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NYC has a plan to clean its sewage-filled waterways. Does it go far enough?

Critics say the latest plan to address sewage overflows in NYC is “barely a drop in the bucket”

Every time it rains in New York, millions of gallons of sewage-laced stormwater flows into the city’s waterways. Instead of being diverted to a wastewater treatment plant, what goes down your toilet ends up floating along rivers, canals, beaches, and waterfront parks. All told, more than 20 billion gallons of feces-polluted water is flushed out onto the city’s coastline every year.

This deluge is the result of New York’s antiquated combined sewer overflow (CSO) system, which was first introduced in the 1800s. About 60 percent of the city is still hooked in to this system, which allows stormwater from the streets to be combined with raw sewage; whenever a rainstorm overwhelms the sewers, that gross mixture flows into waterways around the five boroughs. The coast of New York City is lined with 460 outfall locations, each one discharging millions of gallons of sewage into New York Harbor every year.

To help curb this problem, and to try and bring the city into compliance with the Clean Water Act, the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) has been working since 2012 to create a series of 11 Long Term Control Plans (LTCP), which would impact sewage overflows around all five boroughs. Nine have already been approved and advanced, bringing more than $3 billion dollars of investment to badly polluted waterways like the Flushing Creek and Newtown Creek, where floating human waste is a common sight.

This January, the DEP held a public meeting to announce its recommendations for the last and largest of its plans, the Citywide/Open Waters LTCP. This was intended to improve the health of more than 100 miles of the city’s waterfront, stretching along the Harlem, Hudson, and East Rivers; the Long Island Sound, the New York Bay, the Kill van Kull, and the Arthur Kill. There are 314 CSO outfalls on the shores of these waterways, dumping out 11 billion gallons of polluted stormwater every year.

The DEP has been working since 2016 to determine how to minimize sewage overflows into these enormous bodies of water, utilizing a complicated cost-benefit analysis. The agency is now recommending five different measures as part of the Citywide/Open Waters plan, which would decrease CSO discharges by 241 million gallons a year, at a cost of $72 million. The plan would impact nine specific CSO outfall locations: three in Manhattan, three in Brooklyn, two in Queens, one in Staten Island, and none in the Bronx.

“We ended up looking at over 100,000 permutations of potential projects. So that’s a lot of alternatives that were looked at, compared to the five that were presented,” Mikelle Adgate, a senior advisor for strategic planning at the DEP, said during the January meeting. “It has been a massive undertaking for the agency.”

Outfall TI-003, Malba, Queens.

Despite the years of work that went into this plan, advocates who had gathered to hear the DEP announce its plan summary were not impressed. Representatives from Riverkeeper, the SWIM Coalition, the Billion Oyster Project, and many others have been following the LTCP process for years, providing feedback and insight into the waterways they represent. After hearing the limited scope of the city’s Citywide/Open Waters plan, many of the attendees stood up to publicly express their frustration and dismay.

“In terms of this plan and how we are looking forward, it feels to me like it’s barely a drop in the bucket,” said City Councilmember Brad Lander, whose district includes the Gowanus Canal and a section of the East River. “We are talking about something like more than 11 billion gallons of CSOs entering the open waters each year, and this plan—to reduce that by 241 million gallons—is not even a three percent reduction. And $72 million, when what is going in to Gowanus is going to be over a billion dollars, is not a serious effort on all our parts. We’ve got to do better.”

“I hate to be blunt about it, but there has been a lot of years building up to this, there’s been a lot of other plans, a lot of disagreements about other plans, but when you look at this plan, being for the largest portion of the city’s waterways, for half of the CSO volume in the city… it doesn’t add up,” said Lawrence Levine, the director of urban water infrastructure at the Natural Resources Defense Council. “It’s hard to take it with a straight face, to be honest.”

Outfall OH-015, Bath Beach, Brooklyn.

