This week, the City Council of New York City grilled the de Blasio administration over how it’s handling the massive sewage overflows that plague the NYC’s waterways.
As I’ve written before, the City’s plans to address this mess are deeply flawed and would continue to allow massive amounts of sewage to flow into waters across the city, for decades to come.
The state has already approved plans for seven water bodies. Plans for two more are under review. And two more plans under development will cover the rest of the city. (See the S.W.I.M. Coalition’s website tracking the plans here.)
At the December 13th City Council hearing, representatives of the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP)—the agency that runs the water and sewer system and answers to the Mayor—said that the seven plans the state has already approved are a “fait accompli,” like it or not.
But when my turn came to testify on behalf of NRDC, I offered a clear response: The state’s misguided approval is not the last word. “If the mayor of the City of New York decides he wants to do something more and better, he’s completely empowered to do that.”
NRDC was among the many community and environmental advocates—and even public school students (pictured below!)—who came out in force to demanding that the City do better. (You can watch the entire hearing here.)
NRDC endorsed the comprehensive testimony offered by the S.W.I.M. Coalition, which we help lead. In NRDC’s own prepared testimony, we focused on two specific issues:
- reforming water rates to support clean water investments while keeping bills affordable; and
- using innovative strategies to create more green infrastructure, which absorbs runoff before it overwhelms the sewers.
(A summary version of NRDC’s testimony is at the end of this blog. Testimony given by our many coalition partners will soon be available on the coalition’s website.)
Overall, DEP’s testimony stuck to defending its flawed plans—not very convincingly, as I describe further below. On the two specific issues NRDC focused on in our testimony, DEP was guarded, but it actually had something positive (albeit vague) to say:
- DEP testified that it is developing plans to study new rate structures, including the potential for a stormwater fee—although its expected timeline is 3 years just to complete a study and develop recommendations. You can be sure we’ll push them to follow-through, and to do it faster.
- DEP also said it is developing plans for a revamped green infrastructure grant program, based on lessons learned from other cities’ experience—but they also said that they “don’t want to say too much about that.” We hope they’re following NRDC's blueprint, which is endorsed by a wide range of environmental and community-based organizations. But the proof will be in the pudding.
Read on for more key takeaways from the hearing. But first, I have to tell you about the amazing elementary and high school students who testified!!A team of 5th grade students from PS 15 in Red Hook won applause from the full house. They presented their study of how much street litter gets washed into the ocean—along with raw sewage and other pollution—when the sewers overflow. They talked about learning that only one-tenth of an inch of rain can trigger an overflow, how they used their research to convince people to reduce litter in their neighborhood (by two-thirds!), and about how much they want the city to clean up its act, on both sewage and litter.
The Council was duly impressed by the budding scientists. As Donovan Richards, representing Southeast Queens, said: “I hope DEP is listening....I also want to recommend that DEP hires some of these individuals.”
Next, two high school students from the Harbor School testified about how sewage in the water affects them directly. Every day they learn about the harbor firsthand—often getting right in the water to study the ecosystem and even learn commercial diving skills. But they wait 72 hours after it rains before they’ll go in the water, said one student. “I wonder how much better a diver I would be now if I’d have been able to dive all those days I missed because of combined sewage outflows,” said his classmate.
The first hour of the hearing, though, featured Council Members grilling representatives of the DEP.
Peter Koo, of Queens, denounced DEP’s plans to dump chlorine in the sewers near Flushing Creek, instead of reducing the amount of sewage that overflows. This approach, he said, is “unproven” and potentially “toxic”—echoing concerns of his constituents, like the members of Guardians of Flushing Bay who also testified. If DEP cannot effectively neutralize the chlorine before it gets to the creek—which DEP conceded under questioning it is not sure it can do—he said the plan just amounts to substituting one pollutant for another—“except this one [chlorine] smells better.” (DEP also plans to use chlorine for overflows to Alley Creek, in Queens, and the Hutchinson River, in the Bronx.)
Many Council Members expressed frustration that DEP never took the time to hear community concerns about its plans before submitting most of them to the state for approval. When Council Member Donovan Richards, of Southeast Queens, asked if there is a reason DEP never vetted the long-term plans publicly, DEP conceded “Not a good one.” DEP promised that, for the plans that remain under development, it will do that public vetting. Richards suggested that, if DEP doesn’t follow through, City Council would legislate to mandate it.
Ritchie Torres, representing portions of the Bronx, asked DEP “a simple question,” as he put it. “How do I explain to my constituents that a [long-term plan] that continues to allow hundreds of millions of gallons of…sewage into the Bronx River is consistent with the goal of making the Bronx River safer for recreation and wildlife?” DEP was evasive.
Torres then asked if the City’s sewage overflows comply with the federal Clean Water Act. DEP responded that when the plans are fully implemented in 25 years, they will comply with the state’s “existing water quality standards.”
But the existing standards are already badly outdated—in the words of the U.S. Environmental Agency, they are “not scientifically defensible” and do not protect human health as required by the Clean Water Act. NRDC, Riverkeeper, and others are suing EPA to enforce missed deadlines for the agency to impose modern standards. So, when DEP meets today’s existing standards in the 2040s, those standards will be long gone, replaced by stronger ones that DEP’s plans won’t come close to meeting.
