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About Town: The Scoop On The Hudson

NY and NJ issued warnings after last week's raw sewage spill into the river, but did anybody notice?

Last week the New York City Department of Environmental Protection (NYCDEP) issued warnings instructing people to avoid direct contact with the waters of the Hudson River due to a massive sewage spill that occured on Wednesday, July 20. According to officials, this sewage spill occurred after a four-alarm fire shut down a New York City wastewater treatment plant at 135th St. and 12th Ave.

According to the NYCDEP, the facility treats about 120 million gallons of wastewater daily. The malfunction caused millions of gallons of untreated sewage to spill into the Hudson between the time of the fire on Wednesday and Friday afternoon when the NYCDEP was able to restore the facility's damaged engines.

This spillage couldn’t have come at a worse time since temperatures soared to record levels last Thursday and Friday. The waters of the Hudson are still used recreationally for kayaking, canoeing, swimming, fishing and crabbing. The spillage suspended all water activity on the Hudson in order to protect people from exposure to harmful bacteria.

John Lipscomb, Captain of the Riverkeeper’s R. Ian Fletcher, told the New York Times that the odor in the water that surrounded the treatment plant smelled sweet because the spill was a mixture of feces, bathwater and dishwashing water.

“Part of what’s coming out is beauty products,” he said.

Along with Gregory O’Mullan, Assistant Professor of Environmental Microbiology at Queens College, Captain Lipscomb tested the water around the treatment facility to measure the levels of enterococcus, a bacteria found in the feces of people and many animals. The results were extremely high, according to the Times.

The NYCDEP performed its own testing that showed results much lower than those of the Riverkeeper because samples for those tests were taken from beaches and parts of the river not near the treatment facility.

Riverkeeper responded to this discrepancy in testing by issuing the following statement:

The DEP’s sampling showed much lower concentrations because the testing is done at beaches and in the center of the river. Riverkeeper’s sample results reinforce the need for timely public notification about the higher contamination levels in the near shore areas, in order to provide the highest level of protection of public health, since this is where much of the public uses the River.”

Captain Lipscomb went on to explain that what most people don’t realize is that sewage is not only released into the Hudson when there’s a specific treatment facility malfunction. Heavy rains can overwhelm the city’s pipe system resulting in the discharge of untreated sewage and storm water into the Hudson and other waterways.

After the heavy rains of May, Captain Lipscomb tested various parts of the Hudson River for contamination. Results showed that 15 of the 20 areas of the Hudson that he had tested violated federal water-quality standards.

The good news is that unlike other pollutants that find their way into the waters of the Hudson (mainly industrial debris such as scrap metal and other materials from cargo) sewage is organic and will naturally dissolve without any lasting effects.

The New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection also performed tests on the Hudson River to monitor the levels of bacteria and informed the public through statements to refrain from any recreational activities on the Hudson River, including swimming and crabbing.

However, as we strolled the banks of the Hudson Tuesday, from Edgewater to Fort Lee, we came across people dangling their feet in the water, and about 12 men, women and children casting crab nets and fishing poles into the murky waters. When asked if they felt safe eating what they caught due to the sewage spill, all were unaware that a health advisory warning against crabbing and fishing in the Hudson had been issued by the Department of Environmental Protection.

Four fishermen, who asked to remain anonymous, confirmed that there were no constant patrols warning people about the water’s safety.

Absent that, shouldn’t there have been larger signs erected at the places where people are known to crab and wade indicating the condition of the river? Even the New York Times reported that last Friday people were wading in the river near the Little Red Lighthouse beneath the George Washington Bridge.

At the entrance to Ross Dock, the Palisade Interstate Park Commission attached a copy of the health advisory notice to the parking booth, but unless you were looking for it, you’d drive right past the 8.5 by 11-inch notice. We did. It wasn’t until we asked the person collecting money about the condition of the river that they even pointed out the health advisory notice. We had to put our car in reverse to see it and had to stretch our neck out of the car window to read it.    

Even though the treatment facility is operational, the NYCDEP’s latest press release, dated July 25, still prohibits recreational activities on the river. As Patch reported, the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection issued an update late Tuesday

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