Testimony of Vincent Sapienza, Commissioner, New York City Department of Environmental Protection, before the New York City Council Committee on Environmental Protection

October 26, 2020

Good morning, Chair Constantinides and members of the Committee on Environmental Protection. I am Vinny Sapienza, the Commissioner of the New York City Department of Environmental Protection (DEP). I am here today to speak about COVID-19 and nonwoven disposable products. These are important topics and I thank the Council for focusing on them. I am joined here today by Deputy Commissioner Michael Deloach from our Bureau of Public Affairs and Communication and Deputy Commissioner Pam Elardo and Director Dmitri Katehis from our Bureau of Wastewater Treatment.

Environmental Justice Impacts of COVID-19 Sewage Disposal

The first agenda item today is the environmental justice impacts of COVID-19 sewage disposal. Environmental justice is a critical factor of DEP’s mission to protect public health and the environment and we thank the Chair for his leadership in advancing environmental justice across the City. We carefully consider the public health, environmental, and social impacts of all DEP projects and operations, including the design and construction of our green infrastructure assets, the prioritization of waterbodies in our CSO Control Program and our affordability programs for rate payers. For our wastewater treatment programs we go above and beyond the discharge of clean treated water working to recover valuable resources, and reducing the amount of wastes that cannot be recycled or reused For example, we landfill about 70% of our biosolids, along with screenings, as well as an estimated 40–50,000 tons of scum (grease) per year that we collect in the treatment processes. While we are investing in, and planning to achieving 100% of beneficial use of biosolids, we are currently investigating adding scum to onsite digestion to increase production of valuable biogas for beneficial reuse.

There is no credible evidence that the coronavirus can be transmitted through wastewater exposure. This question has come up, so I want to answer it directly. Genetic material—RNA—from the virus can be detected in wastewater. This is different that infectious virus. In fact, the coronavirus breaks down in sewage more easily than other pathogens that we regularly treat for.

Intro. 1966-2020

The presence of the coronavirus in waste ties into Intro. 1966, which calls for a pilot program to test sewage for COVID-19 RNA. Sewage testing has the potential to identify COVID-19 outbreaks. We share the Council’s goal of having an effective testing program in the city.

Since the spring, DEP’s Bureau of Wastewater Treatment (BWT) has been implementing molecular monitoring techniques in sewage and coordinating with the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene (DOHMH). The work has the potential to identify hot spots and provide early warnings about disease spread. Similar programs have been established in other cities around the country and the world.

DEP has engaged with national experts to define the state of the science and assess the role that virus tracking can play. We are working directly with a team from The City University of New York and New York University, Stanford University, and the University of Michigan, and leading utilities from across the US to refine the sampling and analytical methods to track the genetic material (RNA) from the novel coronavirus in the City’s wastewater.

In the short term, the data collected will allow us to assess the trends in genetic material concentrations of the virus that causes COVID-19 within the sewage for each of NYC’s 14 sewersheds. Preparing for the long term, we are building protocols and infrastructure that can used in the future to monitor sewage for potential outbreaks of a number of viruses, such as common influenza. This tools that we are developing are not just useful for COVID.

The project included collecting samples from all 14 Wastewater Resource Recovery Facilities (WRRF) twice per week. Our testing covers every neighborhood in the city, because every neighborhood is part of a sewershed, as illustrated here:

Map of wastewater treatment plants

We are able to conduct the necessary analysis in-house at the Newtown Creek Microbiological Laboratory. At this stage, the analytical testing technology is well-developed but technical gaps still remain due to the multiple, multi-day steps, and labor intensive nature of the analysis. We are further refining the process and are in the process of procuring equipment such as additional centrifuges and analytical equipment.

DOHMH is early on in the process of determining how they may be able to use the information we send them, and how it may help with disease surveillance and decision making. Preliminary comparisons suggest that this may be a promising contribution to existing public health data streams.

We want to suggest some technical edits to the bill language in Intro. 1966, to align the bill with testing methods that are best suited for the work we are doing. We support the bill’s intent and thank the Council for supporting us in this effort.

Int. 244-2018

The final agenda item today is Intro. 244 of 2018, which relates to wipes being flushed into the sewer system. I want to thank you for moving this issue forward. As the Council is aware, flushing anything other than human waste and toilet paper can cause serious problems in the system. Foreign objects, like wipes, damage the equipment at the WRRFs and contribute to fatbergs that block sewer pipes. Even wipes that are labeled “flushable” should not be flushed.

Preventing items from being flushed is critical to protect City—and private—infrastructure. DEP spends nearly $19 million annually to remediate the damage these clog cause—cleaning clogged sewers, disposing of wipes, and repairing damaged machinery. The prevalence of wipes has increased significantly over the last decade. Over the same period, the sale of wipes has increased as well.

Citywide Monthly Total WRRF Screenings and WipesSales Revenue

We want to propose significant changes to the bill text, incorporating what we have learned and accomplished since the bill was introduced. The International Water Services Flushability Group (IWSFG), an international body of experts, established standards in 2018 to determine whether something is truly flushable. Changes to the City’s sewer regulations went into effect in March of this year. The rules now prohibit any item that does not meet the IWSFG standard from being discharged into the sewer system. These are important developments since this bill was introduced.

We launched the “Trash It. Don’t Flush It.” behavior change campaign last year. The campaign’s purpose was to inform people about what is flushable. The campaign targeted grease, wipes, and all other items besides toilet paper—everything that contributes to fatbergs. We relaunched this campaign from April to June of this year, to remind the public about this important issue. Unfortunately, we have not seen a significant change in wipes in the system.

DEP has been engaged in a multi-year, multi-prong effort to address the prevalence of wipes in our sewer system. We have made multiple public education attempts, including doubling down on public education at the onset of the pandemic. We changed the sewer use rules this year to prohibit flushing these items. Despite our efforts, we continue to see wipes and other debris in our pipes and at our WRRFs. We have been unsuccessful at eliminating the problem thus far, so we are grateful for the Council’s partnership on this issue.

Thank you again for the opportunity to testify today. My colleagues and I are happy to answer any questions that you have.