The Port Richmond Water Pollution Control Plant is designed to handle 60 million gallons of sewage per day.

The Port Richmond Water Pollution Control Plant is designed to handle 60 million gallons of sewage per day.

Photo by: Marc Fader

Projects to upgrade a sewage plant and construct a cement facility open the next chapter in a complex—and controversial—industrial history.

By: Jake Mooney

The Port Richmond Water Pollution Control Plant has stood on Staten Island’s North Shore, purifying the sewage of about half of the island’s residents, for 57 years. Soon it will get a $29 million upgrade, thanks to a citywide infusion of federal stimulus funds. It will also get a new neighbor, a transfer station about a mile down bumpy Richmond Terrace where cement will arrive from South America by boat and head to local construction projects by truck.

That facility, called Staten Island Terminal, is also being financed with stimulus money—up to $28 million in tax-free bonds, approved this spring. And like the sewage plant overhaul, it has the wide support of the area’s lawmakers. Besides that, the two projects have something else in common: They both reflect local leaders’ vision for the waterfront, and the tension over what the North Shore, one of Staten Island’s most environmentally troubled areas, should look like.

A question of capacity

Since opening in 1953, the Port Richmond WPCP has had several bad days, but one of the unluckiest came on July 12, 1988, when a series of power outages caused 25 million gallons of untreated waste to spill into Kill Van Kull and New York Harbor.

The spill, which led the city to close all of Staten Island and Brooklyn’s public beaches for days before water tests declared them safe, was a freak event brought on by the rare simultaneous failure of two power supplies. It was unique, too, in another way: It was the rare incident in which the Port Richmond plant’s unpleasant side effects, long familiar to North Shore residents, reached beyond its immediate neighborhood. Large spills and widespread beach closures are uncommon. But smaller overflows and the stomach-turning smells that can accompany them, neighbors say, are a part of everyday life near an aging sewage plant.

“When I lived there, a couple of nights in the summertime it got pretty ripe,” said Joseph Carroll, district manager of Community Board 1, which represents the area.

Fortunately, he added, the situation is improving: A new throttling gate, installed in May, should prevent the overflow of about 30 million gallons of sewage and stormwater per year. And an even more ambitious project, beginning this year, will install three new boilers and upgrade the plant’s sludge digesters, where organic material is broken down into more manageable parts. The work should improve the plant’s energy efficiency and also, officials say, reduce foul smells.

The latter undertaking is being funded by $29 million from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act as part of a larger overhaul of city sewage plants.

Local civic and environmental activists, some of whom have protested against new industry on the waterfront, say they understand the necessity for the treatment plant. But they note that the island’s population has doubled in the years since the facility was built—from roughly 200,000 to more than 400,000—and say Port Richmond’s condition reflects the heavy burden that larger population places on the area’s sewage system.

Part of the problem, said Dee Vandenburg, president of the Staten Island Taxpayers’ Association, is that sewage plant construction has not kept up with population growth. The only other plant on the island, at Oakwood Beach, was built in 1956.

A true solution to the area’s sewage problems, Vandenburg believes, would involve building new plants and doing more extensive work at Port Richmond—a much more costly approach than upgrading the old plant.

“I don’t see this as a long-term fix,” Vandenburg said of the more modest Port Richmond repairs that are currently planned. “They have to do something. I understand that, and whatever it is, do it. But in the meantime, somebody has to take a step back and look at the bigger picture.”

An ideal fix, she said, might also overhaul the North Shore’s sewers, in which—as in much of the city—stormwater and human waste flow through the same channels. This makes the whole system more susceptible to overflow during heavy rains, but is also impossible to fix without tearing up the area’s whole sewage network, Vandenburg said—an unlikely option considering the expense and the amount of new construction taking place on Staten Island all the time.

What shade of green?

The stimulus money, at least, has the advantage of being available immediately. Federal government assistance has also proven valuable to Staten Island Terminal, a private development that was having money problems of its own. The transfer station, where cement from Peru will be unloaded from barges, stored in a silo and shipped out, has been planned for years and is allowed under the current industrial zoning on its site next to the Bayonne Bridge. But last fall, the terminal’s owners filed papers with the city’s Capital Resource Corporation (CRC) arguing that because of the bad economy, conventional financing for the $51.7 million project was unavailable.

The shortfall was erased when the corporation’s board came to the rescue, voting in April to approve $28 million in federal Recovery Zone Facilty Bonds for the project. The board cited the terminal’s modern, enclosed facilities, its promises of job-creation—200 in construction and 150 permanent positions on-site—and its support from local officials, including Senator Charles Schumer, Congressman Michael McMahon and Borough President James Molinaro, among others.

