Sewage Spill Exposed a Lingering City Problem
ANDREA ELLIOTT / NY Times 28aug03
Minutes after New York City lost its power on Aug. 14, streams of raw sewage began to flow into surrounding waterways. By the time electricity was restored, 490 million gallons had spilled — 145 million gallons from the city's largest pumping station, on the Lower East Side — causing beaches to close and posing health and environmental hazards.
This was not the first time. The blackout of 1977 caused a sewage overflow of 828 million gallons, which spilled from eight treatment plants and the same sprawling station on the Lower East Side, the 13th Street Pump Station on Avenue D between East 12th and 13th Streets.
Back then, city officials found a solution: they provided all treatment plants with backup generators, which functioned properly, for the most part, during the blackout earlier this month. But no generator was ever built at the 13th Street Pump Station, a failure caused by a mixture of administrative lethargy and delays brought on by stiff community resistance.
So when the lights went out again, the sewage spilled out again.
"We always knew if there was a blackout, 13th Street would just shut its gates and pump everything out," said Alfonso R. Lopez, deputy commissioner for the Bureau of Waste Water Treatment. "Everybody recognizes we need generators. No one wants to give up real estate."
To be sure, this was not the only sewage problem on Aug. 14. More than 260 million gallons of raw sewage was spilled because of faulty or inoperable generators at 2 of the city's 14 waste water treatment plants — Red Hook and North River. And even if those generators had been running properly and the 13th Street station had had backup power, sewage would still have spilled because of the lag time before generators begin operating, Mr. Lopez said.
But, city officials concede, it is a virtual certainty that the 2003 spill did not have to be as bad as it was. The proper functioning of the generators at North River and Red Hook would have made a huge difference. But that was not even a possibility at the 13th Street Pump Station, where a solution to fixing the problem is not nearly as straightforward and — though under way — is years in the future.
"It is outrageous," said Sarah J. Meyland, executive director of Citizens Campaign for the Environment, an environmental organization with offices around the state. "Across the board there often is a very casual feeling about allowing raw sewage back into the environment under sporadic circumstances, as if sewage is really not that bad.
"In the same way we want the electrical system never to fail we should have the same expectation that the sewer system never fail except for acts of nature," Ms. Meyland added. "Not a situation like this one where there clearly is an engineering solution available."
The 13th Street Pump Station is surrounded by a low-income housing development and is across the street from a Con Edison plant, a combination that has produced a construction quagmire. Community leaders complained that pollution from the Con Edison plant, which is expanding, has added to already high asthma rates in the area.
For that reason, they have long resisted plans to build a diesel-fueled generator at the pump station, said Susan Stetzer, chairwoman of the public safety and sanitation committee for Community Board 3. "You shouldn't be building it on the grounds of a housing development," Ms. Stetzer said. "Why don't they build it on the grounds of Gracie Mansion?"
The argument that a power failure could occur seemed to hold little weight as the years passed.
"Over time it was easier to face the risk of sewer discharge than the reality of building a big plant in the face of community opposition," said Christopher Ward, commissioner of the Department of Environmental Protection. "The environmental problem that sewage creates is invisible to New Yorkers, whereas taking property and diesel emissions is not."
The city took little action toward building the generator until, in 1995, the state issued an order forcing the construction of two generators at the 13th Street Pump Station as part of a larger plan to upgrade a treatment plant in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. That plant receives 150 million gallons of sewage every day from the 13th Street station.
City officials attended meetings and gave presentations describing what the city felt it needed to do, but were met with anger and distrust from the people who lived nearby.
Still, the community board approved a plan in June to build the generators on the roof of the 13th Street Pump Station — at a cost to the city of $9.75 million — but the system will not be up and running for at least four years, Mr. Ward said.
City engineers can make positive comparisons when talking about the sewage that spilled this month. Before 1986, when one of the last of New York City's waste water treatment plants was completed, all of the sewage from the West Side of Manhattan spilled untreated into the Hudson.
City engineers also said that before September 1967, when the New Town Creek plant in Brooklyn was completed, more raw sewage spilled into the waterways every day than spilled during the blackout of 2003.
Still, the problems during the blackout underscored longstanding flaws with the way the city disposes of its sewage.
Propelled by gravity, waste water flows from sinks, toilets and showers to a maze of pipes below New York City's streets. These pipes also receive storm water runoff in most parts of the city. From there, the sewage is pumped to treatment plants.
New York is among 772 cities around the nation with combined sewer systems — those that mix storm water with other waste. About 20,000 cities use a newer, more efficient system, separating the two forms of waste so that storm water is not processed at treatment plants along with sewage.
When it rains heavily, pipes in a combined system can overflow and spill raw sewage. In New York City, that happens about half the time it rains, causing an estimated 40 billion gallons of untreated waste water (20 percent of which is raw sewage) to spill into surrounding waterways every year, city officials said.
"Blackouts are unfortunate but are relatively rare," said Reed Super, senior lawyer of Riverkeeper, an environmental organization based in Garrison, N.Y. "It really just points out a larger problem, which is that it happens on a regular basis. Raw sewage flows into our waterways every time it rains over a certain threshold."
Along with other cities, New York City is trying to curb the problem of combined sewage overflows by building underground reservoirs that work almost like bladders. When waste water begins to overflow, some of it will be channeled to these three underground tanks. It will be held there until water levels drop again, and then the waste water will be pumped to treatment plants.
The projects, in Flushing and Alley Creek, Queens, and in Paerdegat Basin, Brooklyn, will cost more than $680 million. Critics say these efforts are a Band-Aid solution to a larger problem, and even city officials wonder how the city will keep up with the cost of maintaining the sewage system, parts of which date to the 1850's. "The city faces billions of dollars of waste water upgrades," Mr. Ward said. "A huge environmental question facing the city is the efficacy of those investments instead of competing environmental interests."
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