Sewage Dumped in Coney Island Creek, City Official Apologizes For Poor Notice

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Aerial photo of Coney Island Creek via the New York City Economic Development Corporation.

A representative from the Department of Environmental Protection has agreed that the City could have done a better job alerting area residents about illegal sewage dumping that created unsafe water conditions in Coney Island Creek this summer.

The admission, made by DEP’s director of stormwater management outreach, Mikelle Adgate, came at a Community Board 13 Environmental and Sanitation committee meeting last Tuesday night at Liberation Diploma Plus High School. The meeting focused on the City’s August 26th discovery that approximately 200,000 gallons of raw sewage were being illegally released into the Creek on a daily basis by 16 residential buildings, which caused fecal coliform levels to soar.

The two owners of the 16 buildings were aware that their wastewater systems were draining into local stormwater — not sanitary — mains, City officials said. The owners have repaired their plumbing systems, and will face penalties from the City and State.

[Important: there is a public meeting this week about possible ways to protect the Creek, and the entire Jamaica Bay watershed, from coastal storm surges. See below.]

Why did the City not publicize dangerous conditions in the Creek, residents asked last week, as they do when a public beach has been contaminated by a sewage overflow?

Community members and local elected officials said it was public knowledge that the 2-mile Creek, despite not being a designated swimming area, is well-used by residents, including children, fishermen, local churches who conduct baptisms in the Creek’s waters, and community groups who help to clean the Creek.

“It was incumbent on us to alert the council member and community board. We apologize,” Adgate said. “This is a work in progress,” she continued, referring to the City’s efforts to communicate with the community about conditions in the Creek.

What became clear at last week’s meeting is that the City and community members do not necessarily view the Creek in the same way. As one resident noted, “the City needs to re-think their health code. People do swim in Coney Island Creek, despite what the City says.”

It was unclear from Tuesday night’s meeting whether City officials had flagged high fecal counts in the Creek before August 26th; nor was it clear if they had a sense of how long the raw sewage releases had been taking place. The City said they contacted State authorities as soon as they confirmed the releases, and an alert was issued on August 26th by the State Department of Environmental Conservation.

The State DEC manages a water quality alert system which notifies subscribers by phone, email or text of potential health and safety issues.

A representative from the state DEC was also present at Tuesday night’s meeting.

Councilman Mark Treyger and Assemblywoman Pamela Harris, who were at Tuesday’s meeting, both stated they never received an alert from the State. They asked City and State officials why no one thought to pick up a phone and simply call a local official or community board member and alert them of the situation.

Or, as a number of community members pointed out, why not just post public signs warning residents of high fecal counts?

Illegal sewage releases into the Creek continue. On November 1st, the State DEC issued an alert that two 2-family homes on West Street have been releasing untreated sewage, at an estimated rate of 0.56 gallons per minute, into a storm main that drains into Coney Island Creek.

City Data Shows High Fecal Counts Throughout 2016
The City tests water quality several times a month in the various waterbodies within the greater New York Harbor, including Coney Island Creek. Those sampling results are published on-line.

According to the City’s data, the fourth highest fecal count for all of New York City’s waterbodies in 2016 (to date) was recorded at Coney Island Creek on July 13th. The count was 151,000 fecal units (per 100mL).

If we are understanding the City’s data correctly, that figure is 75 times the City’s guidelines for for class I water bodies like Coney Island Creek, which are intended for fishing and boating, not swimming.

According to the DEP, over the course of a month, the mean fecal count for a class I water body should be less than or equal to 2,000 cells/100mL. But disturbingly, as recently as October 12th, an area in the Creek registered a fecal count of 126,000 coliform units (per 100mL).

Fecal counts at CIC2, one of the the Creek’s sampling points, varied wildly this year, ranging from 33,000 (per 100mL) in January to only 570 in May, and then back up to 57,000 in June.

We’ve asked the DEP if we are understanding these sampling numbers correctly and are awaiting for their response.

Creek Used As A Receptacle For Area Stormwater Releases
Trying to isolate what could be causing high fecal counts in Coney Island Creek is made infinitely harder by the fact that there are at least 10 outflow points from City stormwater drains, along with one outflow from a combined (sewage and stormwater) main, into the Creek.

The City says that a whopping 1.4 billion gallons of untreated stormwater — containing trash, oil and other pollutants — are released into the Creek annually.

There are also privately owned stormwater outflow points into the Creek, which the City says it is trying to map. And as Eddie Mark, District Manager of Community Board 13, noted, there may be more stormwater draining into the Creek from the MTA yards and NYCHA developments nearby.

The lack of complete information about what is entering the Creek has frustrated some residents. “We can’t make heads or tails from these [City] documents as to what is going into the Creek, and where it’s coming from,” said resident and activist, Ida Sanoff at last week’s meeting.

An additional 75 million gallons of untreated sewage and stormwater is released annually into the Creek from the combined sewer outflow point. Combined sewer overflows occur when rainwater overwhelms sewer mains and local treatments plants.

The City says that it is working to reduce the amount of raw sewage and stormwater releases into the Creek through both “grey” infrastructure (the new Avenue V pumping station), and “green” infrastructure that absorbs rainwater (such as bioswales, green roofs and permeable paving).

The stormwater and raw sewage releases into the Creek have led Community Board 13 and some local officials to ask whether the Creek could be declared a Superfund site. Decades of industrial pollution, from abandoned ships, a dye factory, and Brooklyn Union Gas (National Grid) facilities, severely degraded the Creek, and the situation is only being worsened by bacterial contamination, Mark said.

“We want to see the same kind of justice that Gowanus has,” Councilman Treyger said at Tuesday’s meeting, referring to the Gowanus Canal’s 2010 designation as a federal Superfund site.

Public Meeting In Coney Island This Wednesday
On Wednesday evening, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers will discuss proposals to protect the entire Jamaica Bay watershed area — including Coney Island — from storm surges and coastal flooding. City officials will also be present.

According to Community Board 13, the Corps may discuss a possible storm barrier for Coney Island Creek at this meeting. The City’s Economic Development Corporation completed a resiliency study of Coney Island Creek earlier this year which discussed storm barriers.

Eddie Mark said that it is very important that Coney Island residents be present at the meeting; Councilmember Treyger and others have raised concerns that a storm barrier in the wrong location could trap pollution in the Creek, “creating a cesspool effect.”

The meeting will be held this Wednesday, 6pm, at Liberation Diploma Plus High School, located at 2865 West 19th Street.

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