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City of (Sewage in the) Water

Larry Levine

Posted July 22, 2011

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Just last weekend, NRDC joined tens of thousands of New Yorkers in celebrating “City of Water Day,” an annual event that highlights the multitude of recreational, educational, and economic opportunities afforded by the rivers, bays, and open ocean waters that surround our island city. 

Less than a week later, the big local story is “water water everywhere, but not a drop to play in” -- even as the city swelters through the worst heat wave of the summer and New Yorkers would love to cool off at their nearest beach or riverfront.  As has been widely reported by now, a massive, ongoing sewage spill in Manhattan is fouling our local waterways and beaches. 

But as bad as that is (see below for more on the spill), there’s an even more disturbing, inconvenient truth about sewage in our water:  While NY Harbor is generally cleaner than it’s been in a century -- thanks to the very same Clean Water Act that a majority in the House of Representatives voted to gut last week -- the city still ROUTINELY dumps billions of gallons of raw sewage into local waterways every year when it rains. 

Over 50 times a year, when we get as little as one-tenth of an inch of rain, our outdated sewer systems get overwhelmed and spew poop from some or all of 400+ locations along the shoreline, in all five boroughs.  

To add insult to injury, unlike the current spill in the Hudson, there’s, not any public warning when those rain-induced spills happen -- even though the city is required by federal, state, and local law to notify the public of the location and occurrence of sewage overflows, and of the nature and duration of the resulting health risks.  Other cities do a pretty decent job of that, and there’s no reason NYC can’t do the same.   

Fortunately, there’s some good news too:  As I’ve written previously, the city has tremendous opportunities to solve its perennial sewage overflow problem by literally greening the urban landscape.  NYC can follow the lead of Philadelphia, which will invest at least $1.6 billion over the next 25 years to transform impervious spaces into natural sponges, using soils and plants to absorb rainwater before it ever reaches the sewers.  New York has taken many important steps in that direction, though it still has a long way to go in developing a comprehensive, green approach to managing runoff.  NRDC is continuing to work with city, state, and federal officials to advance that effort.

The Ongoing Spill from the North River Sewage Treatment Plant:

Let’s return our focus to the ongoing spill, which was triggered not by a rainstorm, but by a catastrophic fire on Wednesday at the North River sewage treatment plant, in West Harlem.  The four-alarm blaze knocked out the huge pumps that ordinarily keep sewage moving through the facility.  (Fortunately, it appears that no one was seriously injured in the fire.)  The city’s Department of Environmental Protection is working hard to get the treatment plant back online as quickly as possible, but it remains out of commission as of this writing.

With the plant offline since Wednesday, well over 100 million gallons of untreated sewage (and still counting) have been dumped directly into the Hudson River, from overflow pipes all along the west side of Manhattan, as well as into the Harlem River. 

But the sewage doesn’t stop there.  The Hudson is the “River That Runs Both Ways,” as the Native Americans who were first to call its shorelines home named it.  So the tides are bringing sewage north to the Hudson Valley, south to New York Harbor and Atlantic Ocean beaches, and even eastward into the East River and Long Island Sound.  Not to mention the Jersey-ites on the west shore of the Hudson.

Initially, the city assured the public that there was no immediate risk to public beaches, while providing mixed messages, at best, about health hazards in waterways along rest of the city’s nearly 600 miles of shoreline.  But the city ultimately clarified -- as it should have from the start -- that the massive sewage spill immediately puts the Hudson, Harlem, and East Rivers, which are typically safe for recreation, off limits to swimmers, kayakers and canoeists, and fishers.  Westchester County officials issued a similar warning for their stretch of the Hudson, as did NJ for its side of the river.

With water-based recreation experiencing a renaissance in the city, that puts a damper on weekend plans for thousands of New Yorkers.  I, for one, was planning to check out the Inwood Canoe Club’s weekly open house paddle on Sunday morning.  But that’s going to have to wait for another day.

As the spill continues unabated, local beachgoers are now affected as well.  On Thursday evening, the city announced public health advisories for two public beaches on the south shore of Staten Island, as well as two smaller private beaches in S.I. and Brooklyn.  (Warning signs will be posted at those beaches discouraging people from going in the water, although the beaches have not been officially closed.)   If the spill isn’t halted soon, it may force more health advisories or closures at area beaches, on the hottest weekend of the year.

For the most up-to-date information on the spill and related public health advisories, go to the NYC Health website at, the NYC Dept. of Environmental Protection’s site at, or call 311.  Our colleagues at Riverkeeper have been helping to inform the public about the risks, and have highlighted here why it’s important for government agencies to do pro-actively provide timely information about sewage pollution, both at beaches and rivers.

It’s well worth taking the official health advisories seriously.  As NRDC recently highlighted in our annual “Testing the Waters” report on beach pollution, pathogens in sewage cause illnesses such as gastroenteritis, skin rashes, pinkeye, ear, nose and throat problems, respiratory infections, meningitis and hepatitis.  Consequences are worse for children, the elderly, pregnant women, and anyone with a weakened immune system.

