The first sign of trouble came on a Friday, the last day of last June, when inspectors found that a company was spewing 1,000 gallons of untreated sewage each day through an illegal connection to a drain that spits out into Maspeth Creek. Six days later, another firm was found draining 400 gallons a day into the same pipe. Three weeks later, a third business’s illegal connection was exposed—this one pumping 800 gallons into the waterway daily.
Nearly six months later, the problem remains unresolved. “It’s a very large private property with numerous facilities,” Edward Timbers, the spokesman for New York City’s Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), explains to City Limits. “Some of the [properties] have made the appropriate repairs, while others that are located quite some distance from a proper discharge sewer and still working towards coming into compliance.”
Maspeth Creek is a stubby offshoot of Newtown Creek, the meandering waterbody that marks the western end of the Brooklyn-Queens border. Newtown is one of 11 waterways in the five boroughs that the federal government has commanded city officials to clean up after decades of violations of the Clean Water Act, the landmark federal law that aims to make all U.S. waters fishable and swimmable.
The biggest problem in those waterways is untreated sewage from the city’s antiquated system of underground pipes, and the city is on track to spend billions to partly address those sewage overflows. The city’s infrastructure is, however, not the only culprit in fouling the city’s waters. Some homes and businesses also contribute to the city’s water pollution problem, mainly through illegal connections that send sewage to storm drains leading right to waterways
“Illicit connections are always an issue that we face in all our drainage areas,” said Jim Mueller, acting deputy commissioner of DEP’s bureau of engineering, design & construction, at a public meeting in November. “You know, people can connect illegally to storm sewers. There’s a lot of reasons that can happen.”
A home could have a sewage pipe connecting to a storm drain that flows to a river, rather than a sewer main that goes to a treatment plant. A business’s sewage line could run right to the waterfront through an ancient pipe. And it’s not just sewage that’s at issue. Businesses might flush toxic chemicals into storm drains that flow to a city river or creek, or let rain wash waste oil or industrial fluids off their waterfront property into a canal or bay.
The city monitors its waterways to detect when such illegal discharges or dumping might be occurring, and it works to track down offending properties and force owners to reroute their pipes to comply with the law. It catches multiple problems every year, from private homes to blue-collar businesses to public-housing complexes.
Those monitoring and trackdown efforts are complex and time-consuming. And they
are not always successful, in part because New York’s coastline is riven with pipes whose origins and connections the city doesn’t know.
“Keep in mind that the city is massively huge. And really significantly old. So I don’t think that anybody really has a true handle on the actual scope of the problem of illegal discharge connections for sewage problems,” says Sean Dixon, senior attorney for Riverkeeper.
New York City’s harbor is cleaner now that it’s been in modern times, a testament to billions of dollars in spending on new water treatment plants and other infrastructure projects, as well as stricter enforcement of laws and changed attitudes about dumping. This has helped to spur a renaissance for the waterfront, as a place for housing and also recreation—perhaps New York’s greatest open space, vital to an increasingly dense city.
But some of the city’s tributaries are severely damaged. And for many of those waterways, illicit connections and illegal dumping add to the toxic mix. They’re a direct way that some New Yorkers, probably unwittingly, perpetuate an old tradition of soiling the waters we all own.
On Newtown Creek, and on the lookout
Two of the city’s waterways—Newtown Creek and the Gowanus Canal—are such ecological disasters they’ve been enrolled in the federal Superfund program, which remediates decades of environmental damage and aims to get polluters to pay for the work.
Newtown Creek’s reputation as one of the dirtiest waterways in the U.S. hasn’t stopped Willis Elkins and other members of the Newtown Creek Alliance from regularly donning life jackets and climbing into boats to take water samples and enjoy the natural beauty that Newtown—despite its troubled history—manages to display. They also look out for illicit connections and other illegal discharges.
On a motorboat tour of the canal last May, Elkins noted a large pipe near Kingsland Avenue where he has seen a chemical slick sometimes, a possible indication that something was spewing out of the pipe that shouldn’t. Every few minutes as his boat glided deeper into the creek, another pipe or tunnel—the term of art is “outfall”—stuck out of the shoreline. If you happen to be nearby when one of them starts ejecting fluid, it’s easy to gather evidence, Elkins said: “Because the outfall is above the water line, you can just hold a bucket up to it” to get a sample.
One of the documents produced by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for the Superfund program in 2014 says “more than 300 private and municipal outfalls have been identified along Newtown Creek and its tributaries, some of which may be abandoned and no longer active.”
In a June 2017 report on the creek, New York City DEP said it identified an illicit sewer connection in 2016 that was subsequently abated, leading the agency to conclude that “illicit connections are not a problem in the Newtown Creek area.”
The three illegal discharges detected in Maspeth Creek this summer suggest that conclusion was optimistic. According to a recent estimate published by the state Department of Environmental Conservation, that discharge is continuing at a rate of a gallon and a half a minute, for a total of more than 400,000 gallons so far.
Elkins is the first to acknowledge that simply seeing something come out of a pipe doesn’t mean anything nefarious is going on. Usually, observers look for “dry discharges” as an indication that something is amiss, because a storm drain or sewage overflow pipe should only be active when it’s raining. But while water coming out of storm pipe on a dry day could indicate illegal dumping, it also could mean a hydrant is running somewhere and pushing water into a catch basin.
And the pipes aren’t the only way new pollution can get into Newtown. After all, the creek is a working industrial neighborhood. Elkins’ boat passes a large parking lot with no apparent method for keeping rainwater runoff out of the canal. Cranes fling scrap metal from a waterfront yard onto a container barge, kicking up metallic dust that settles onto the water. A concrete company on one end of Dutch Kills, another offshoot of the creek, has been cited for letting concrete waste wash into the water. Elkins pointed out a spot where Alliance monitors had seen petroleum products emanating from a pipe in 2014. Turns out a guy was putting waste oil into a storm drain; Elkins says he was ultimately caught.
Those incidents don’t involve “illicit connections”—meaning an unauthorized pipe or connection to the city’s storm or sewage outfalls—and involve industrial chemicals rather than raw sewage. But they are still illegal and contribute to the poor health of the waterway.
U.S. Environmental Protection Agency acting deputy regional administrator Walter Mugdan says his agency tested sewage overflows to both Newtown Creek and Gowanus Canal found no significant industrial waste in those pipes. But he’s quick to note that doesn’t mean it’s not getting in some other way. DEP does have a rigorous system to monitor industrial firms that have permits to release chemicals into the sewage system.