Wednesday, March 16, 2005

Sewage in the Bronx River

Sewage treatment plants on Long Island Sound and in its nearby cities have gotten a lot of attention, and rightly so. Hundreds of millions of dollars have been spent, first to bring them up to the standards of the Clean Water Act and, more recently, to remove nitrogen. But the condition of the sewers that lead to the plants is appalling if not scandalous. Maintenance is ignored, and every city or village has sewers that are crumbling and in disrepair.

Compare conditions in one Sound tributary a century ago, with conditions now:

… in Westchester County … sewage clogged the Bronx River, destroying the stream’s ecological value and, most critically from the standpoint of motivating government, depressing real estate values …

For years the suburban towns from North White Plains to the Bronx border – White Plains, Scarsdale, Mount Vernon, Yonkers, Bronxville – had been dumping their sewage into the Bronx River, which empties into the westernmost end of the Sound. By 1906 it was apparent to officials in Westchester that the pleasant rural and suburban brook that had been the Bronx River was now a turbid, stagnant sewer. The county Board of Supervisors established the Bronx Valley Sewer Commission, which built a large sewer line to intercept the sewage before it reached the Bronx River. The solution was hardly revolutionary – in keeping with the time-honored tradition of giving your headache to someone else, the new pipe diverted sewage to the Hudson River – but its completion in 1912 was unusual in that it was a successful attempt to clean up a tributary to the Sound.

That’s from my book, page 80. Here now is an excerpt from the New York Times, 99 years after the formation of the Bronx Valley Sewer Commission:

Because of aging pipes and faulty hookups … Yonkers has been discharging raw sewage into the [Bronx] river for years – hundreds of thousands of gallons a day – through more than a dozen storm pipes. …

“Closer to the Bronx, we found toilet paper coming out of pipes, and tampons – and you could smell the sewage,” said Philip Bein, an assistant attorney general in the Environmental Protection Bureau in Albany. He said that all the samples were taken in dry weather, when there "should be zero discharge."

A judge has ordered Yonkers to stop the sewage discharges. Again, from the Times:

Yonkers officials say they want to correct the problem but are concerned about the schedule. The court order requires the city to videotape its network of pipes and to use dye tests to pinpoint the spots where sewage is flowing into the wrong pipes and ultimately into the Bronx River.

"It's very difficult to do this job quickly, as opposed to methodically and over a period of time," said Frank J. Rubino, the city's corporation counsel. "We're not talking about a small village. We have miles of sewer pipes."

Mr. Rubino said that the city had identified more than 100 houses whose waste lines connect to storm pipes instead of to sanitary pipes. The city is asking those homeowners to undertake the repair themselves; if they refuse, Yonkers will carry out the work and put liens on the houses.

Another source of the discharge is the seepage from cracked sanitary pipes into adjacent storm pipes that are also broken, Mr. Rubino said.

Court order or not, none of us will live to see the day when a municipality fixes homeonwers' sewers and puts liens on their houses to pay for it. Politically, it's impossible. The political benefit is negligible (unlike a new park or repairs to a road, nobody sees sewer repairs) and the political risk of having your actions portrayed as being unfair to hard-working homeowners is great.

But I've been wrong before, and let's hope I'm wrong this time.


Anonymous Robert Funicello said...

Thank you for taking note of this important court decision mandating municipal sewer repairs on your excellent weblog.

I'm forwarding a copy of Judge Nicolai's decision to you so you can make it available on The Sphere.

Your somewhat pessimistic outlook on the political feasibility of fixing the long neglected municipal sewage collection system is well founded historically but, there is some reason for optimism going forward.

Westchester County between 1999 and 2004 implemented a $30 million municipal sewer rehabilitation project in cooperation with 30 municipalities that owned the sewers, that targeted stormwater that gets into sanitary sewers and causes sewer overflows and decreased treatment plant efficiency. This was not the same problem addressed by Attorney General Spitzer in the Yonkers case, but it also involved the difficult problem of requiring property owners to correct illegal connections, in our case connections of stormwater pipes to sanitary sewers not sanitary sewer to stormwater pipes as in the Yonkers case. In the County's program several communities were able to obtain many hundreds of such corrections by well organized and persistent communication with the property owners.

It will never be easy but, it can be done.

1:39 PM  

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