Jarrett Murphy

Willis Elkins of the Newtown Creek Alliance, one of several water advocacy groups that monitor for illicit discharges and illegal dumping.

On the Gowanus: Unwitting polluters

An EPA survey of the city’s other Superfund waterway, the Gowanus Canal, found 250 outfalls, most of them pipes, 25 of which were “observed to be actively discharging during dry weather.” It’s possible a few of those pipes had permits, but the surveyers couldn’t tell because there were just so many pipes in the area. In any case, the EPA promised that “Discharges from … unpermitted outfalls will be eliminated as part of the remedy for the canal.”

Mugdan, who has overseen the Gowanus project for some time, agrees. “The limited experience that we have from Gowanus Canal suggests that where you see the pipes — and there were a large universe of them — they weren’t having a large influence. That was a good outcome,” Mugdan adds. “It doesn’t tell you, however, what other connections are going on underground somewhere.”

City documents say that while there was “no evidence of large illicit sanitary sewer connections” in the canal, bacteria reading indicates there is some other source of contamination, but it wasn’t clear if it was human or animal in nature.

The origins of the fecal bacteria might be a mystery, but the sources of new industrial toxins are plain to see. “Typically, old landfilled marshes become favorite places for parking trucks, buses, oil depot facilities—and these have to be maintained and cleaned on a regular basis and one thing I have seen is oil running off trucks and into the canal,” says Eymund Diegel, who has closely observed the canal for years through rolls with Public Lab and the Gowanus Dredgers. “People aren’t necessarily aware that when you clean, the dirt goes somewhere.”

Indeed, it’s often possible that the people and firms polluting the city’s waterways aren’t aware they’re doing something wrong.

“You might have had your grandfather buy a building in the 1920s and it still has an illegal connection you’d have no way of knowing about,” Dixon says. “This is such an old and overbuilt city that it’s quite possible that even the best intentioned facilities that think their waste water is going to the right place—it’s not.” DEP officials note that sometimes buildings will rework their pipes in a way that, without their knowledge, sends sewage the wrong way.

Around the Gowanus, Diegel says pollution awareness has increased. “People are better behaved. There is more of a ‘good neighbor’ policy going. Watchdog agencies have been helpful.”

He says the canal’s advocates have tried to encourage practical responses, like installing sand traps in front of garages to filter some chemicals out of the runoff. The Gowanus Dredgers has investigated many of the pipes jutting out into the canal. While most are—as the EPA asserts—mere relics, some are still in use. “Typically they’re related to floor drains from immediately adjacent factory areas,” Diegel says. “They’re not necessarily bad outflows where someone is pouring sulfuric acid or PCBs down the drain. But if you’re doing paint blasting or metal work whatever you blast will get washed off and go into the drain.” The property owners are nudged to install catchment devices in their floors to filter out the bad stuff, and most do.

On the other hand, there is still deliberate wrongdoing. “There’s a number of methods,” Mugdan says. “The first and simplest is, if some guy has got a little mom-and-pop operation – a printing shop, an automobile shop, a painting studio—and they have some chemical they want to get rid of, they walk out to the nearest storm drain and they dump it in.” This is, says Mugdan, a small-scale problem — but a real one.

Jarrett Murphy

An outfall pipe on Newtown Creek. The shores of the city’s creeks, rivers, bays and canals are dotted with thousands of pipes. No one knows where many of them originate or what their purpose is, though many are dormant.

Detectives, armed with dye

With nearly 600 miles of shoreline, New York City presents plenty of opportunities for sewage to get into its waterways. DEP deputy commissioner Pamela Elardo is in charge of the program that tries to detect and end those discharges. “We’re constantly finding more information about the problem,” Elardo says. “Obviously, we’re a big city with lots of pipes. There are 7,500 miles of pipes for stormwater and wastewater in the city’s streets, so it’s a big network.”

Every year DEP surveys about 60 miles of the shoreline to look for potential problems. That means “people physically, by boat or by land, examining the shoreline, making recordings in the log, taking photos, looking for anything that might be a problem,” Elardo says. And DEP staff are often on the water for other reasons—like transporting sludge from one plant to another for processing—and those workers report potential problems too. The public can do the same via 311. “There’s always eyes out there,” Elardo adds.

The heart of the city’s illegal discharge prevention system is a network of 80 monitoring stations spread around the harbor, the big rivers and their tributaries. “If we see anything trending in a certain way, we do a more in-depth investigation,” Elardo says. “The trackdown thing is an investigative skill in itself. It is a very intensive investigation,” Elardo says. It means going upstream in the pipes to find the source, checking drainage maps, dye testing toilets to see if a particular house or business is to blame. “It literally could take months, sometimes, to track it down.”

Elardo says Coney Island Creek is one of the areas where DEP is focusing its trackdown efforts.

On a recent day that creek, which used to separate Coney Island from mainland Brooklyn until its eastern end was filled in over the early 20th century, showed all the contrasts of an urban waterway. The wind whipped through beach grass on a large dune that extended into Gravesend Bay near the mouth of the creek and NYCHA’s Gravesend Houses, across the sparkling blue river from a shoreline dotted with illegally dumped garbage. A bucket of fishing equipment stood next to a tent at the edge of a parking lot near an auto repair shop. Pipes jutted out from the banks near a storage facility and a supermarket. A waterfront park next to a Home Depot was padlocked. A heron stood one-legged in the setting sun.

