Keeping Sewage Out of NYC's Rivers - Whether There's Fire or Rain

Remember that four-alarm fire at a Harlem sewage treatment plant that dumped more than 200 million gallons of raw sewage over several days during a sweltering heat wave earlier this past summer?

The incident left New Yorkers confused about the safety of Hudson River water and area beaches -- and disgusted at the thought of that stuff lurking in the waves.

On Friday, the New York State Senate will be looking into what happened and the public notification procedures for contaminated water like this. NRDC will deliver testimony urging better, greener practices to keep sewage and other pollution out of the City’s waters and away from its beaches year round.

The dirty truth is the sewage problem didn’t disappear once last summer’s mess was washed away. And it doesn’t take a fire for it to happen again.

That’s right: nearly every time it rains, New York City’s outdated sewer systems pour raw sewage, untreated, into our waterways from up to 400+ locations in all five boroughs.  A mere tenth-of-an-inch of rain can trigger these overflows

And it’s not just gross. The pollution leads to serious problems that are too big to ignore. It makes swimmers sick, closes shellfisheries and trigger troubling algae blooms.

To add insult to injury, there’s not any public warning when those rain-induced spills happen -- even though the city is required by law to notify the public of the location and occurrence of sewage overflows, as well as the nature and duration of the resulting health risks. 

Other cities do a pretty decent job of that, and there’s no reason NYC can’t do the same.

Fortunately, there’s some good news too.

As I’ve written previously, the city has tremendous opportunities to solve its perennial sewage overflow problem by literally greening the urban landscape. By planting more trees on city sidewalks, increasing park space, planting green roofs and using porous pavement instead of standard concrete and asphalt, we can stop rainwater where it falls. This so-called “green infrastructure” keeps rain from flooding the sewer systems and causing overflows, and it keeps it from carrying oil, chemicals, pet waste, trash and other junk from our streets to the rivers.

That’s what NRDC will be calling for the city and state to advance at Friday’s hearing (see the full testimony here.)  

Right now, Philadelphia has emerged as a national leader in embracing these smarter, greener practices to clean up their waterways. And over the next 25 years, our neighbor to the south is planning to transform impervious spaces into natural sponges, literally greening the city in the process. As you can imagine – this comes with the added benefit of making neighborhoods prettier, more enjoyable places to live.

New York deserves credit for taking many important steps in that direction, and has announced an interest in putting in place a city-wide green infrastructure program that could even surpass Philly’s efforts. 

We look forward to working with New York City – as well as with the state and federal -- officials to help to advance this critical environmental initiative.  

The end result could be greener city streets, safer beaches and cleaner waters.