To get raw sewage out of Newtown Creek, EPA takes the cheap route

The neighbors aren't too pleased.

December 4, 2019 Scott Enman
Newtown Creek. Eagle photo by Paul Frangipane
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The federal agency tasked with overseeing the cleanup of Newtown Creek recently approved a proposal put forth by the city to limit the amount of raw sewage entering the waterway — but residents say the plan falls short.

The Long-Term Control Plan — which calls for building a massive tunnel underneath the federal Superfund site to collect waste — would reduce the amount of combined sewer overflow entering the waterway by roughly 61 percent. The Environmental Protection Agency, however, could have selected “100 percent CSO control,” but decided to choose a cheaper option that leaves the creek in a more polluted state.

Attendees at a Newtown Creek Community Advisory Group meeting on Monday questioned that decision, alleging that the EPA is potentially skirting its duties by choosing the less comprehensive option.

“It’s a huge disappointment and it’s really concerning,” Greenpoint resident Kevin Lacherra told the Brooklyn Eagle. “I don’t understand why a 61 percent reduction is good enough when we don’t even know if that will be the number with increased rainfall by the time it’s done. The city is going to look very different in the 2040s than it looks right now, and this crisis is going to be far worse.”

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Lacherra added that the rainfall totals for the long-term plan, which are from 2008, are outdated and do not take into account the city’s growth or the increasing number and strength of rainstorms each year.

“They’re modeling rainfall based on the past,” he said. “They’re saying it will be sufficient, and it absolutely will not be sufficient. Sixty-one percent isn’t even a passing grade.”

Video: Newtown Creek Alliance

Willis Elkins, executive director of Newtown Creek Alliance, said 100 percent reduction is almost impossible to achieve, but that he would like to see that number closer to 80 to 90 percent. He also argued the agency should reconsider how it measures the amount of waste entering the creek.

“It may be beneficial to evaluate CSO not just in terms of annual volume, but also the frequency of events, or how many days per year sewage is discharging to the creek,” he said. “This would give more context as to how often the waterway is actively being polluted and will only get worse with an anticipated increase of rainfall in the coming decades.”

Related: Newtown Creek’s cleanup could begin 5 years ahead of schedule

More than 1.2 billion gallons of CSO enter the creek each year. CSO occurs when stormwater runoff and wastewater overwhelm the city’s sewer system during heavy downpours, causing the mixture to be dumped — untreated — into waterways.

The city’s Department of Environmental Protection was already required by New York State to create a long-term CSO plan to keep the creek in compliance with Clean Water Act standards, meaning it has to be fishable and swimmable. The plan was approved by the state in June 2018.

The EPA, however, also had to review the proposal to determine whether more had to be done to limit the amount of CSO entering the creek for the waterway’s Superfund cleanup. It ultimately decided at the end of November that the current plan is sufficient and that “no further action” was needed.

One of Newtown Creek’s CSO outfalls. Photo: Cody Brooks/Brooklyn Eagle

Daheiba Marulanda of DEP said the EPA likely chose the lesser option because the minimal reduction in chemicals entering the creek from 61 to 100 percent was not high enough to warrant the cost and long-term construction of taking further action.

“It’s not only money wise,” she said. “It’s how complicated and challenging the project will be because Newtown Creek is a very populated area. We’ll need to buy a lot of property, we’ll need to have as storage facility, the dredging will have to be deeper.”

“Our goal is not focused on the cost and feasibility,” Elkins replied. “Our goal is a clean creek.”

Related: There are 3 active oil spills on Newtown Creek

In addition to decades of legacy pollution from industrialization, CSO is a primary source of contamination in the creek.

“This proposed plan is an important step forward in advancing the cleanup of the Newtown Creek Superfund Site,” said EPA Regional Administrator Pete Lopez. “In this plan, EPA acknowledges that the work that the city is already obliged to do to improve the water quality of Newtown Creek, including major water infrastructure improvements through compliance with the state imposed long term CSO control plan, will be consistent with meeting the needs of the Superfund program and help EPA fulfill its mission of protecting human health and the environment.”

The public has until Jan. 27 to provide comments on the proposed plan. (The original deadline was extended from Dec. 23 at the request of the CAG.)

There will be public meetings to discuss the proposal on Dec. 9 at 6:30 p.m. at Sunnyside Community Services in Queens, as well as on Dec. 11 at 6:30 p.m. at P.S. 110 in Brooklyn. 

Follow reporter Scott Enman on Twitter.

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  1. StanChaz

    It’s ridiculous to state that the whole vicinity of Newtown Creek is a highly populated area where it would be to expensive to purchase the land to
    build underground holding tanks to capture the sewage CSO runoff- which now occurs regularly with even minimal rainfalls.
    The EPA aproved the construction of holding tanks at the Gowanus Canal suerfund site – and that area is much more popuated and expensive.
    Don’t we deserve at least as much?

    Why bother to dredge Newtown Creek if we allow it to be polluted all over again. What a waste of money.
    The EPA must do the right thing and do this the right way, for the future of all the communities in Brooklyn and Queens that border Newtown Creek.

    The article is spot on when it states that the annual precipitation in NYC is increasing over the years,
    with increased sewage overflows as a result – unless the EPA acts.

    I urge all concerned to comment before the deadline in opposition to the EPA’s decision to take the “cheap route” regarding Newtown Creek
    and the future generations of New Yorkers who would live with that bad choice.

    One IMPORTANT point:
    The article states that the comment period to the EPA ends January 27th
    However the EPA announcement below (with dertails about where to submit comments),
    indicates that the comment period ends Decemeber 23rd, which is much earlier.
    Please correct your article or otherwise back up your claimof a Jan 27th deadline date for comments.
    This is the EPA announcemen

    Also, are emails to the EPA considered as ”written comments”?