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Statement of DEP Deputy Commissioner of Operations Kathryn Garcia at a September 19, 2011 hearing of the Committee on Waterfronts of the Council of the City of New York concerning public notification of sewage discharges generally and related to the July 20, 2011 fire at the North River Wastewater Treatment Plant

September 19, 2011


Statement of DEP Deputy Commissioner of Operations Kathryn Garcia


Good afternoon Chairman Nelson and Council Members. I am DEP Deputy Commissioner of Operations Kathryn Garcia, I am joined this afternoon by colleagues from the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene.

Thank you for the opportunity to testify on public notification of sewage discharges generally and in the hours and days following the July 20, 2011, fire at the North River Wastewater Treatment Plant (or more simply, “North River”).  We are all grateful that there were no lives lost or serious injuries sustained by any members of the public who were nearby when the event occurred, DEP employees or contractors, or other city agencies who responded to the fire.   I want to acknowledge the rapid and effective response of our own employees, who followed protocol and immediately evacuated the building; and the FDNY which helped contain and put out a fire that could have been much more severe.  Although the impacts of the fire were unfortunate, the aftermath demonstrated that DEP’s talented and experienced workforce could respond rapidly, getting North River back into service as quickly as possible and keeping it functioning as the repairs continue. I would also like to note the work of our contractors, who came in to assist at a moment’s notice and were crucial to our efforts to restore the functionality of the plant under very challenging conditions.

For the benefit of those who are not familiar with DEP’s infrastructure, my statement begins with basic facts about New York City’s combined sewer system and water quality generally and the North River facility in particular.

Water Quality in New York Harbor

In order to explain the impacts of the July 20 fire, it is helpful to understand the operations of our combined sewers.  North River is one part of a robust treatment system that ensures that the 1.3 billion gallons of wastewater that New Yorkers and those who work in and visit the City generate every day is collected and treated before it is returned to New York Harbor.  The system consists of more than144,000 catch basins, 7,000 miles of sewer pipes, 95 wastewater pumping stations, 423permitted outfalls for the discharge of combined sewer overflows (CSOs), and 14 wastewater treatment plants located.  New York City has made substantial investments in this system – nearly $8 billion in harbor water quality investments since 2002 alone.  These investments include a $5 billion upgrade to the Newtown Creek Wastewater Treatment Plant, a $500 million upgrade to the Hunts Point Wastewater Treatment Plant, the construction of a new $437 million CSO Detention Facility in Paerdegat Basin, and more than $100 million in nitrogen control upgrades at 26th Ward, Coney Island, and Rockaway Wastewater Treatment Plants.  Just this year we reached a significant milestone, where all of our plants remove 85 percent of pollutants; North River averages about 95 percent removal.  This means that all sewage generated in the city on a dry-weather day is treated to full Clean Water Act standards.

Nevertheless, CSOs remain one of the greatest challenges to water quality in New York Harbor.  Because the sewer system in Manhattan and other parts of our city is combined, sanitary waste and storm water are both discharged into the same system of combined sewer pipes which carry the flow to sewage treatment plants.  This type of wastewater design is not unique to New York City. In fact, most cities in the Northeast and Midwest employ the same type of system.  This is a century-old issue, one that will take decades to address.  But we have made significant advancements – DEP has increased capture and treatment at our plants from 30% to 72% of overall CSO volume, and the concentration of sewage in combined overflows has dropped from 30% to 12%.  DEP’s most recent 10-year capital plan includes $1.7billion in sewer improvements and $931 million in other grey infrastructure to reduce CSOs plus $735 million for green infrastructure, part of our NYC Green Infrastructure Plan which will dramatically alter the way we handle CSOs.

The drop in overall overflow volume and in sewage concentration has resulted in lower loads of pollutants to our waterbodies.  New York Harbor is now the cleanest it has been in more than 100 years.  Harbor-wide concentrations of fecal coliform and enterococci are well below the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) Standards for bathing and recreational use.  For the second consecutive year on record, harbor-wide concentrations of dissolved oxygen both at the surface and bottom of the water column easily surpassed the State Bathing Class Standards.

Public Engagement and Notification

As water quality in New York Harbor has improved, more and more people are using the waterway for recreational purposes.  Despite New York Harbor’s resurgence, there can be water quality variation on a daily basis depending on tides, temperature, rainfall, the routine functioning of wastewater infrastructure, illegal discharges, and, of course, emergencies at sewage treatment plants.  Boaters, kayakers, swimmers, and marinas have become more and more interested in knowing how water quality shifts, especially in wet weather when parts of our combined sewer system will discharge.

