New York Governments Collaborate to Tackle Environmental Injustice
A three-way partnership between the City of Mount Vernon, Westchester County, and the State of New York makes headway towards correcting the city's sewer crisis
“A perfect example of how local and state governments can come together to implement clean water and sanitation infrastructure while also considering the environmental justice and climate impacts on local communities.”
That is how Dr. Catherine Coleman Flowers, President Biden’s Environmental Justice Advisor and NRDC Board Member, described the unique three-way partnership between the City of Mount Vernon, Westchester County, and the State of New York to address a long-standing environmental justice crisis in Mount Vernon.
The City of Mount Vernon is a majority-Black municipality located in New York’s majority-white Westchester County, just a half hour’s drive from midtown Manhattan. For decades, Mount Vernon residents have been forced to endure frequent sewer backups from failing pipes with little recourse.
Initially, this problem only garnered broad public attention when raw sewage began spilling into the Hutchinson River—and at that point, both the federal and state government sued the City of Mount Vernon under the federal Clean Water Act to stop the discharges. This lawsuit underscored a limitation of many of our nation’s environmental laws – namely, while they often do well to protect natural resources, they are much less effective in safeguarding the people living in detrimental environmental conditions, and in helping local governments seeking to address those conditions.
Mount Vernon Mayor Shawyn Patterson-Howard recognized this challenge early on in her tireless work to secure cooperation from state and federal regulators rather than punishment. And her efforts came to fruition in April 2022, when New York state, Mount Vernon, and Westchester County entered into a novel three-way partnership meant to help Mount Vernon gather the resources and do the work needed to bring its sewer infrastructure into the modern day. As part of that partnership, the state announced a historic $150 million investment in sewer infrastructure at Mount Vernon.
In May 2023, about a year later, Governor Kathy Hochul announced that this partnership has arrived at a major milestone in the effort to fix failing sewer infrastructure and improve Mount Vernon residents’ quality of life: construction is starting on the $9 million Third Street Sewer project, which will provide reliable wastewater services to more than 4,000 of the city’s hardest-hit residents. Under a formal Memorandum of Understanding that governs the City-County-State partnership, this priority project is proceeding at an expedited pace to help these residents, who are currently being served by a makeshift system with temporary pumps.
Construction has also started on the first homes awarded grants from Mount Vernon Healthy Homes, a $3 million pilot program run by the New York State Division of Housing and Community Renewal that was implemented alongside last year’s massive state investment. The program aims to help residents like Linda McNeil who have been most significantly and frequently impacted by wastewater backflow due to sewer failures in Mount Vernon. Through this program, approved residents can get repairs to their wastewater drainage systems, remediation of damage from past wastewater flooding, new sewer backflow prevention devices, and up to two replacement toilets.
In addition to these critical projects, several other efforts are underway to rehabilitate Mount Vernon’s water and wastewater infrastructure. These projects include the City’s work with the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) on the remedial design and repair of the city’s outfalls that have historically discharged raw sewage into the Hutchinson River, as well as an asset management program that will help Mount Vernon plan how it will fund and maintain its water and wastewater infrastructure in the long term.
As Mayor Patterson-Howard sees it, this progress to repair the city’s sewer infrastructure “will not only enhance public health and safety but also contribute to the overall revitalization and sustainability of our city.” It is exciting to watch this new multi-government partnership producing real action to help the people of Mount Vernon—not only to start correcting this environmental injustice, but also to help envision a future where the city can thrive.