In short, Councilmember Torres’s line of questions hit the nail on the head—plans that leave hundreds of millions of gallons of sewage in the Bronx River (and even more in many other places) will not make New York City’s waters “fishable and swimmable,” as the Clean Water Act demands.
The hearing lasted half the day, as advocates for Flushing Bay and Flushing Creek, the Bronx River, Harlem River, Newtown Creek, Gowanus Canal, Long Island Sound, and waterways and waterway users citywide—along with scientists who study the harbor—spoke of how sewage overflows literally make them sick and keep New Yorkers from enjoying many of the city’s greatest natural resources. They all called for stronger sewage cleanup plans, with much larger reductions in overflows and much more green infrastructure. And they highlighted that debates about investing in our water infrastructure can’t be all about the costs—they’re ultimately about the benefits that investment brings to people and the environment.
Environmental justice advocates came to emphasize that green infrastructure not only helps clean up our waterways, it also helps improve resilience to the effects climate change, such as extreme heat—and also that inadequate sewage infrastructure puts public housing residents at risk of sewage backups.
A former DEP Commissioner joined the call for more green infrastructure and fairer water rates that create incentives for it. A firm that specializes in green designs for affordable housing development called on the City to improve its green infrastructure grant program. And advocates for community gardens emphasized that the gardens also serve as green infrastructure to capture runoff.
And everyone called for a decision-making process that gives the people a real voice. To make the point, one speaker even looked up to the ceiling of the Council chamber and read the inscription aloud: “Government of the People, by the People, for the People.” Amen.
My full written testimony on behalf of NRDC can be found here. An excerpt summarizing the testimony appears below.
Good morning Mr. Chairman and members of the Committee. I am Lawrence Levine, Senior Attorney in the Water Program at Natural Resources Defense Council. I appreciate the opportunity to testify today.
I also serve on the Steering Committee of the Storm Water Infrastructure Matters (S.W.I.M.) Coalition. S.W.I.M. represents over 70 organizations dedicated to ensuring swimmable and fishable waters around New York City through natural, sustainable stormwater management practices in our neighborhoods. The Coalition’s members are a diverse group of community-based, citywide, regional and national organizations, water recreation user groups, institutions of higher education, and businesses.
NRDC fully endorses the Coalition’s testimony today. We join with our coalition partners in sounding the alarm bells over the Department of Environmental Protection’s (DEP’s) plans to reduce combined sewer overflows (CSOs). These Long Term Control Plans (LTCPs) will condemn waterways across the City to massive amounts of sewage pollution, indefinitely into the future. Under the plans – as is the case today – CSOs will far too often make the city’s waterways unfit for recreation and continue to despoil coastal fish and wildlife habitat.
Since last month, more than 2,500 NRDC members and online activists sent messages to the Mayor, DEP Commissioner, City Council Speaker, and the Chair of this committee, urging the City to do much, much better. The Mayor has provided no response so far. DEP held an annual public meeting in November to promote its plans and take limited questions, but has yet to offer a forum for substantive, two-way dialogue to address community concerns about each LTCP and explore alternative approaches. We sincerely thank the Speaker and the Chair for convening this oversight hearing to investigate the concerns that have been raised by so many community and environmental organizations and individuals across the city.
You will hear today from many witnesses about many specific ways the City can and must improve its approach. Rather than re-tread the same ground, I will focus my testimony on two specific issues: (1) revamping the City’s efforts to stimulate green infrastructure on private property; and (2) reforming DEP’s rate structure to equitably generate the funds needed for clean water investments.
On those issues, we make three specific requests of the City Council:
- Stormwater rules for development projects: City Council should pass legislation directing DEP to adopt on-site stormwater retention standards for development in the combined sewer portions of the city and track the CSO reductions achieved by implementing the new standard.
- Grant program for green infrastructure retrofits on private property: NRDC urges City Council to work with DEP to ensure that an innovative, scalable, new green infrastructure program has the backing it needs from the Office of Management and Budget, the Mayor’s Office of Sustainability, and other city agencies, and to ensure that the program launches in 2018 and succeeds in reaching communities most in need.
- Rate restructuring: City Council should pass legislation requiring DEP to conduct a study and develop recommendations for restructuring the City’s water rates to simultaneously promote (i) equitable generation of needed revenues, (ii) widespread use of green stormwater infrastructure, and (iii) water conservation practices. The study should be required to address at least three new rate structure components: a separate stormwater fee; tiered water and wastewater rates; and expanded low-income assistance programs.
More broadly, in regard to the City’s CSO program, we ask the Committee and the Council to exercise your oversight authority, as well as your legislative authority, to ensure that the City implements effective, equitable, sustainable solutions that clean up our waters, protect public health, improve neighborhood quality-of-life, create green-collar jobs, and improve the City’s resilience to climate change. We ask you to hold DEP and its sister agencies accountable for achieving those goals and empower these agencies to succeed.