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January 16, 2013

Testimony of Carter H. Strickland, Jr.
Commissioner, New York City Department of Environmental Protection
before the
New York State Assembly
Committee on Environmental Conservation
The Environmental Causes and Effects of Extreme Weather Events
Assembly Hearing Room, 250 Broadway

Good morning Chairman Sweeney and Members. I am Carter Strickland, Commissioner of the New York City Department of Environmental Protection (DEP). Thank you for the opportunity to present testimony today.

As you may know, Mayor Bloomberg has directed Seth Pinsky, the President of the New York City Economic Development Corporation, to develop concrete recovery plans for the communities Sandy hit hardest as well as a specific and comprehensive action plan to prepare our city for the climate risks we face. I will focus today on DEP’s role in that effort and speak about the effects of Hurricane Sandy on New York City’s wastewater treatment plants and infrastructure, including preparation for the event, the impacts of the storm, and DEP’s response. Appended to my statement is a map showing the names, locations, and treatment capacity of the City’s fourteen wastewater treatment plants.

Beginning on October 26th, three days before the storm, DEP took measures to prepare for storm impacts. These included sandbagging plants and pumping stations, fueling emergency generators, topping off all fuels, chemicals, and supplies, tying down loose equipment, and suspending construction activities. We scheduled staff for double shifts, pre-positioned mobile pumping equipment, made arrangements with contractors to provide as-needed services, and performed training drills on power-down, evacuation, and sheltering procedures in the event of flooding, and prepared additional communications capabilities. Finally, we moved our in-City Emergency Command Center to higher ground.

Because we expected heavy rains upstate, DEP also took steps to help protect communities throughout the upstate watersheds. In cooperation with other agencies and stakeholders, we released water from the Schoharie, Neversink, Ashokan, and Rondout Reservoirs to provide additional storage capacity. The Bureau of Water Supply had extra staff on duty to respond to potential impacts on the City’s water supply facilities and the 100 miles of City-maintained highways in the upstate watershed. DEP Police coordinated with local emergency officials and specially trained Emergency Services personnel were on-hand to aid local communities. The Emergency Operations Center in Eastview, handling watershed-related issues, was activated and DEP personnel tested our Satellite Communications Network. Fortunately there were no heavy rains upstate and our drinking water supply system was largely unaffected. The steps we took meant that DEP was able to deliver safe drinking water in adequate amounts and pressure, and throughout the storm New York City’s water remained safe to drink. Therefore, I will focus on the impacts to our wastewater treatment system.

We are all familiar with the devastating impacts of the storm, which brought surprisingly little rain but fierce winds and an unprecedented tidal storm surge. At its peak of more than 14 feet at the Battery, the surge was three feet higher than the previous record. Our wastewater treatment plants are located on the waterfront for the discharge of treated effluent into the harbor, so we knew a good number of them would be affected. Ten of the 14 treatment plants had some degree of damage, with Rockaway being the most affected. Forty-two of a total 96 pumping stations, which help deliver wastewater in the sewer system to the plants, were also damaged. Of those 42, the Manhattan Pumping Station at 13th Street and Avenue D was the most significantly hit. Most of the damage was to the electrical systems, including substations, motors, control panels, junction boxes, and instrumentation. In addition, due to Consolidated Edison and Long Island Power Authority power outages, many DEP facilities had to operate on their emergency generators for upwards of two weeks.

DEP rapidly deployed in-house and contract labor to restore operations, and I am proud to say that in spite of extensive damage, and due to the remarkable dedication of City employees, by November 1st, within two days of the storm surge, 99% of the City’s sewage was being treated. Combined sewer overflows – also known as CSOs – were not a major factor during Sandy, because of the light rainfall amounts; rather, it was the loss of power and the flooding of facilities that resulted in discharges of sewage into the harbor. We estimate that approximately 560 million gallons of combined wastewater from the sewers – consisting of seawater, wastewater, and sewage – were discharged as a result of Sandy. That represents about half of the sewage we treat on an average day. Because we knew there were discharges from our plants and we learned that plants in neighboring communities had completely failed, on October 31st, DEP in conjunction with the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene issued a harbor water quality advisory to recreational users. Testing of local waterways a week after the storm showed limited impact, with standards exceeded near Raritan Bay and the Verrazano Narrows. In both cases the most likely cause of the water quality impairment was that the Passaic Valley Sewerage Commission plant in New Jersey was still down. By November 10th, all of the City’s wastewater was receiving full secondary treatment. The advisory was lifted on November 30th after two weeks of good test results from our Harbor Survey vessels.