It is critical to have dependable water quality data to track changes over time. That is why we continue to enhance our Harbor Survey Program.  Over the past two years DEP has increased the number of sampling stations throughout the Harbor from 55 in 2009 to 72 in 2011.  At each of these sites DEP collects data on more than 20 water quality parameters including key indicators such as concentrations of fecal coliform and enterococci bacteria, dissolved oxygen, chlorophyll ‘a’, and Secchi transparency.  Every year DEP publishes a report on water quality throughout the Harbor, and for the first time ever, DEP now posts recent and historical water quality data from the survey program online.

Between 1998 and 2010 DEP’s Bureau of Wastewater Treatment conducted the Shoreline Survey Program; a comprehensive survey of the shoreline that resulted in the identification of 3,894 outfalls, including 423 combined sewer outfalls.  As an enhancement and modification of the Shoreline Survey Program, DEP created the Sentinel Monitoring Program, in cooperation with DEC, to monitor specific sampling areas for fecal coliform in water bodies throughout New York City. Quarterly fecal coliform sampling is conducted at 80 stations, and the results are compared to an established baseline.  When sampling reveals coliform levels above the baseline trigger limits, DEP aggressively pursues field investigations and surveillance of the adjacent shoreline of such sentinel stations to determine the source and cause of the contamination. DEP then takes immediate actions to abate illegal discharges.

DEP has been enhancing its efforts to inform the public about how our system operates in wet weather.  Over the past year, DEP has organized quarterly meetings with a Green Infrastructure Steering Committee, made up of storm water advocates, environmental justice stakeholders, engineers, architects and developers.  These efforts will intensify as we enter into the very public process of adopting LTCPs, starting next year.

DEP has also been enhancing our ability to provide timely water quality information.  Since the passage of Local Law 5 of 2008 – which the Administration supported – DEP has taken the following actions to improve public notification, whether or not required under our permits:

  • We have replaced signs at all of our combined sewer outfalls at a cost of $1 million with new signs that not only meet the requirements of the New York State Department of Conservation, but are easier to read from a distance, have clearer warnings for wet weather events, and have graphic images that convey unambiguous warnings about recreational use to English and non-English speakers alike;
  • Created a Waterbody Advisory webpage showing real-time advisories for secondary contact for 25 waterbodies that is being continuously improved, including plans to integrate our water body advisories into the NotifyNYC system to allow users to request notifications about specific water bodies;
  • Posted water quality data online in advance of submitting reports to the state; and
  • Prepared, and are about to issue, a Request for Proposals for a system of real-time monitoring of the volume of combined sewer overflows, which will supplement and enhance our telemetering at over 100 outfalls that are close to beaches and other bathing areas.

As we continue to improve our communications with the public and the boaters, business owners and environmentalists who are most interested in our work, DEP will be able to make timelier or more frequent notifications about routine events as well as the emergencies such as the one we had at North River on July 20.

The North River Wastewater Treatment Plant

Of New York City’s fourteen wastewater treatment plants, North River was one of the last two to be built, the Red Hook plant (actually in the Brooklyn Navy Yard) being the last.   It serves a 6,000 acre area stretching from the northern tip of Manhattan to Bank Street in Greenwich Village, and from the Hudson River as far east as 5th Avenue that is occupied by nearly 600,000 New Yorkers and many commuters and other visitors every day.  North River was part of the City’s plans as early as 1914, was designed in the early 1970s, and was constructed in the late 1970s and early 1980s.  In March 1986, when North River began treating wastewater, the Hudson River for the first time ever stopped experiencing dry weather discharges of raw sewage from New York City.

From March 1986 until April 1991, North River performed primary treatment.  Primary treatment is essentially a physical treatment of wastewater that removes about 50% of the waste and pollutants from the water column, followed by disinfection to kill disease-causing organisms.  More advanced or “secondary” treatment began in April 1991.In secondary treatment, biological processes are used, whereby naturally-occurring microorganisms are cultivated in the treatment tanks to consume much larger amounts of organic wastes, more than 85%.  Secondary treatment allows for the use of lower volumes of disinfectants.

North River is unique among sewage treatment plants in this country in that it is built on a 28-acre concrete platform over the Hudson River and its roof is a park – Riverbank State Park – which includes three swimming pools, an amphitheater, an athletic center, a skating rink, a restaurant and sports fields.  The treatment plant has two above-ground levels that house equipment and tanks and two lower levels.  North River’s engine room, where the fire started on July 20th, is located on the upper level of the plant, immediately below the park.  The engine room houses five 1,700 horsepower engines that power pumps to lift raw sewage from the wet well at the lowest level of the plant 77 feet up to the level where treatment occurs. 

