HARLEM — Sparked by last summer's fire and explosion at West Harlem's North River Wastewater Treatment Plant, a bill that would notify the public when sewage enters the waterways is expected to be signed into law by Gov. Andrew Cuomo.
The Sewage Pollution Right to Know Act requires public wastewater treatment plants to disclose within four hours when raw or partially treated sewage overflow enters the waterways. The massive July 20, 2011 fire at the plant sent at least 260 million gallons of untreated sewage into the Hudson River, causing the Hudson, East and Harlem Rivers as well as four beaches in Staten Island and Brooklyn to be closed.
Under the new law, plants will be required to notify electronic media and state and local health departments about the discharge. For the first time, the state will also be required to issue a report on the annual sewage discharge.
“Timely notification about sewage overflows will allow families to take precautions and avoid swimming in sewage, boating in bacteria, or fishing in filth," said Adrienne Esposito, Executive Director for Citizens Campaign for the Environment.
After last July's fire, Riverkeeper said it found people swimming, kayaking and fishing in the Hudson even as untreated sewage was flowing into the river.
A report found that the fire and explosion was caused by a loose nut.
As many as 800 million gallons of raw sewage per year flows regularly into the Hudson from the North River Wastewater Treatment plant. When it rains, the treatment plant funnels untreated rainwater and sewage from the city's antiquated combined overflow sewer system into the waterways to keep the facility from becoming overburdened.
Experts estimate 30 billion gallons of overflow per year are pumped into the city's waterways. The city has undertaken a green infrastructure plan to reduce the amount of overflow with more plantings and green roofs, which also have a layer of plants, to absorb the water.
Environmental groups have said the public is unaware of these sewage discharges and can't make informed decisions about when it is safer to enter the waterways. Environmental group Riverkeeper says as many as 20 percent of its Hudson River samples over six years showed bacteria levels unsafe for swimming.
“After this bill becomes law the public will receive water quality notifications through the press similar to the ozone, pollen and severe weather warnings we have all come to rely on today,” said Tracy Brown, Riverkeeper’s Water Quality Advocate who work on the bill.
More than a dozen states already have a similiar law in place.