One final note:  The city reports that it is adding chlorine to sewage at some of the overflow points,  But, as we learned years ago, when the Bush Administration tried to legalize the temporary diversion of sewage around treatment plants, adding chlorine to otherwise untreated sewage is relatively ineffective at killing pathogens, and large doses of the chemical are harmful to aquatic life and create by-products that cause cancer in humans. 

Let’s all hope the city gets this extraordinary spill under control VERY soon.  Then it can get back to work on ending the “routine” sewage overflows that happen nearly every time it rains.


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James HJul 23 2011 12:55 PM

I was just swimming in the Hudson off Manhattan just a week before this happened. The progress that has been made with improving the rivers cleanliness is truly incredible. It sucks that runoff happens and swimming isn't safe after it rains, but being able to swim a good portion of the time has been incredible.

This accident is so unfortunate. Now it is 100 degrees out and I cant go swimming. Big props to all the workers that soldiered on in the poop and the sweltering heat to get it under control.

Scott AJul 23 2011 02:02 PM

Unfortunately, even though the Hudson and other US waterways are cleaner now than they were for years, this accident shows how quickly all of that good effort can be unravelled. The truth is, Combined Sewage Overflow incidents in NYC alone contribute billions of raw sewage directly into the waterways each year, this accident is just a drop in the bucket. That's really the crisis that noone is talking about. Politically, it seems unlikely that progress will be made anytime soon in managing it, I would doubt anyone living today will see any real change in our lifetimes. This accident is actually our reality, and we may as well get used to it. As a country, we have no consensus of political will to change it.

Eric StillerJul 23 2011 07:17 PM

wow Larry, I know you mean well in the long run but boy do you know how to tarnish the short and mid runs.. I have had kayakers in the waters for 16 years with Manhattan Kayak Company , personally for 25 + , in every condition. No illness, ever...amongst over 10,000 Clients, I am pretty sure DTBH and the swims around Manhattan and Triathalon also have good records..I would kindly ask you to change your tack. Fear is no way to go for any positive change in virtually any endeavor. Your comments have made my job much harder.. Your comments about 1/10h of an inch of rain are not the norm and it usually takes much more than that over a consecutive time period to be of any consequence. I am with you on cleaning things up but...give me a break here otherwise activities that make people love and enjoy the water will be set back another quarter century...

Scott AJul 23 2011 07:31 PM

While we appreciate your efforts to bring recreational activities to the Hudson and NY waterways, don't sugarcoat and BS the reality, you don't do us any favours. We need clean waterways for a variety of industries, i.e. fishing, not just kayaking. Don't demonize NRDC for telling the straight poop. It's awesome that your business is doing well in NY, remember it's NRDC and other groups like it that made it possible for you to conduct business.

Laura serranoJul 23 2011 10:06 PM

It very sad when swimming fishing,boating and all actives in our Ocean is effected by Raw Sewage! Our infrastructure is in bad shape.What are we doing about it? I had gastroenteritis, skin rashes, ear, nose and throat problems, respiratory infections, meningitis and so much more.
.Your telling my story.Just one thing is missing . Raw Sewage destroys homes and our dreams.

George TrembathJul 24 2011 10:10 PM

Over the next 13 years we plan to add another 1 billion people to the global population. It sounds like NYC is not in a position to accept any of them . The infrastructure readiness of practically all of the world's cities is similar to that of NYC, yet no one is talking about reining in the growth. Do we intend to accommodate this 1 billion in new cities? 1 billion is equivalent to the entire current population of US and Europe combined. That infrastructure was centuries in the development. Are we really able to duplicate that in the single decade or so to 2024? And then do it all over again in the subsequent 15 years to 2040 as forecast, starting from the current bad economic and resource availability position? If our fragmented global leadership can keep all of that on the rails, I'll publicly eat my favourite panama. It is way beyond time for a serious discussion about reversing the growth madness. Already we commit around 15 million new people annually to the global poverty line. Hunger, inequity and repression fuel the social discontent that is the breeding ground for the next generation of extremists. Another good reason to address the growth that is the underlying cause. I'd say NYC residents, like most other city-dwellers had best get used to swimming in their own poop, because the situation isn't about to go away. Instead of howling down the 'de-growth' lobby, we should be embracing their message. Check out and support their coming feature documentary, ironically due to premiere in NYC in late October to coincide with the birth of our 7 billionth little person.

George TrembathJul 24 2011 11:35 PM

May I suggest that you include the tags 'population' and 'growth' to this post? Given that those are the issues behind the chronic nature of our cities' infrastructure problems. Always playing catch-up, always falling short.
I love what NRDC is doing! Please don't stop because I have 7 grandchildren.

John HJul 26 2011 11:07 AM

You say that NYC can "can follow the lead of Philadelphia, which will invest at least $1.6 billion over the next 25 years to transform impervious spaces into natural sponges," but then only make a veiled reference and a small link to your post about the NYC Green Infrastructure Plan; a plan to invest $1.5 billion in green infrastructure over the next 20 years. In addition, didn't the City recently give out $3.8 million dollars in green infrastructure grants to the public?

I agree that more can be done about our CSO problem, but it seems like you're not giving them enough credit for the progress they have already made.

- John

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