North River provides full secondary treatment of all the sanitary waste generated in its service area, which is, on average, approximately 125 million gallons per day (“MGD”).   In wet weather, storm water flows from the streets into the same combined sewers that are already carrying sanitary waste.  Although much of that combined flow is treated at North River, in some rainstorms the amount of rainwater flowing into the system exceeds the wet weather capacity of the plant, which is 340 MGD of combined storm and sanitary flow.  Devices within the sewer system called “regulators” will divert any flow above and beyond that capacity into the Hudson River through permitted outfalls, in order to protect the biological unit of the plant (the microorganisms that eat and destroy pollutants). 

The July 20th Fire

The fire at North River began in the engine room at about 11:45 a.m. on Wednesday, July 20.The cause of the fire is still under review.  As soon as the fire was identified, an alarm was sounded and employees were directed to evacuate the plant.   DEP informed Riverbank State Park managers who evacuated their facility.  In addition, in terms of potential community impacts, DEP put in place a network of ambient air monitors which verified that ambient air returned to normal background levels within a few hours after the fire was out.

The fire caused a shutdown of all of the plant’s five main sewage pump engines.  It was necessary to power down the plant to expedite extinguishing the fire.  The shutdown of the plant did not immediately trigger a discharge of sewage because of the storage capacity of the large-diameter sewers that collect waste and direct flow to the plant.   Even when North River is offline and not accepting flow, the sewer system can hold approximately 26million gallons of sewage before it “tips,” or discharges, into the Hudson River.   At approximately 5:15 p.m. on Wednesday, those large-diameter sewers began discharging untreated wastewater into the Hudson River from various outfalls along the Hudson River waterfront.

To reduce the amount of bacteria entering the Hudson River as a result of the discharges, on Thursday DEP began treating some of the overflowing sewage with chlorine at three disinfection stations set up at outfalls along the Hudson River.  Also on Thursday, in order to minimize the volume of discharge, DEP began pumping some of the wastewater from sewers in the North River drainage area over to the Wards Island drainage area, using a large pump at West 117th Street and Fredrick Douglass Boulevard.

The fire damaged one pump engine and caused extensive damage to the electrical wiring and systems servicing the other four pumps and other critical equipment in the plant.  But by working around the clock, DEP employees and contractors were able to restore sufficient engine capacity online to begin pumping down the accumulation of sewage in the collections system by 12:30 p.m. on Friday, July 22.  By 9:30 p.m. Friday evening, 52 hours after discharges started, no more raw sewage was being released to the Hudson River.  Our models predict that that between 215 and 260 MG of sewage was released while the pumps were inoperable.  At 5:00 a.m. on Saturday morning, July 23, Con Edison had to cut off electrical service because of an unrelated manhole fire that damaged a key feeder to the plant.  That resulted in another 10 MG of sewage being released into the Hudson River without treatment.  The problem was addressed that same day, and since July 23 North River has fully treated all dry weather flow.

Between Friday the 22 and Sunday the 24, North River was providing primary treatment and disinfection with chlorination.  On Monday July 25, the plant began to meet secondary treatment standards.  Because secondary treatment requires more equipment and more power than primary treatment, it came on-line later than the simpler primary treatment.

July 20 Public Notifications and Outreach

At the onset of the fire, DEP notified emergency responders at the New York City Fire and Police Departments and the Office of Emergency Management (OEM).  Shortly thereafter, North River managers began the plant’s evacuation and contacted staff at Riverbank State Park. Following these emergency notifications, DEP staff also notified colleagues at the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

DEP remained in contact with many of these agencies more-or-less continuously in the week following the fire.  DEP initiated daily or twice-daily calls with a wide group of governmental partners including not just City agencies but EPA, DEC, the New York State Health Department, and representatives from New Jersey, Rockland County, Westchester County and Nassau County. In particular, DEP benefited from the close collaboration and guidance offered by our colleagues at DOHMH and Parks.

On the afternoon of Wednesday, July 20thDEP staff began communicating with external stakeholders starting with elected officials and community boards in West Harlem. Beginning early Wednesday afternoon and extending for the next seven days, DEP community affairs staffers were onsite at the plant, providing updates via e-mail or phone with stakeholders. By Thursday, the stakeholder group was extended to environmental and recreational groups and, due to the emerging information on water quality impacts beyond West Harlem, to all community boards and all elected officials representing any part of New York City.  The citywide stakeholder group generally received e-mail alerts or press releases once or twice a day; West Harlem stakeholders generally were contacted more often either by e-mail, or phone, or, in some cases, in person.

The first press conference announcing the fire and the plant shutdown was held at approximately 3:00p.m.on Wednesday, July 20th, several hours before any sewage was discharged to the river. Both the initial press conference and the initial contacts between DEP staff and West Harlem stakeholders were dominated by issues of public safety, transportation, access to the City and State park facilities in the North River neighborhood, and water quality impacts. NYPD’s Harbor Unit was dispatched to the area surrounding North River to divert vessels, hand powered or otherwise, from the immediate arcade immediately put up an alert on its website which stated that North River was offline following a four alarm fire and that starting at 5:15 p.m. that day, untreated wastewater started to be directly discharged into the Hudson River.

