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Environmental Protection Agency announces $340M for sewage plant upgrades

A view of the Hudson River park. (Sept.

A view of the Hudson River park. (Sept. 18, 2012) Photo Credit: Xavier Mascarenas

Superstorm Sandy caused a sewage overload, sending untreated or partially treated sludge into streams, bays and even streets -- 11 billion gallons in all, enough to fill every inch of Central Park with sewage stacked 41 feet high, according to a study released this week.

The takeaway from the study, released by environmental advocacy group Climate Central: Sewage infrastructure in New York, and the Northeast in general, wasn't built to withstand large-scale natural disasters like Sandy and needs to be upgraded.

On Thursday, the federal Environmental Protection Agency outlined the first step toward fixing the problem, announcing $340 million in grants to improve wastewater and drinking water treatment facilities in New York.

Though the aid wasn't in response to the study -- and was in fact voted on by Congress months ago -- EPA regional administrator Judith Enck said the money would "make sure our wastewater and drinking water facilities can withstand Hurricane Sandy-sized storms."

One of those facilities is in Yonkers, where 49 million gallons of untreated sewage flowed into the Hudson River during Sandy thanks to an overwhelming storm surge. An additional 1.2 billion gallons of partially treated sewage flowed into the Hudson River during the next four weeks, according to the Climate Central study. The Yonkers Wastewater Treatment Plant is the largest such plant in Westchester County and provides sewage treatment for most of the western part of the county.

The way wastewater treatment plants are planned and built also adds to the problem, experts say.

"Sewage treatment plants are usually placed near water in low-lying areas so that sewage can be piped to the plant via gravity and treated sewage can be easily discharged into receiving waters," the Climate Central study said. "These key factors in plant locations make them especially vulnerable to storm surges and coastal flooding."

During the next few months, the state Department of Environmental Protection will review applications from local communities, which will factor into how the state divvies up the funds. Projects will be selected using "project priority ranking systems that are based on elements of the Clean Water Act, the Safe Drinking Water Act [and] the Disaster Relief Appropriations Act," according to the EPA.

Westchester County Executive Rob Astorino's staff members "certainly are aware of" the funding, spokeswoman Donna Greene said, but details weren't immediately available and it wasn't clear whether the county would seek funds for infrastructure upgrades to other locations besides the Yonkers plant.

The improvements to existing plants won't just mitigate against overflow, the EPA said -- in some cases, the overflow was caused by a combination of storm surges, heavy precipitation, equipment failure and power loss, and upgrades to infrastructure will seek to prevent those problems during future storms.

Counties designated as disaster areas by the Federal Emergency Management Agency are eligible for the funds, EPA spokesman John Martin said. Locally, that list includes Westchester, Rockland, Orange, Putnam and Ulster counties.