At an April public hearing before the vote, CRC spokesman Kyle Sklerov said, two people spoke in favor of the project, and none against.

“From my memory, this was a very well-supported project,” Sklerov said. “We obviously want to support projects that the community supports.”

But there is some local opposition. While the terminal’s supporters have emphasized the environmental benefits of the facility—the fact that is brings cement into the city by water rather than by truck—its local opponents focus on the end-stage of the process, when trucks still come into play. The facility’s president, Richard Sabatini, told the Staten Island Advance that when cement leaves the facility, partly on local streets, the terminal will generate about 50 truck trips a day, between 5 a.m. and noon. (Sabatini did not return calls for comment for this story.)

In general, activists have long complained that the North Shore bears an unfair burden for keeping the rest of Staten Island clean, employed and well-paid—from the shipyards that first contaminated Arlington Marsh, to the factories and warehouses that lined the waterfront and left behind a host of pollutants including lead and even uranium, to the more mundane uses like a bus depot and the sewage plant that happened to be built next to the area’s residential neighborhoods.

“It literally is like we’ve consigned most of the people who live on the immediate North Shore to some kind of trash heap,” Richard Lynch, of the Sweetbay Magnolia Conservancy, a local environmental group, said recently, speaking generally about the area. “All of these projects come along, I always wonder what would happen if they were proposed in Jim Molinaro’s neighborhood. They’re never proposed in his neighborhood.”

Choice words

Molinaro, in an interview in his office, dismissed that argument—and said people who choose to live near Richmond Terrace should be used to the presence of industry.

“There’s truck traffic through there now—it’s an industrial site,” Molinaro said of the cement terminal. “People got to realize, when you move into someplace, you’ve got to take a look at what you’re moving into. You know what I live across from? A Little League park. You know what I get all night? Noise.”

He sympathizes with people who discover hidden toxins near their homes, he said. But his rejoinder to North Shore residents who object to industry and trucks, he added, is similar to his response to his neighbor who complains about noisy baseball games. “What do you want them to do?” he said. “To move out because you’re there?”

Despite the relatively low incomes in North Shore neighborhoods—among the lowest on the island—Molinaro also dismissed the idea that the area’s residents are forced to live there by economic necessity. “Of course they can choose their surroundings,” he said. “It’s not a prison.”

An elected official’s responsibility, Molinaro continued, is to maximize quality of life for the borough’s entire population, not a handful of activists. Moreover, he added, “I get a petition with 400 names on it, you know what that means to me? Nothing at all. You put a petition in the grocery store, people sign it. They don’t remember what they signed.”

Much more persuasive, he said, are personal letters—and there have been few objecting to the cement plant. Asked about the Port Richmond area’s heavy concentration of recent immigrants, many of whom are non-native English speakers, he replied that immigrants are as capable of writing letters as anyone.

“Are you saying they’re not living better than they were in Mexico?” he said. “Maybe that’s why they’re not complaining.”

A new path

Still, there are steps being taken, however small, to bring something other than industry to the North Shore. In June, Community Board 1 approved a motion calling on the city to construct a shorefront recreational path stretching the length of the shore, from the ferry terminal in St. George to the Goethals Bridge more than five miles away.

The path, named in honor of the Lenape Indians who first inhabited the area, would include walkways and bicycle trails, canoe and kayak launches, benches, pocket parks and a marina. The board’s resolution calls for cooperation from the city departments of sanitation, transportation and parks and a host of local, state and federal officials and agencies. Carroll, the district manager, compared its appeal to that of the refurbished High Line on Manhattan’s west side.

Estimating the project’s cost, Carroll settled on a figure just slightly higher than the amount being spent to upgrade the sewage plant, and the amount being lent to the owners of the cement terminal.

“We think it’s going to cost about $30 million,” he said. “We’re not going to be bashful about saying that, because in the scheme of things it’s a very cheap number in terms of citywide development, especially waterfront development.”

On the chances of a Staten Island project securing that money, he said, “I’m going to assume that the mayor treats each borough equally, and we will work towards achieving that equality.”

The board hopes work on the first phase of the pathway can begin by September, Caroll said. Some money, he added, may be available by then.

This is the third and final part in our series about environmental challenges on Staten Island’s North Shore. Read part one, about efforts to clean up decades-old industrial pollution, and part two, covering the debate over a new port proposed for a sensitive—but polluted—marsh.

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