spotted people boating near the plant and swimming in the water at Dyckman Street. The group has criticized the DEP for not having a formal system in place to notify people when sewage is expelled into area waterways.
DEP spokesman Farrell Sklerov said the agency has already retained an independent consultant to find out the cause of the plant fire.
"We're already working with an independent consultant to do a review of the fire and the cause and any takeaways we can learn from this incident and apply at this plant and other plants around the city," Sklerov said.
Sklerov also said the agency worked with the Department of Health to notify the public about the spill and the importance of staying out of the river. From immediate press notification to an alert sent Wednesday night over the city's emergency network and placing the information on 311, the public was well-informed he said.
All of the press briefings and updates were also sent to local elected officials, community boards and the groups that regularly utilize the river. Warnings were also placed at boat launch sites.
"The public record of what notifications were made show that DEP and DOH reached out in a number of different ways to the public," Sklerov said.
The four alarm fire caused structural damage to the ceiling of the engine room and that will require the complete overhaul or replacement of at least two of the engines, he said.
The DEP issues notifications when the bacteria levels from the sewage affects beaches. And those who use the waterways recreationally are also aware of the DEP's standing warning to stay out of the water for up to three days following rainfall. There are also warning signs where pipes discharge sewage into the water.
Espaillat said he wants the hearing to explore the plant's contingency plans for emergency and also to examine a long-term solution to the regular discharge of untreated sewage and rain runoff into the river.
"Dumping untreated sewage in the river is unacceptable. We should work towards a long-term solution so this doesn't happen again," said Espaillat.
Area environmental groups also called for regular air testing because of complaints of smells coming from the plant and the high asthma rates in Harlem.
L. Ann Rocker, president of the Friends of Riverbank Park, said the cause of the fire needs to be determined as quickly as possible so that steps can be taken to prevent a similar incident in the future.
Joan Levine, a member of the Morningside Heights/West Harlem Sanitation Coalition said that the fire shows the delicate balance of the city's ecosystem.
"Often we feel like we are being ignored up here and that anything can happen. There has to be an investigation because now we see that this not only affects us but everyone in the metropolitan region," Levine said.
Shawn Shafner, founder of the People's Own Organic Power Project (Poop), stood holding a sign saying: "Pooping is not a crime! Dumping poo in the river is." He said the incident is an opportunity to discuss our attitude towards waste and ways to deal with our waste that are not as harmful to the environment.
Examples include reducing water usage on rainy days to limit the strain on the sewer system, using "gray water" systems to flush waste and composting.
"Number one should be talking about number two," he said. "We can't just say what is the DEP doing. It's also about what we are doing," Shafner said.