Jarrett Murphy

A scrap metal yard on the banks of Newtown Creek. With so many industrial firms located along the creek’s working waterfront, there is potential for toxins and debris to wash in accidentally.

Repeat offenders

When the city detects an illegal connection, the focus tends to be on getting a property owner to address the issue and less on punishment. “There’s economic hardship for some people to make the change. It could be a few thousand dollars,” Elardo says. “We’d rather they spend the money fixing the problem.” If people don’t correct the issue, the city can fine them, or even turn off their water. That’s part of a larger system of protections and punishments to reduce water pollution.

New York City and state share responsibility to protect local waters. From 2007 through 2017, the state Department of Environmental Conservation entered into at least 458 consent agreements in the New York City region involving violations of the laws protecting waterways, tidal or freshland wetlands or the permits issued under the state’s pollution discharge elimination system. All told, those cases generated $11.6 million in fines.

The cases range from the modest—Vincent Malerba, the owner of Angelina’s Restaurant in Staten Island, fined $12,500 for erecting a catering tent with a tile floor in a tidal wetland behind his building—to the major: National Grid was forced to spend $360,000 in fines and cleanup work after a 2012 leak of 2,000 gallons of petroleum- and PCB-laden natural gas condensate into Paerdagat Basin.

There are repeat offenders. Willets Point Asphalt Company failed an inspection in 2012, when DEC officials detected “spills of petroleum or bituminous material and evidence of previously contaminated stormwater discharges” into Flushing Creek. The firm agreed to corrective action, but two years later, another inspection found a lack of stormwater controls, and the firm was fined $9,000.

The indoor skating rink operated by Aviator Sports out at Floyd Bennett Field in Brooklyn was cited in 2015 for letting its ice melt in the parking lot, carrying paint residue from the ice surface into Mill Basin. Later, in 2016, Aviator was fined $25,000 for letting green dye used in a Backlit Slide event to wash into Dead Horse Bay, portions which afterward “were observed … to have turned neon green,” according to the DEC consent order.

In 2010, for a series of releases of mercury, oil, highly acidic water and PCBs into the Hudson and East Rivers, Con Ed was fined $1 million and ordered to spend $4 million helping create an estuary environmental project at Pier 26. That same year, Con Ed was fined $1.1 million for 49 releases of PCBs from its Astoria power plant between 2002 and 2009. The firm also agreed to a seven-point corrective action plan.

In 2016, Con Ed was given a far lighter penalty of $37,500 for a release of 2,200 gallons of dielectric fluid—which is used to cool electrical cables—from a cable in the Bronx toward the Bronx River. The firm was also ordered to contribute $50,000 to an environmental restoration project.

Con Ed tells City Limits it takes its environmental responsibilities seriously. “Con Edison’s leak-detection system is one of the most sophisticated in the world and includes use of online monitoring to check the integrity of the system,” including special tracer gas to signal where leaks come from and regular patrols, writes Con Ed spokesman Bob McGee in an email. “The company is investing $83 million to accelerate the refurbishment of 7,500 trench feet per year of leak-prone pipes, and is also investing in research and development to replace existing feeders with solid dielectric cable that can be cooled with water or air instead of dielectric fluid.”

Regarding the other river releases , McGee says, “Con Edison has stringent protocols in place to monitor compliance with environmental regulations at our generating plants,” and adds. “DEC routinely inspects these facilities to confirm that Con Edison is adhering to permit requirements.”

Problems upriver

While DEP investigators have struck out chasing down many of the high bacteria readings detected by the sentinel system, there is one place where they’ve spotted a clear problem. The only problem is that a county line prevents the city from taking direct action.

During 11 of 16 quarters from 2013 through 2016, fecal readings were elevated at a point on the Bronx River just south of East Gun Hill Road known as sampling station 7. Each time, the DEP reported that its survey upstream of that station found that “two outfalls with highly elevated fecal coliform levels, originating from Westchester County were identified to be the source” and that it had notified the state. It was unclear whether the outfalls were in Yonkers or Mount Vernon. Neither city returned calls seeking comment. Both have a history of fouling the rivers that they share with New York City, the Bronx (which runs through both cities) and the Hutchinson.

