Saturday, April 16, 2005

Nitrogen Removal: "Them Against Us"

Two years ago, when he released his capital budget, the New York City DEP commissioner made a telling distinction between infrastructure improvements the city had to make. If the city had to spend billions to do nitrogen removal at its sewage plants to benefit Long Island Sound, he said, it might not have enough money to also improve "our" water system. The distinction was between "our" water in New York City, and Long Island Sound, which did not merit the characterization of being "ours" -- it was somewhere else and belonged to somebody else.

That was the first signal that the city was going to try to get out of its obligation -- an obligation it had agreed to -- to remove nitrogen at four sewage plants that empty into the far western end of the Sound.

When the city formally broke the news to state regulators, the state objected and took them to court. Yesterday the state won. Here's an excerpt from the Attorney General's press release:

In accordance with the original agreement, the city submitted detailed plans in December 2002 to upgrade its sewage treatment plants so they could meet nitrogen removal requirements. In June 2003, the DEC approved those plans, which established a 12-year upgrade schedule for the five sewage treatment plants. The city proposed a scaled-back plan in February 2004, claiming it had underestimated the cost of implementing the original, approved plan. DEC engineers concluded that the revised plan, however, offered less environmental benefit than the original plan and that the city would fail to meet the nitrogen reduction requirements mandated under federal law.

The city might still appeal. (And it has a history of avoiding previously-agreed to deadlines: some years ago, EPA had to go to court to force the city to start the planning for a drinking water filtration plant for the Croton reservoir system.) But given the reality that two of the worst summers, in terms of environmental conditions, on the Sound over the last 15 years have been in 2003 and 2004, let's hope they decide instead to stop wasting time and start upgrading their sewage plants.

Part of the problem, as expressed by the commissioner two years ago (the commissioner then was Chris Ward, who has since stepped down), is that New York City doesn't really consider itself part of the Long Island Sound region. The names by which we call certain areas contribute to the problem. Here's an excerpt from the AG's press release:

The sewage treatment plants covered by this agreement are the Wards Island, Bowery Bay, Tallman Island, and Hunts Point plants – discharging into the East River...

Those plants don't discharge into the East River; they discharge into the Sound. A "sound" is a relatively narrow strip of water between an island and the mainland. Long Island Sound, therefore, is the strip of water between Long Island (including Queens) and the mainland (including the Bronx). In the late 1800s, the area of water stretching from Hell Gate to Norwalk was considered the East River, so these usages change.

One more point: In my book and in my talks, I quote Al Appleton, who at an important point in the Long Island Sound debate of the late 1980s and early '90s, said, "Pollution is free garbage disposal. it's using a public resource to subsidize a private activity. All we're really asking private activities to do is pay the true cost of doing business. We who are the public no longer want to use Long Island Sound to subsidize certain kinds of economic activities."

That same unwillingness to subsidize waste disposal, and to have the people who benefit from the region's natural resources pay the true cost of disposal, applies to the public as well as to private activities. When Appleton spoke those words he was the commissioner of the NYC DEP.


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