When it Rains in New York, it Pours Sewage

They say when it rains, it pours, but even if it’s just raining, you can bet New York’s streams, canals and harbors are filling with sludge, waste, and toxins. That’s because the city’s outdated sewer system, built haphazardly over decades as the city grew, combines storm water and raw sewage in one pipe, which overflows into surrounding waterways each time it rains. These Combined Sewer Overflows (CSOs), as they are called, are together the largest sources of pathogens in New York’s harbor. And while it may not be appetizing or polite to talk crap, the health of New York City’s humans, animals and ecosystems depends on understanding the problem—especially in gentrifying low-income neighborhoods on the waterfront.

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There’s perhaps no better or more obvious example of New York’s polluted waterways than the Gowanus Canal, which has long been the butt of jokes and, more recently, was designated as an EPA superfund site. This means that the canal, which has been home over the years to everything from cement plants, tanneries, gas manufacturing facilities and oil refineries, is one of the most polluted places in the entire country. And it fares no better when it comes to being inundated with excrement, with 337 million gallons of raw sewage flowing into the canal each year.

This means that the canal is a breeding ground for dysentery and gonorrhea, as well as carcinogens, heavy metals like lead and iron, and an arsenic count 60 times the level considered safe for humans.

And, as Gowanus becomes a hotspot for high-rise condos and other development, the problem could get even worse, placing even higher demands on the overburdened sewage system and exposing residents—many of whom are low-income and in public housing—to flooding and toxins.

So what can be done? Individuals can—and should—take action, of course, refraining from showering, doing laundry or running water when it’s raining. But it’s on local government to solve the systemic crisis. So far, New York has pledged 6 billion dollars to overhaul portions of the sewage system, separating stormwater and wastewater pipes and installing overflow reservoirs and neighborhood rain gardens to capture runoff. But the federal government needs to solve the underlying crisis as well—from the CSO issue to the toxic soup of chemicals left from years of industrial abuse. In fact, designating a superfund site means that the companies responsible for pollution take charge of remediation. But already, many of the 30 companies named as potential polluters are fighting back, with corporations from Con Edison to Chevron and Kraft trying to shrug off responsibility for cleanup. And in the Trump era, as the EPA guts funding for enforcing remediation projects; real estate scions like Jared Kushner eyeing and buying waterfront properties for condos, and the Justice Department collects 60 percent fewer fines from polluters than it did under Clinton, Bush and Obama, activists and residents are increasingly finding themselves up shit creek without a paddle.

Not that the project was ever moving swiftly. Since it was designation as a superfund site in 2010, cleanup has crawled and stalled, with pilot remediation beginning just a couple years ago. So far, the EPA has removed 17,000 cubic yards of contaminated sludge—known colloquially as black mayonnaise—from the certain sections of the canal and installed nearly a yard of filtration barriers to neutralize the remaining toxins. But the project has literally miles to go before it’s finished. Trump willing, the project is slated for completion in 2022. But even if the EPA keeps to schedule and reduces CSO overflow by the projected 34 percent, there will still be 132 million gallons of raw sewage flowing into the canal each year.  

Faced with these grim realities, New York will have to get creative about systemic solutions to its sewage crisis. It will have to consider how to reduce stormwater runoff in a city where 70 percent of land is covered in impermeable surfaces. It will have to make hard decisions about how much development it will allow near overstrained waterfront areas. And it will have to confront the volume of trash, pollution and waste that comes from industrial society—which means, more broadly, confronting industrial society itself.

Further learn about the Gowanus Canal and more on our final Environmental Justice in Gowanus tour of the season.

Ash Sanders