New pact stirs up old stink

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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.

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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


damaged ecosystems.

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

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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

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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

legal challenges.

"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.

Updated contract

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.

Opposing views

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

of sewage.

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 [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]

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