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Groups Call on EPA, New York & New Jersey to Reduce Sewage Pollution and Clean Up Waterways for Recreation

Larry Levine

Posted March 4, 2010 in Curbing Pollution, Saving Wildlife and Wild Places

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Nearly every time it rains, New York City’s aging sewer system diverts raw, untreated sewage directly into local waters. This untreated wastewater and storm runoff contains dangerous bacteria, pathogens, heavy metals and toxic chemicals, making kayaking or swimming in city waters an unhealthy – and rather icky – activity.

When it rains in New York and in many parts of New Jersey, runoff from rooftops and streets flows into the same pipes that carry waste water away from your home.  When the combined flow is more than municipal sewage treatment facilities can handle, it’s released—without being treated—into local waterways.  In a typical year, tens of billions of gallons of raw sewage mixed with polluted runoff gets discharged, entirely untreated, into our waterways from nearly 500 locations in all 5 boroughs of New York City and from dozens of cities and towns in New Jersey.  It’s called a combined sewer overflow (CSO) and it’s the primary source of fecal coliform bacteria in the waters in and around the New York/New Jersey Harbor.

And it doesn’t take much rain to overwhelm our water treatment facilities -- rainfall events of as little as one-tenth of an inch of rain will routinely cause CSOs.  

NRDC today joined over 25 other New York and New Jersey-based organizations to call for reductions in sewage pollution that will allow for safe recreational use of region’s rivers and bays – to finally fulfill the vision of the Clean Water Act, passed by Congress in 1972, that all our nation’s waters be “fishable and swimmable”.  

The organizations – including the Storm Water Infrastructure Matters (S.W.I.M.) Coalition, NY/NJ Baykeeper, and Riverkeeper – sent a letter to EPA Regional Administrator Judith Enck, calling on the agency to ensure that the total maximum daily load (TMDL) under development for discharges of pathogens to the harbor protects public health and the environment.   

A TMDL defines the maximum amount of a pollutant that can be discharged while achieving compliance with health-based and ecologically-based water quality standards. The environmental agencies of both New York and New Jersey are now supporting the use of a “seasonal average” (May 15 - September 15) bacteria level to measure compliance with water quality standards for the TMDL.  In other words, the TMDL would be set at a level that allows the discharge of billions of gallons of bacteria-laden untreated waste, so long as an average of harbor water quality samples taken across a four month period does not exceed the state standard.

As explained in today’s letter, the states’ proposed approach is entirely incompatible with the Clean Water Act goal of attaining fishable and swimmable waters.  Quite simply, no one swims, paddles, or fishes in “average” water – they come into contact with water in whatever condition they find it at the particular time they’re recreating in or on our waterways.  In New York City, at least, we sometimes forget that most of us live on islands(!), and we need to protect and restore the waters around them to take full advantage of the amazing recreational (and economic) opportunities our local marine environment has to offer.   The states and EPA should step up and make sure that the Pathogens TMDL for the NY/NJ Harbor area ensures we’ll all be able to safely enjoy those opportunities, on both the NY and the NJ sides of the harbor.

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Switchboard is the staff blog of the Natural Resources Defense Council, the nation’s most effective environmental group. For more about our work, including in-depth policy documents, action alerts and ways you can contribute, visit NRDC.org.

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