In 2006, the state attorney general announced that Yonkers Raceway—which had been discharging human and animal waste directly into the Bronx River—had agreed to correct the problem. Separately, the following year, the AG got the city of Yonkers to agree to stop fouling the Bronx River, ending an effort begun in 2002.

According to DEC, its 2017 inspection found the raceway is in compliance with waste-handling rules. The city of Yonkers, meanwhile, has made progress under the consent order to which it agreed “and to date has completed extensive work to remove the identified illegal connections,” the agency says. It is not clear how the outfall

Government regulators aren’t the only cops on this case. Volunteers with the Bronx River Alliance have been collecting data on fecal bacteria for five years. At one point, the organization sounded the alarm about discharges the volunteers had observed, which Yonkers ultimately traced to a diner and an apartment complex. Bacteria readings dropped after that crackdown. They’ve spiked again in the past year, however, leading the Alliance to reach out to Yonkers once more.

“Citizen Science-based water quality monitoring is critical in identifying and focusing the attention of both the public and regulators to illicit discharges.” says Maggie Scott Greenfield, executive director of the Bronx River Alliance and administrator for NYC Parks. “Our volunteers have made discoveries that have directly impacted the health of the Bronx River.”

Mount Vernon, meanwhile, has been under federal pressure for two decades to fix its antiquated sewer system. Twice in 2012, sewers in the city collapsed, one fouling the Bronx River, the other the Hutchison River. In 2013, EPA testing indicated that there was human sewage in the city’s storm drains. Later that year, the feds conducted dry-weather testing and found bacteria concentrations as much as 65 times the acceptable level. In 2014 and 2016, the EPA ordered Mount Vernon to act. It failed, so the Justice Department has taken on the case. It’s been reported that Mount Vernon could face $90 million in penalties—a significant hit for a city with an annual operating budget of under $120 million. It is unclear what the cost of fixing the problems will be.

A floating target

Pollution is like a fingerprint of the city, reflecting the changing character of its neighborhoods: Diegel says that when artists began moving into Gowanus, there was a spike in chromium in the discharges to the canal, from all the paint brushes being washed off in sinks. Now the city’s burgeoning food-truck sector is generating more restaurant grease that can end up in waterways if poorly disposed. The fact is, “everyone is a polluter,” Diegel says—meaning, one way or another, we all contribute to the toxins that make many city waterways off limits to swimmers and boaters.

Yet there has been progress. Even the most neglected of city waterways is better off than it used to be. All over the city, the dumping of trash on the water’s edge still occurs but has been greatly reduced. Sewage overflows still happen, but there have been reductions, and there will be more under the city’s emerging long-term plans—though many of them are less aggressive than advocates would like to see. The city is now turning its attention to stormwater, which can also carry pollution to rivers and creeks. A plan for managing the rain is due to the state this summer.

Sanoff says stormwater is an issue in Coney Island Creek as well—runoff from the Belt Parkway, runoff from the MTA’s Coney Island railyards. Whatever the source of the creek’s pollution, it hasn’t stopped people from using it. “The creek is used by people for church baptisms even though there are signs that say no swimming. People fish there and eat their catch. People also illegally commercially fish there,” she says.

The creek should be clean enough that folks can do all that safely, Sanoff says. That will mean more than the city reducing sewage overflows and controlling rainwater. It will mean tracking down more of the individual buildings that directly pollute the waterways through illicit connections and more of the individual people and businesses who deliberately dump in the waterways. Doing so might take more public resources. It will certainly require more public awareness—more eyes on the water.

“I think that this creek is a hidden jewel,” Sanoff adds. “I think that the potential is there. But I think the cleanup is going to be enormous.”

Jarrett Murphy

Coney Island Creek, November 17, 2017

This reporting project was supported by the Fund for Investigative Journalism.