The four DEP plants on the upper East River – Hunts Point, Tallman Island, Wards Island and Bowery Bay – saw little damage because of the location of the surge. The other 10 plants experienced outages, with damage at the Rockaway plant the most severe, though with no loss of life or serious injury. The Rockaway Wastewater Treatment Plant, located on the Rockaway Peninsula, handles the least amount of flow but is the lowest-lying and most vulnerable. It was completely inundated during Sandy and began discharging the evening of Monday, October 29th at approximately 8:15 p.m., which is the time of the high tide. It remained off-line until November 1st, although DEP was chlorinating untreated effluent at the plant even as the treatment processes were inoperable.

The one plant directly on the Hudson, North River, lost all utility power due to flooding of the lower level in close proximity to the electrical substation. Once the flooding subsided, crews managed to restore the plant to full secondary treatment in only 38 hours in spite of extensive damage to the main sewage pumps.

I credit our extensive pre-storm preparation and level-headed response with limiting damage and impacts and hastening repairs. For example, at our Coney Island and other plants, we proactively shut down electrical systems in advance of the surge. And, in the case of the Oakwood Beach plant, the foresight of my predecessors and the dedication of our staff prevented a large discharge. In 1979 – at a time when federal grant monies were available – DEP upgraded the treatment processes at the Oakwood Beach plant on the eastern shore of Staten Island and, at the same time elevated critical systems above the 100-year anticipated flood level. During Sandy this elevation prevented much greater damage than would otherwise have occurred. Even as the storm surge engulfed the Oakwood Beach neighborhood and completely surrounded the plant, DEP’s sewage treatment workers, engineers, and electricians remained on site and worked through the night to operate and protect the Plant’s critical infrastructure. The Oakwood Beach crew was able to provide disinfection of more than 80 million gallons of wastewater that otherwise would have been released into New York Harbor or backed up into homes and businesses. We owe those workers, among many other DEP staff, a debt of gratitude, and both the Mayor and I were able to thank them in person.

While I am proud of DEP’s performance and the heroic efforts of its employees, it is critical going forward that we not just repair what was damaged but that we make the system more resilient against inevitable extreme weather events in the future – not just storm surges, but heavier rains and higher temperatures. Wastewater treatment plants are multi-acre sites with numerous structures, tanks, and support buildings, not all of which are equally critical or equally vulnerable to weather events. The strategy to minimize damage in future storms will likely target those parts of the plant that are both critical and vulnerable and develop strategies to elevate or enclose them to resist storms and surges. DEP is currently conducting a detailed study of the effects of climate change and population growth on the City’s wastewater and drainage systems. This study initially focused on pilot areas of the City, namely the Hunts Point Wastewater Treatment Plant, eight pumping stations and a 16,377 acre drainage area within the Flushing Bay/Flushing Creek watershed, to assess the sensitivity of DEP’s infrastructure to future climatic conditions based on projections for sea level rise, storm surge, precipitation and temperature in 2050. In the aftermath of Sandy, DEP expanded this study to the areas most affected by Hurricane Sandy, and to validate interim study results based on actual impacts. In fact, we have installed signs indicating the high water mark reached during Sandy at each one of our plants. The expanded study will go beyond these affected areas to identify protections for critical assets citywide based on a cost-risk approach comparing the expected cost of taking no action and the cost of implementing specific adaptation strategies. This information will be part of the Special Initiative for Rebuilding and Resiliency launched by Mayor Bloomberg on December 6, 2012 and led by the New York City Economic Development Corporation and the Mayor’s Office of Long Term Planning and Sustainability to develop wastewater and water system recommendations.

I close by noting that Hurricane Sandy and climate change generally have implications for our regulatory partners. As DEP assesses the adaptation of our infrastructure to climate change, the benefits of investments in resiliency have to be prioritized along with existing regulatory requirements from the same – and limited – pot of money. Right now, for example, to improve our sewer and wastewater systems it is cities and utilities alone, and ultimately their ratepayers, who must come up with the necessary billions of dollars – that is $20 billion alone over the past 10 years just to meet regulatory requirements. As opposed to funding for transportation infrastructure, municipalities generally receive state and federal support only in the form of lower-interest loans for water and wastewater infrastructure that add to our overall debt burden and are paid for by user fees. (ARRA was a welcome departure from that practice.) If we are to continue to have affordable water and sewer service, DEP and other utilities must have the flexibility to address the risks of climate change, if those pose a greater threat than lower-ranking risks. Accordingly, we need our regulatory partners to work with us to set achievable goals based on a comprehensive and continuous review of scientific evidence and principles of risk management. New treatment mandates that do not take into account competing needs for hardening and resiliency in the face of extreme weather are not the kind of mandates that promote the sustainability that Mayor Bloomberg has encouraged us to focus on. As we in New York City know, sustainability is good for the future of New York City.

Thank you again for the opportunity to testify. I would be glad to answer any questions.

More Information

NYC Department of Environmental Protection
Public Affairs

59-17 Junction Boulevard
19th Floor
Flushing, NY 11373

(718) 595-6600