Gotham Gazette

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Citizens Union


Recycling Food Scraps Could Transform How NYC Deals With Its Trash


NEW YORK — In the eleventh hour of his administration, Mayor Michael Bloomberg is leaving a transformative mark on a part of city life that is often overlooked — the waste we produce every day.

By pushing for the composting of organic waste — such as food scraps — through a pilot program and supporting other innovative recycling efforts, the mayor is posing a challenge to his successor: Will the person who succeeds him make New York City a truly sustainable city that finally recycles more than it throws away?

No matter who becomes mayor, organic waste recycling has a strong ally: the City Council. The Council passed legislation on Thursday that would mandate continuation of the organi waste pilot project for another two years.

The bill, sponsored by Councilwoman Deborah Rose of Staten Island, also requires the sanitation commissioner to issue a report in October 2015 that includes a “plan for implementing a citywide residential organic collection program and a schedule for expanding the program to additional areas in the city.”

The question of whether — and how — to expand organic waste recycling citywide is a key question facing the next administration. And the next mayor will face other challenges with the trash the city produces — such as how to assert more authority over the city’s massive commercial waste stream, which is not directly controlled by the Department of Sanitation.

In spite of the hurdles, environmentalists and waste policy experts have praised the moves by the mayor and the Council to embrace organic waste recycling.

“This is the opening of what could be a very dramatic change in how we deal with a large portion of our waste,” said Eric Goldstein, New York City environment director at the Natural Resources Defense Council. “On the issue of solid waste and recycling, the administration started slowly but it’s finishing strongly.”

“All eyes are on New York,” said Samantha MacBride, the city’s former deputy director of recycling and now assistant public policy professor at Baruch College. Organic waste recycling, she said, is the “holy grail of sustainable waste management in my view.” But there are substantial barriers and challenges to getting it right, she said. “New York City is so much denser than any other city in the country.”


The introduction of the organic waste recycling program into New York City households this May is part of an effort to double the city’s recycling rate to 30 percent by 2017. According to the city, this follows the “largest expansion of the recycling program in 25 years with the processing of all rigid plastics that began last spring.”

While the city has been criticized for its 15 percent recycling rate relative to cities like San Francisco, MacBride said that New York compares favorably to other post-industrial cities like Chicago and Philadelphia. She also argued that when San Francisco’s recycling rate is calculated in the same manner as New York’s — by looking at residential recycling only — San Francisco currently stands at 30 percent.

The mayor’s office says organic waste (food scraps, paper towels and napkins, yard material, etc.) is a significant part — over 35 percent — of New York City’s residential waste stream. The city has also launched recycling programs for materials (metal, glass, paper, plastic, food waste, textiles and electronics) which account for 80 percent of the total residential waste stream.

To date, only metal, glass, paper and plastic have citywide, curbside pick-up. This, along with the fact that New Yorkers recycle about half of what the city will pick up from their homes, helps to explain the city’s overall 15 percent recycling rate, MacBride said. Expanded recycling of food waste, textiles and electronics recycling could help increase that overall percentage significantly.

“The ultimate vision is to provide New Yorkers with the infrastructure and a convenient way to recycle everything in their home,” Deputy Commissioner for Recycling and Sustainability Ron Gonen said. “We should be able to divert 80 percent of our waste stream. By October, some areas of the city will have the infrastructure and resources to do this.”

In late September and October, the city plans to expand curbside organics collection to ten additional neighborhoods in the Bronx, Brooklyn and Staten Island.

The city is also encouraging apartment buildings with 10 units or more to sign up for on-site collection of electronics, clothing and textiles. The city describes e-cycleNYC, its electronics recycling initiative, as “the most expansive electronics waste recycling collection service in the United States.”

For smaller buildings, the city organizes annual drop-off events in every borough for various types of hazardous waste, including electronics. Starting in 2015, it will be illegal to discard electronics in the trash. Likewise, drop-off sites for clothing and textiles exist at 26 of the city’s Greenmarkets.

Gonen added that it will be equally important to find alternatives for materials sold and used in New York City — like polystyrene foam — that cannot be recycled and must go to a landfill.

A large part of the city’s motivation is economic. Gonen said that landfill costs had become prohibitive. Last year, it cost New York City taxpayers $336 million to deposit their residential waste in Ohio, Pennsylvania, and South Carolina landfills. Gonen explained that it currently costs $86 per ton to send paper to a landfill, as opposed to $10 per ton to recycle it. Metal, glass and plastic are also cheaper to recycle than bury, he said.

There is also the potential to use organic waste for energy production. The city already turns sewage sludge into methane, or natural gas, at its Newtown Creek wastewater treatment plant in Brooklyn. The same process used at that plant, called anaerobic digestion, could be applied to organic food and yard waste, Gonen said.

“The economic benefits are very obvious. But you have to do it at scale,” he added.

Goldstein said the city was acting now to “get control of future sanitation costs.” But city taxpayers will need to make an upfront investment first.

“In their pilot stages they [the Department of Sanitation] collect tiny amounts that cost a great deal … on a per ton basis,” MacBride noted. She said that the quantity of organic material collected by the city had to be increased so that costs were “comparable for those that are charged for refuse and recycling collections.” Otherwise, she said, “the organics program will never be more than a symbolic little project”.

