New York State Fails to Clean-Up Waterways, Ignores Legal Requirements of Clean Water Act

NRDC Files Lawsuit to Curb One of State’s Leading Sources of Water Pollution

NEW YORK, N.Y. (June 29, 2010) -- The Natural Resources Defense Council filed a lawsuit last night against New York State for failing to take legally required steps this year to clean up one of the primary causes of pollution in its waterways -- urban runoff.

“As summer starts, New Yorkers are heading to the beach, getting in kayaks and breaking out their fishing poles,” said Larry Levine, attorney at the NRDC. “But many of New York’s waterways -- including Long Island Sound, our Atlantic beaches, and hundreds of lakes, rivers and streams across the state -- are polluted from urban runoff and the state isn’t doing what is required to clean them up. Green roofs and other smart water practices are available today and will provide environmental and economic benefits that are simply not possible if we continue business as usual.”

Every five years, New York State must update a Clean Water Act permit for the operation of municipal storm sewer systems across the state, with the exception of New York City, which has its own permits. By law, the permit must reduce polluted urban runoff enough to achieve state water quality standards for fishing, swimming, shellfish harvesting and other uses in New York’s rivers, streams, lakes and coastal waters. NRDC’s lawsuit challenges the permit, issued in April, for failing to meet this requirement because in most cases it would allow runoff pollution to continue at existing levels rather than reducing it.

Additionally, the permit fails to ensure sufficient measures are taken to meet pollution reduction targets set years ago for certain bodies of water the state has prioritized for cleanup. These troubled bodies of water include: Long Island Sound, Peconic Bay and other coastal waters in Long Island, and Onondaga Lake near Syracuse.

NRDC filed the lawsuit in New York State Supreme Court in Westchester County yesterday, along with a coalition of environmental groups throughout the state, including: Riverkeeper, Waterkeeper Alliance, Soundkeeper, Save the Sound, Peconic Baykeeper, NY/NJ Baykeeper and Hackensack Riverkeeper.

As a result of two years of advocacy from NRDC and its coalition partners, the state has made positive advances in requiring smarter water practices for new development projects, collectively called “green infrastructure.” However, troubling loopholes in the permit will undercut the effectiveness of these practices.

Cleaning up waterways in the state is not only important for the environment and New Yorkers’ quality of life, it’s critical for our economy. Degraded waterways cost the state millions every year in lost revenue to its lucrative tourism, recreation and fishing industries. For example, NRDC’s annual beachwater quality report, Testing the Waters, consistently finds urban runoff as the primary cause of beach closings and advisory days in the state – costing Long Island more than $60 million in 2007. And the Long Island Sound alone contributes roughly $8.5 billion a year to the regional economy from boating, fishing, swimming and sight-seeing activities, which are closely tied to its water quality and suffer when it’s degraded.

Green infrastructure improvements are the cheapest and most effective way to clean up waterways. Green infrastructure uses vegetation and soils as natural sponges for rainwater -- storing it or allowing it filter into the ground instead of washing pollution such as disease-causing bacteria, excessive nutrients that breed algae blooms, toxic pesticides and other chemicals to nearby waterways. These methods can take several forms -- from green roofs to permeable pavement, rain gardens and roadside plantings -- and working together provide a smarter, sustainable alternative to the pavement and pipes of the past that are failing communities today. 

Green infrastructure prevents runoff and transforms rainwater into a valuable resource that helps to literally green urban and suburban landscapes. This not only cleans up waterways, it reduces flooding, cools and cleanses the air, reduces asthma and heat-related illnesses, saves on heating and cooling energy costs, beautifies neighborhoods, creates urban oases of open space, and generates landscaping and construction jobs.

In addition to New York, NRDC has been working to boost green infrastructure investments nationwide to improve water quality. This includes efforts to incorporate these practices in stormwater permits in California, Maryland, Virginia, Washington, D.C., and West Virginia. NRDC is also working to advance green infrastructure as a cost-effective solution to sewer overflow problems in cities such as Philadelphia, which has proposed a first-of-its-kind, 20-year plan for more than $1 billion of green infrastructure investments.  In New York City, NRDC is also working to promote a similar approach to address the City’s 27 billion gallon-per-year sewage overflow problem.