This waterway has been in the news for its illegal connections: A set of 16 apartment buildings encompassing 990 apartments was found to have been discharging 200,000 gallons of sewage a day for years into the creek. According to the DEP, all the buildings have now been connected to a proper sewage line.

To Riverkeeper’s Dixon, that episode highlights the destructive potential of illegal discharges. “Things like that are always going to stand out as potential game changers for places like Coney Island Creek,” says Dixon. “Nobody knows how long necessarily that was going. Nobody knows the true extent of the pollution that came from there. The waterway way thoroughly impaired by that illegal connection.”

At least 12 other properties—10 businesses and two homes—have also been found to be dumping into Coney Island Creek and ordered to make repairs. But there are likely more sources of illegal pollution. “Because DEP’s trackdown efforts have not yielded a number of improperly connected residences as might be consistent with the elevated fecal coliform data observed by the HSM Program, investigations continue,” says the agency in a 2016 document.

Ida Sanoff, an advocate with the Natural Resources Protection Association, has one idea for what might be introducing bacteria into Coney Island Creek: She says her neighbors in South Brooklyn sometimes clean up after their dogs and toss the baggies into the storm drain. “After every heavy storm you walk out on the beach and you see poop bags,” Sanoff says. She knows there might be illegal connections to the Creek from homes or businesses, “but you also can’t help but wonder how many of these bacteria counts are come from masses of pooper-scooper bags that are flushed out into waterways after a heavy rain.”

The tough work of trackdowns

In other waterways, the city has found a range of illicit connections after chasing down 311 complaints and its own observations.

In 2013, DEP discovered that a Bronx firm called Atlantic Express was discharging oil into a sewer and referred the case to the EPA. NYCHA’s Astoria Houses was caught sending sewage into a storm drain because of a clog in its system in 2014. The authority fixed the issue, according to DEP. In 2015, three businesses along Austin Street in Forest Hills—Chipotle Grill, Martha’s Country Bakery, and Austin Public—were ordered to stop illegally connecting their sewage pipe to a storm drain; they complied.

The DEP says that of the contaminated discharges identified in surveys from 1998 through 2013, 99 percent—encompassing 4.3 million gallons of polluted water a day—have been cleaned up.

The question is whether other discharges are out there, that haven’t been identified yet. Water-quality testing indicates there are. While there are plenty of successful trackdowns each year, DEP’s reports also indicate the department is often unable to identify a cause for high fecal bacteria readings in the city’s waterways.

In 2016, the last year for which full information is available, the quarterly samples drawn at the 80 sentinel monitoring stations mostly raised no alarms, but they did detect high levels of bacteria 49 times. Several of those samples exceeded the threshold (200 fecal coliform colonies per 100 milliliters of water) by orders of magnitude.

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What the Sentinels Say
Bacteria readings from around the city, 2013-2016* * * *

Take July 7, 2016: A monitor on English Kills—yet another offshoot of Newtown Creek—posted a reading of 148,000 fecal coliform colonies per 100 milliliters of water, about 740 times higher than the threshold of concern. But DEP reports that when a survey was conducted in that area, no discharge was observed.

That was the same conclusion when 45 other high readings were investigated in 2016: The high readings prompted a mini-shoreline survey. But DEP was unable to find anything to explain the high readings. Such was the case on multiple occasions in 2013, 2014 and 2015 as well: 134 times over those three years, the city detected high fecal bacteria readings but, when it did its survey, discovered no discharge.

It’s not for lack of trying on the city’s part. According to the DEP’s Timbers, a high fecal bacteria reading” triggers an intensive field investigation that can last for up to three dry-weather days,” adding, “in practice this usually occurs over a one to two week time period, as a ‘dry weather day’ requires a preceding time period of 48 hours with no precipitation.” If no discharge is observed, the investigation ends. “But the information becomes part of a larger narrative about that monitoring station, the adjacent shoreline and the larger waterbody,” Timbers says.

In documents filed with the state, DEP has indicated that fecal bacteria counts in Coney Island Creek, Flushing Creek and Alley Creek were higher than what would be generated by the illegal connections the agency had been able to trackdown so far. And so, investigations were ongoing.

Elardo believes DEP has the resources it needs to police illegal discharges. “I do feel like we have the right tools and the right people doing the work. I feel like we’re very aggressive. The fact that we do 60 miles of shoreline in a year—that’s a pretty intensive effort. I don’t think we have any shortage of the ability to address the problem as such.”

But Riverkeeper’s Dixon isn’t sure. “I don’t necessarily think that there’s enough effort given to this problem. There’s always more that the city can do.” While he says the city’s enforcement response is strong once an illegal discharge is discovered, it’s the discovery effort that could use help. He wants the city to test and monitor all sewage discharges, and to install webcams on the CSO outfalls and to issue real-time discharge alerts, so identifying dry-weather discharges doesn’t depend on someone happening to catch an illicit flush.

“Just about every time somebody reports an illegal discharge, the city and state jump into action,” Dixon says. “What we need to do now is where we think there is a problem is figure out how to assess an area to determine where those problems might be.”