New York City is years, and in some cases decades, behind
on efforts to rein in untreated sewage that pollutes waterways throughout the
five boroughs and beyond, according to a draft legal agreement obtained for
In coming weeks, the city Department of Environmental Protection is
expected to ink an agreement with New York State that acknowledges the agency
has missed "numerous" milestones on its $2.2-billion sewage control program,
one of the department's most complex and costly projects.
The deal would give DEP another 18 years to finish more than 30 capital
projects around the city - nearly all of which were supposed to be done by now.
State and city environmental officials say the proposed agreement improves
on the two previous ones by laying out a clear timetable for construction, and
by re-engineering New York City's sewer system to capture more pollution.
Community leaders and environmentalists are angered by the agreement, which
they say will further delay efforts to revitalize waterfronts and repair
The current system
The agreement centers on the city's use of combined sewers that carry
sanitary waste as well as rainwater. Virtually all of the city's sanitary waste
is treated at 14 DEP plants during dry weather, but when it rains, the system
can't keep up with the additional flow. To avoid flooding the treatment plants,
the liquid is sent through release valves - known as combined sewer overflows
- directly into streams, creeks and rivers. This untreated sewage invites huge
amounts of algae and bacteria that starve plants and animals of oxygen, cause
disease in shellfish and force the closure of swimming beaches.
In 1988, the state Department of Environmental Conservation ordered the
city to find ways to curb sewage releases from its 460 combined sewer
overflows. DEP did not draft its plans on time, and in 1992, the state and city
set up a new timetable with a list of potential fines if the city failed to
comply again. By late last year, however, DEP acknowledged it did not meet a
single deadline of the 1992 agreement and needed more time once again.
The main reason for the delay, according to DEP spokesman Ian Michaels, has
to do with finding and acquiring land needed to comply with the state's order.
One case in point is a project near Flushing Bay. In order to install a
mammoth underground sewage tank on the best spot, DEP had to take away land
from Flushing Meadows-Corona Park, a move that sparked community anger and
"Many of these projects are large capital projects that require siting, and
they require siting in very specific areas near bodies of water. We have been
successful in a few cases, but only after years and years of negotiations and
givebacks to the community like ball fields," Michaels said.
The revised agreement, which is up for public comment, seeks to reduce
sewage in 10 waterways: Flushing Bay, Alley Creek, Newtown Creek and Jamaica
Bay in Queens; Paerdegat Basin and Coney Island Creek in Brooklyn; Westchester
Creek, Bronx River and Hutchinson River in the Bronx, and New York Harbor. The
work entails building more sewage storage tanks similar to the one near
Flushing Bay, separating sanitary and combined sewers, and re-engineering pipes
to increase their capacity.
Maureen Wren, a spokeswoman for the state DEC, said the deal was a good one
because it mandates more capital projects and eliminates a higher percentage
Brad Sewell, an attorney with Natural Resources Defense Council, voiced
concerns about provisions in the new agreement that would allow DEP to try to
change the standard of cleanliness it needs to meet.
"Rather than putting in the right equipment to meet the standards, DEP and
DEC can simply move the goal post," he said.
For community advocates like Ann-Marie DiGennaro, of East Williamsburg, the
downside of the new agreement is more obvious. As a member of the Newtown
Creek Alliance, she had hoped that a new sewage treatment plant in nearby
Greenpoint would reduce unpleasant odors and bring new economic and cultural
vibrancy to the creek's shores. The treatment plant and its ancillary equipment
were to have been done in July 2003; now they won't be done until December
2022, assuming DEP doesn't fall behind again.
"That's like waiting another generation," DiGennaro said. "The longer they
don't clean up the water, or try to improve it at least, the more we are
Voice your opinion
The state Department of Environmental Protection is
accepting written comments on its consent order with the city Department of
Environmental Protection through Nov. 8. Write to: Joseph DiMura, New York
State Department of Environmental Conservation, Division of Water,
625 Broadway, Albany, NY 12233-3505. The order can be viewed online at
www.dec.state.ny.us. [CORRECTION: The Department of Environmental Protection is
a New York City agency. A headline over a story yesterday about a $2.2-billion
sewage control program incorrectly described the agency's provenance. Also,
the state Department of Environmental Conservation is accepting written
comments regarding the project. Due to an editing error, the name of the agency
was incorrect in a box accompanying the story. pg. A08 C 10/27/04]