The five recommended proposals from the Citywide/Open Waters plan would impact a disparate array of CSO outfall locations, including off-limits parts of the Brooklyn waterfront, a private beach in Queens, and a section of Manhattan’s Riverside Park that has relatively few overflow problems. Tracking these down is a bit like an toxic Easter egg hunt; every outfall in the city is supposedly marked by a bright green and yellow sign, warning the public to avoid using the water for fishing, swimming, or boating during rainstorms. In reality, many of these signs have gone missing or are hidden on remote coastlines.

In the DEP’s recommended plans for New York Bay, four CSO outfalls would be impacted, three of which are located in areas that are closed to the public. One is underneath a Con Edison power plant in Vinegar Hill; another is inside a gated Port Authority facility at the foot of Atlantic Avenue; and a third is located on an abandoned stretch of waterfront in Tompkinsville, between a homeless camp and a collapsing boardwalk. The fourth outfall is situated underneath a bike path on the Belt Parkway.

It is difficult to understand how improving these four specific outfalls would provide a direct benefit to the city’s fishermen, boaters, and swimmers, as mandated by the Clean Water Act. There are many other outfall locations on the New York Bay—some of which are located inside busy waterfront areas, such as Bush Terminal Park and Brooklyn Bridge Park—but the plan does not suggest improving these. Overall, the DEP’s plan would reduce sewage overflows into the New York Bay by just 148 million gallons, which is only a 4.8 percent decrease from the estimated 3 billion gallons that flow into the waterway every year.

Outfall PR-013, Tompkinsville, Staten Island.

Along the entire 16-mile length of the East River, there are 139 sewer outfalls that pump out more than 5 billion gallons of contaminated stormwater every year. The Citywide/Open Waters plan would impact just two of these, reducing sewage overflows by 86 million gallons—a decrease of just 1.7 percent. The outfalls the DEP has chosen are located on two remote, little-known bodies of water: a private strip of waterfront in Malba, where discharges into Powell Cove would be reduced by 86 million gallons a year; and a partially accessible public beach in Beechhurst, where the plan would reduce discharges into Little Bay by 42 million gallons a year. The plan would have no impact on the numerous CSOs in densely populated neighborhoods like Williamsburg, Long Island City, and Astoria, making the dream of safe swimming in the East River seem like a remote possibility.

Along the Hudson River, the DEP has chosen a plan that would improve just three outfalls, all located in Riverside Park on the Upper West Side. Although the Hudson River sees 725 million gallons of polluted discharges a year from 52 outfalls, the stretch of waterfront targeted by the DEP is responsible for relatively few of those. The plan here would result in an annual decrease of only 10 million gallons of discharge into the Hudson, while increasing overflows into the Harlem River by three million gallons a year.

Outfall RH-014, Port Authority Pier 7, Brooklyn.

Most of the neighborhoods and waterfronts—including several of the city’s most polluted bodies of water—that were part of the DEP’s study will not see any new projects to reduce sewage overflows. The agency didn’t recommend any projects for Kill Van Kull or the Arthur Kill, two of the dirtiest waterways in New York. In fact, when asked about the agency’s decision not to advance any plans for these waterways, the DEP seemed unclear about why it had even bothered to consider them in the first place.

“In terms of the Arthur Kill, that’s actually not even a CSO tributary. We looked at it, but that’s not part of the CSO program.… We were trying to be comprehensive to the Citywide/Open Waters. We just have to be sampling there,” said Keith Mahoney, the director of water quality planning at the DEP. “For the Kill van Kull, we looked at probably 100 different scenarios, but we couldn’t find anything that worked there.”

The DEP has also not selected any recommended alternatives for the Harlem River, where 65 CSO outfalls pump out 1.9 billion gallons of tainted water every year. Instead, the agency signed on to the NYC Parks Department’s plans to daylight Tibbets Brook, a creek located north of the waterway. By its estimate, helping to daylight the brook would reduce CSO overflows into the river by 228 million gallons. However, the Citywide/Open Waters plan would not improve CSO outfalls in neighborhoods like Inwood, Harlem, or Highbridge, which have numerous waterfront parks.

