NY Waterway Contamination, From the Outside Looking In

Guest blogger Erin Schneider, NYSCI intern and graduate student in Environmental Geo-science at Queens College, writes about her recent experience on board the R. Ian Fletcher, a research vessel that regularly conducts water quality testing on New York’s waterways.

New York City from the Hudson River

“You see those green signs,” John Lipscomb, Captain of the R. Ian Fletcher, the Riverkeeper patrol boat, pointed towards the shore. “That indicates a CSO. There are 460 CSO’s in New York City that dump about 30 billion gallons of sewage into our waterways annually.” The recent fires at the Combined Sewage Overflow units in Harlem and Ossining have been a benchmark for Riverkeeper’s initiative of public awareness of this local health issue. “We got immediate media coverage,” Lipscomb explained, “because people were upset over the 250 million gallons being let in after the fire in Harlem.” What many don’t realize, however, is that every time it rains, raw sewage is being dumped into the Hudson and other rivers by way of these CSO’s.

            As a native New Yorker, I was horrified to not only learn about the regular occurrence of the introduction of raw sewage into our waterways, but also to see the many public access sites they are located at. There was even one stop we made along our journey that has an underwater pipe pumping a plume of sewage upward. Cruising down the river, bordered with lush green trees, waterfront houses, parks and other hidden wonders, we passed families playing in the water and men and women fishing off docks only yards away from actively flowing CSO’s. Although the river can be quite clean in many places, unfortunately, there are other locations frequently exposed to high levels of contamination. Yet the public doesn’t seem to be adequately informed. What’s more unsettling, is that while locals are using these waterways for recreational use, we were taking precautionary measures, using gloves to keep the water off our skin, or alcohol to clean our hands if they did contact the water.

CSO warning sign

            In light of the fire in the CSO on 125th in Manhattan, there have been tremendous breakthroughs with the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), and their agreement to make their data publicly available in a timely fashion. Additional water quality sampling took place immediately following the fire, conducted by both the DEP and Riverkeeper, in collaboration with Queens College and Columbia University, the data of which differed greatly. While the DEP announced that the majority of their water samples contained Enterococcus within the acceptable EPA guidelines of 104 cells of Entero per 100 milliliters of water, they originally failed to state that their water samples were being collected in the middle of the river. Riverkeeper took samples in both the middle of the river and in the near-shore environment, and found that contrary to the reports by the DEP, the concentrations near the discharge points ranged from 132 to 104,620 per 100 milliliters (click here for locations and Riverkeeper data reports). The Riverkeeper patrol boat, which is complete with a lab on deck for the processing and analyzing samples collected at locations, makes regular stops to sites along the East and Hudson rivers, the Gowanus and through a channel in Williamsburg.

CSO

            Having the privilege of joining the Riverkeeper, it became even more obvious to me just how crucial these studies are to increasing the public’s awareness of how our environment is being affected. It was bitter-sweet to experience New York from the water looking into the city, passing so many of New York’s beautiful iconic buildings, piers and neighborhoods along our journey, to then witness that almost unbeknownst to us, these same sites are being subjected to raw sewage contamination. I gained a new appreciation for my home state, and these research efforts that will hopefully continue to positively affect the exposition of these environmental and health issues.

Water sampling