NRDC, Citizen Groups Reach Legal Settlement with NYC and State to Clean Up Jamaica Bay

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Today marks a critical milestone in the effort to restore Jamaica Bay -- the crown jewel of the city’s green spaces. With more than 25,000 acres of water, marsh, meadowland, beaches, dunes and forests in Brooklyn and Queens – and accessible by subway – Jamaica Bay is a coveted refuge for wildlife and New Yorkers alike. But decades of pollution from city sewage treatment plants have devastated it, and today there is reason for hope: New York City, New York State, and four environmental groups led by NRDC today completed a legal settlement that will guarantee significant improvements to the health of Jamaica Bay.

Photo by Don Riepe

After reaching an “agreement-in-principle” last year in lieu of litigation, the environmental groups have now put the legal teeth in the deal – in the form of a detailed, enforceable settlement. The settlement ensures the city will substantially reduce pollution from its sewage treatment plants and help to restore the bay’s disappearing marsh islands. NRDC served as legal counsel to Jamaica Bay Eco Watchers, American Littoral Society and NY/NJ Baykeeper in the case.     

Nitrogen discharges from the city’s sewage treatment plants are the biggest cause of the severe water quality problems in Jamaica Bay. Four plants discharge nearly 40,000 pounds of nitrogen into the bay daily, which cause harmful algae blooms that frequently render portions of the bay inhospitable to marine life and unusable for people. There is also evidence that elevated nitrogen levels contribute to the rapid and accelerating loss of the bay’s signature marshlands, which provide not only invaluable wildlife habitat, but also shoreline erosion control and a protective flood barrier to the neighborhoods ringing the bay.

The key elements of today’s legal settlement are:

  • Sewage treatment plant upgrades:  The city will upgrade all four sewage treatment plants between now and 2020, reducing annual nitrogen discharges to Jamaica Bay by half. Most of the reductions come by the end of 2015. Currently, nitrogen pollution levels in the bay are among the highest in the world.
  • Marsh restoration: The city will partner with the state to restore Yellow Bar marsh island, as well as subsequent marsh restoration projects in the bay, the specific locations of which will be determined in consultation with the environmental groups. The city’s support will enable these projects to obtain tens of millions of dollars in federal matching funds. 
  • Enforceable limits on nitrogen pollution: The state will amend the city’s Clean Water Act permits to lock-in strong nitrogen pollution reduction requirements, ending a long-running legal dispute over the permits. This will allow citizen groups to enforce any violations of these permit terms, in case the state or federal governments are slow to do so, which has happened in the past.

The settlement also includes important safeguards to ensure the treatment plant upgrades perform as well as expected and, if necessary, that the city will take additional steps to protect the health of Jamaica Bay. Specifically, the settlement provides for:

  • Water quality monitoring: Pursuant to last year’s agreement-in-principle, the city has already improved water quality monitoring in shallow areas of the bay that are prone to algae blooms. The settlement locks in these enhanced monitoring protocols. Additionally, as the sewage treatment plant upgrades come on-line between now and 2020, the city will intensify its monitoring, in order to evaluate the resulting water quality improvements, and all monitoring results will be provided to the state and the environmental groups. The settlement sets up a technical advisory panel that will include representatives for the groups and provide recommendations for the monitoring program.
  • Additional pollution reductions, if needed to fully meet water quality standards:  The settlement defines a process and a timeline to establish additional pollution control requirements, if necessary, in case water quality problems are not completely resolved once the last of the agreed-to sewage treatment upgrades comes on-line. As part of this process, during the final stages of upgrades, the city will study new technologies for reducing nitrogen pollution.    

NRDC and our partners extend a special thanks to NYC DEP Commissioner Cas Holloway and NYS DEC Assistant Commissioner Jim Tierney, who played key roles in enabling the parties to reach this unique and groundbreaking environmental agreement.  The settlement is memorialized in a court-approved consent judgment between the city and state, and in a separate Memorandum of Agreement that secures the environmental groups’ rights to enforce the key provisions of the deal.  The city voluntarily began implementing the substantive provisions of the deal last year, while the parties worked out the details of the enforceable settlement. 

Jamaica Bay is home to a federal wildlife refuge the size of 10 Central Parks, a portion of Gateway National Recreation Area, Bayswater State Park and nearly a dozen city parks. It provides a nursery for the region’s marine life, including valuable recreational fisheries like summer flounder, and a critical bird habitat area that is visited by nearly 20 percent of North America's bird species annually. It is also home to various endangered and threatened species – from sea turtles to peregrine falcons. More than a half million New Yorkers live in the Jamaica Bay watershed/sewershed, and the bay is a popular fishing and boating area.

By tackling the two greatest threats to the Bay -- polluted waters and disappearing marshlands -- today’s settlement will go a long way towards returning this urban oasis to health.