Outfall TI-003, Malba, Queens.

According to the DEP, New York City’s waters are the cleanest they’ve been in 100 years, and CSO discharges have been reduced by 80 percent since the 1980s. Billions of dollars are now being invested by the agency, as well as the state and federal government, to clean those polluted waterways; billions more are being invested into preparing for the impacts of sea level rise and climate change, which will include more rainfall and storms. At a time like this, the city needs a much bolder plan to address the 11 billion gallons of raw sewage that flows into its open waters, and not just the proverbial drop in the bucket.

The DEP will submit the Citywide/Open Waters LTCP to the state government for its approval in March. Public comments can be submitted to the DEP at ltcp@dep.nyc.gov until March 2nd, 2020.

The southernmost CSO outfall in the Citywide/Open Waters plan is located on the waterfront of Bath Beach, under a bike path next to the Belt Parkway. It looks out onto the Verrazzano-Narrows Bridge.

The outfall, named OH-015, is marked with the DEP’s standard CSO warning sign. In 2016, 749 million gallons of sewage overflows were dumped into Gravesend Bay here, according to a map of the city’s CSO outfalls created by Riverkeeper.

On a sunny day, the site looks like just another part of the coastline. The DEP’s plan for New York Bay would reduce the amount of overflow here by 90 million gallons in a typical year.

The DEP’s plan for New York Bay also includes Outfall PR-013, which is located at the dead end of Victory Boulevard in Tompkinsville, 100 yards from a public swimming pool.

The outfall is not marked by a DEP sign, and is located on an abandoned stretch of waterfront next to a collapsing boardwalk.

The structure that appears to be the outfall is in poor condition, its concrete cracked in half. In 2016, 43 million gallons of sewage overflows were reported here during 33 different overflow events.

The DEP’s plan for the New York Bay would reduce the amount of overflow here by 43 millions gallons in a typical year. The crumbling shoreline is currently inaccessible, although hundreds of apartments are located nearby in the Bay Street Landing community.

The DEP’s plan for the East River would impact two outfalls. The first is TI-003, which is located on the waterfront of Malba, looking over the Whitestone Bridge.

The outfall here is a concrete and stone structure that empties into the heart of Powell’s Cove. In 2016, 62 million gallons of sewage overflows were reported here during 57 overflow events.

The DEP plan would reduce overflow into the East River by 86 million gallons in a typical year, which would improve the health of this small private beach. Eight homes have been built on the sparsely populated waterfront.

The northernmost CSO outfall included in the DEP’s plan is TI-023, which is located in Beechhurst’s Little Bay Park, next to the Throgs Neck Bridge. The sign marking it is hidden behind a low wall.

In 2016, 90 million gallons of sewage overflowed into Little Bay, polluting the park’s beach, which is littered with debris and black sediment. The DEP’s plan for the East River would decrease overflows here by 42 million gallons in a typical year.

The Little Bay outfall is a large concrete structure, which at low tide is tall enough to walk through. On a recent dry day, a constant stream of clear water flows out of this structure and into Little Bay.

The outfall goes inland, deep underneath the nearby community, and is lined with oysters, barnacles and mussels. On a rainy day, millions of gallons of sewer water, street trash and feces would flood out of this structure and into the East River.

Nathan Kensinger is a photographer, filmmaker, and curator who has been documenting New York City’s abandoned edges, endangered neighborhoods, and post-industrial waterfront for more than a decade. His Camera Obscura photo essays have appeared on Curbed since 2012. His photographs have been exhibited by the Museum of the City of New York, the Queens Museum, the Brooklyn Museum, the NYC Parks Department, and inside the Atlantic Ave-Barclays Center subway station.

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