This rainy day will mean a sloppy commute for New Yorkers. It might also mean another messy day for the city’s waterways, which every year receive billions of gallons of untreated sewage—from sinks, tubs and toilets—when the city’s aging water pollution infrastructure gets overwhelmed by rain.
A two-decade argument among the city, state and environmental advocates over how best to address that “combined sewage overflow” or CSO is now focused on Flushing Creek, the waterway that flows through a mix of industrial territory and parkland, under the Whitestone Expressway and out into Flushing Bay.
Put crudely, the current disagreement is about what to do with “chunks of poop,” as one advocate phrased it. But it reflects a larger debate over the costs and benefits of making the city’s waters as clean as they can be.
Billions of gallons of waste
CSOs occur because much much of the city retains old sewage infrastructure: The sanitary sewer line coming out of your house and the stormwater line running from a street catch-basin both feed into a single pipe to one of the city’s water pollution control plants. Those plants run that water through a complex set of treatments and then release it, clean, into a nearby waterway.
The trouble is, there is a limit to how much water those treatments plants can take, and when it rains very heavily, the plants have to divert excess water directly to the waterbody through an overflow pipe. (Here’s a map of where the release pipes are.)
The 27 billion gallons or so of overflow that the Bronx River, Paerdegat Basin and other waterways receive are a main cause of poor water quality that prevents (or at least should prevent) people from swimming in, fishing from or even touching some city waters. (City Limits explored this topic in gut-churning detail in a 2007 issue that’s embedded below).
CSOs are a part of the mess that the Superfund projects at Newtown Creek and Gowanus Canal are trying to clean up. Even before those projects were declared, Mayor Bloomberg’s PlaNYC and subsequent City Council action targeted a significant reduction in CSOs. In fact the city has long been under pressure by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency—which enforces the Clean Water Act—and the state Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) to reduce CSOs. The city’s Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) and DEC signed a consent agreement in 1992 to address CSOs. That agreement has since been revised five times, most recently in 2012.
“Everyone was supposed to have [a plan] by the late nineties,” notes Larry Levine, a senior attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC). New York, he says, is virtually alone in being at such an early stage of the drafting process*.
One reason for the revisions is evolving thinking about how to address CSOs: There’s now more emphasis on green infrastructure—green roofs, bioswales, permeable pavement and other efforts to prevent stormwater from getting into the system in the first place. The green infrastructure joins traditional “grey infrastructure” like retention tanks, which store excess water until the rain stops and then sends it to the treatment plants.
All those past plans and projects have had a positive impact. DEP says in court documents (the agency didn’t respond to requests for comment), that since 2002 it has invested $1.9 billion in CSO control projects, reducing CSO volume by 5.7 billion gallons a year. Another $1.5 billion in CSO projects are in the pipeline. Overall, DEP says, the city now captures 73 percent of CSO runoff, compared to 18 percent in 1980.
An argument over process and plans
Under the 2012 consent agreement, the city is now preparing “long-term control plans” for all waterways affected by CSOs. The plans are supposed to identify a target for water quality at each site (whether to aim for water clean enough to permit swimming, for instance, or just to support boating), analyze different methods for getting there and recommend a course of action.
The handful of plans DEP has written have already touched off one new court battle, with the city suing the state earlier this year over DEC’s rejection of the city’s plans for Alley Creek on the grounds that DEP didn’t aim high enough on water quality.
Next up is Flushing Creek, with a plan due to the state by the end of this year. Three CSO outfalls into the creek release well over a billion gallons of untreated water a year.
After DEP’s presentation on its pollution-reduction strategy for the Creek in October, several environmental groups signed on to letters critical of the city’s process and the plan itself.
The S.W.I.M. Coalition—a collection of groups including Riverkeeper and the NRDC—took issue with the lack of detail in the city’s plan. “We cannot emphasize strongly enough that it is impossible at this time for us or any member of the public to evaluate DEP’s proposal or its underlying analysis, as the public is merely provided a PowerPoint presentation, instead of the actual draft plan,” the Coalition wrote in a six-page critique. “A PowerPoint presentation, almost by definition, lacks the substance or details vital to public review of the City’s decision-making.”
There was confusion over how the new plan interacted with older plans, where the estimates of current overflows came from and the exact improvement in water quality measures that the proposed reduction in CSO would deliver.
But the biggest objection was to the plan itself, which threw out consideration of any new green infrastructure or grey infrastructure to reduce overflows and instead limited the options under review to different methods of direct disinfection. That means adding chlorine to the untreated water an releasing it.
“The use of chlorine and its residual release into the creek poses significant concerns,” wrote Friends of Flushing Creek in its comments on the plan. “We share concerns of environmental experts regarding its reported health effects impacts, including breast and bladder cancer. Additionally, chlorine is toxic to shellfish and other beneficial organisms that are needed to restore oxygen levels to water quality standards.”
If one concern is that chlorine will take an undesired toll on the waterways, another is that it will have less than the desired effect on the water. Regular sewage treatments involves several steps in which, among other things, “you’re basically breaking up the big chunks” of human waste,” Levine notes. Under DEP’s plan for Flushing Creek, “you’re dosing chunks of poop, basically, with chlorine,” Levine explains, which means the disinfectant might not reach “the stuff inside.”
Inside the chunks. You get the picture.
Costs, benefits and imagination
The dispute between the city and state over the Alley Creek plan revolves around differing interpretations of the Clean Water Act’s directive that governments aim to achieve the “highest attainable” use of each waterway. The city argues that it has the right to impose a cost limit on what is attainable.
In its approach to the long-term control plans*, under both Bloomberg and Mayor de Blasio, the city has tended “to make as few commitments as they can beyond what they’ve already said,” Levine says.
It’s not like DEP can ignore the dollar signs. After all, spending on water-related capital projects soared under the Bloomberg administration, contributing to a mighty rise in overall city debt. And debt and spending on the water system is supported not by the city’s progressive general revenue system but instead by water bills, which tend to be regressive.
But the advocates’ argument isn’t necessarily that the city should spend more, but that they should be a little more imaginative about new methods for controlling CSO volume. The S.W.I.M. Coalition, for instance, notes that the Flushing Creek plan only contemplates the costs and benefits of more green infrastructure on public land. They’d like DEP to think about ways it might encourage or force, through regulation or incentives, private property owners to do more to control stormwater runoff.
The question is whether that type of regulation might complicate other City Hall priorities, like affordable housing development, that are central to the mayor’s platform of increasing equality. But advocates point out that CSOs themselves impact equity in the city, tarnishing as they do the waterways that low-income city residents are most likely to rely on for recreation. “The current system is unjust,” says Levine.
Read our 2007 issue for background on the CSO problem
*I’ve corrected the wording of a few passages to capture some nuance missing at first.