That same night, DOHMH issued public health warnings advising against recreational activities such as swimming, canoeing, kayaking, windsurfing or any other water activity that would entail possible direct contact through at least Sunday.  The advisory applied to the Hudson River, the Harlem River, parts of the East River from the Robert F. Kennedy Bridge to Verrazano Bridge, and parts of the Kill van Kull to the Goethals Bridge.  In determining the extent and length of recreational use advisories, a number of factors were evaluated, including:  estimates on the total volume and duration of sewage that was being discharged, DEP’s efforts to stabilize North River plant operations; modeling of how the sewage plume would flow between tidal cycles within the Harbor, and sample results taken within the Hudson River and Upper Harbor. This information was posted online and added to 311 and later that night, a Notify NYC alert was distributed. Media publications like the NY Post, and WABC, included the prohibition against direct contact in their reporting as a result in their coverage.  It was also noted that consuming fish caught from these areas is not recommended for anyone until the pollution advisory is resolved. It was recommended that individuals catch and release fish back into the water.

Based on the DOHMH advisory, at 8:00 a.m. on Thursday, July 21st, Parks closed all of the City-operated kayak launches and notified its colleagues at the Hudson River Park Trust of that action and the reasons for it. At 9:30 a.m., Parks contacted New York Water Trails and their Steering committee to provide a general update and answer any questions. With respect to City-operated facilities, Parks has the clear ability to close the launches when their use would pose unacceptable risks to the kayakers. For facilities not operated by the City, where our authority is different, we informed the facilities of our decisions and the reasoning behind it. That morning, DEP staff personally called external stakeholders, including Riverkeeper and other environmental groups, to inform them of the public health advisory.

As, it became increasingly clear that the plant would not be in service at any time on Thursday, at 11:00 a.m. that morning, DEP held a press conference with OEM and DOHMH that was covered live on NY1.  City officials gave an update on the status of the plant and discussed the impacts to the Hudson River and DOHMH Commissioner Farley spoke about the risks of direct contact. That day, stories about the fire and the impact on public health were broadcasted and printed by NY1, NBC, CBS, ABC, FOX, Channel 11, WNYC, the New York Times, the New York Daily News, the New York Post, and many other media outlets. Throughout the day, city agencies and other governmental entities were in frequent contact with each other to discuss the available information and the decisions that should be taken.  

DOHMH staff, with the assistance of DEP, projected the impact of the releases using a model, the Regional Bypass Model, that has been agreed upon with DEC, EPA, and other authorities as an acceptable instrument for assessing the impacts of bypasses and dry weather discharges.

By 6:30 p.m. on Thursday, the regional bypass model predicted that the discharge may affect four City beaches, three in Staten Island and one in Brooklyn.  DOHMH, in collaboration with DEP and the other agencies, issued a press release containing the beach advisory and also repeating the recreational water advisory recommending that the public not swim at these beaches.  This release was distributed to all New York City elected officials, all New York City community boards, the NYC Water Trails, the U.S. Coast Guard and numerous other agencies in New York State and New Jersey.

In the days following the fire, DOHMH continued its beach monitoring program, which includes sampling for bacteria at beaches every day during the bathing season.  In addition, DEP intensified its Harbor Survey program by taking samples at 10 locations along the Hudson River.  Lab results from the field samples are available 24 hours later, and were used to assess the need for advisories, in conjunction with the regional bypass model.

By Friday morning, the beach advisory and other information related to the water quality impacts of the North River fire had been widely disseminated due to extensive coverage in the general media and email, Twitter, 311, and NotifyNYC.  On Friday, DEP staff continued its daily phone updates to West Harlem stakeholders on the status of plant repairs.

On Saturday, DEP conducted a press conference in Manhattan to provide the latest information. Throughout the weekend of July 23rd to 24th, DEP’s press office issued daily releases on the status of plant repairs which were then shared with all New York City elected officials and community boards.  Daily press releases continued to be issued until July 28th, when all health-related advisories were lifted. A final release went out on August 1st.

In the hours and days following the North River fire, DEP’s most urgent mission was to protect public health and safety by restoring the plant to its normal operating conditions.   Because time, and the agenda for this hearing does not allow for it, I have not discussed any lengthy discussion of the truly remarkable effort required to get enough equipment in operation at North River to restore and maintain treatment consistently.   Because of that effort, the water quality impacts and associated recreational use restrictions were much more limited than might otherwise have been the case.  DEP is very grateful to the employees and contractors who got North River up and running.

Thank you for the opportunity to present testimony.

More Information

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