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.
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.
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.
What the Sentinels Say
Bacteria readings from around the city, 2013-2016
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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.”
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.”
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.”
This reporting project was supported by the Fund for Investigative Journalism.