According to budget documents prepared by the Department of Sanitation, the export of the city’s waste is second only to trash collection and street cleaning as the department’s greatest expense. Export costs were projected to increase by almost $27 million between 2013 and 2014. At the same time, the city allocated $36.7 million for waste prevention, re-use and recycling in fiscal year 2014, which represents 3 percent of the department’s $1.4 billion budget.

Some critics have said that widespread expansion of organics recycling will cost the city in higher labor costs, but the head of the Uniformed Sanitation Men’s Association, Harry Nespoli, said that the city’s need to transport solid waste would drop as organics collection expanded. Nespoli, who represents over 6,000 city sanitation workers, said that, overall, the program “was working very well.”

After starting as a pilot project in 90 public schools, the organic waste recycling program is now being tested in the Westerleigh section of Staten Island, and in two Manhattan high-rise developments, the Helena and Morningside Gardens.

The Department of Sanitation has reported a 50 percent voluntary participation rate in Westerleigh since residents began recycling food waste in May. In Morningside Gardens, a 980-unit complex, the city says the total weight of trash has dropped by 35 percent and households are recycling about one pound of food scraps each day.

By 2014, the program is to have expanded into 19 more neighborhoods — covering 100,000 households — in Brooklyn, the Bronx, Queens and Staten Island.

MacBride said that the real challenge for the program is whether it can be successfully implemented in high-rise buildings. “It’s very hard to get this to work in an apartment building,” she said, adding that the “anonymity of apartment life” had proven to be a deterrence.” She also questioned whether there would be cultural resistance to separating and handling food waste amongst residents.

But at Morningside Gardens, “the general sense of the residents is very supportive,” said Russell Jermyn, the six-building complex’s general manager. He said that an outside area had been set up at the complex where residents could drop off their food waste at any point. Jermyn estimated that 55 to 60 percent of the units were participating and he was hopeful that percentage would increase.

Gonen said that it was too early to think about mandating all New Yorkers separate their organic waste, as is done with glass, metal, paper and plastic, in order to make it cost-effective.

“We need to give the program two years,” he said, adding that, “We also expect the next administration to look at the dollars and cents.” There are, he said, “tens if not hundreds of millions of dollars to be saved, and jobs to be created.” An example of the type of jobs that could be created can be found in Sunset Park, Brooklyn, where anew recycling facility will create 100 permanent jobs, for instance, the city’s Economic Development Corporation said.

Nespoli agreed that requiring New Yorkers recycle organic waste was not the right strategy at present. “You’re going to have real cooperation from certain areas,” he said. “None from other areas.”

And despite the challenges involved, MacBride said that the long-term benefits of expanding organics recycling were too great for the city to ignore. “The more recycling there is, the less the cost. The upfront investment in collection is something that can be moved through. You can’t just go from zero to 10 — you have to be willing to bear the upfront costs,” she said.


If the city is able to significantly reduce the amount of residential waste heading to landfills, can the next mayor push the commercial sector in the same direction? After all, city residents generate 11,000 to 12,000 tons of trash per day; private businesses produce roughly twice that amount.

Put another way, roughly two-thirds (over 20,000 tons daily) of the waste produced in New York City comes from private businesses. Goldstein observed that “historically, the city has had less control and knows less about what is happening” with private sector waste management.

Commercial waste is taken by private carters to waste transfer stations, which are monitored by the city, for eventual shipment to out-of-state landfills. Businesses are required to separate paper, metal and some types of construction waste from their trash, and food service companies are also supposed to separate glass and plastic. Gonen said that the city was completing an analysis of the commercial waste stream this fall, including an estimate of how much of it is recycled.

The last analysis, which was released in 2004, found that the lion’s share of the city’s commercial waste stream was building and construction-related material .

Gonen said that the city was encouraging the commercial sector to follow the lead of the city’s residents as they expand what they recycle. He said that companies like Durst and Whole Foods had already moved ahead in doing so.

Goldstein observed that “it’s been easier to modify the behavior in the residential waste stream. These are hard changes to make because you’re asking everyone to modify for long-term environmental and economic benefit.” But, he added, “There’s no reason why the commercial and business sector shouldn’t be advancing in lock-step with the residential side.”

Mark Jaffe, the CEO of the Greater New York Chamber of Commerce, said that commercial sector organics recycling was not unimaginable. “This seems like something for the future,” he said, adding that, “maybe it’s time to revisit the [existing] commercial recycling law.”

Goldtsein said that the state of Massachusetts would soon be requiring businesses, like restaurants and grocery stores, to separate their organic waste. He said the same could be done in New York, especially now that a growing number of city residents and public school children are participating in the organics pilot.

The environmental justice movement is also taking a harder look at commercial recycling. Eddie Bautista, executive director of the New York City Environmental Justice Alliance, said that now that the city was developing enclosed marine transfer stations that could process residential and commercial waste, local communities would start to press the city to reduce the volume of waste accepted at land-based waste transfer stations.

That capacity reduction would require an ongoing drop in commercial solid waste, he said.

The long-term goal, Bautista said, has been to reduce the impact of waste transfer stations on local communities. Bautista said that the city’s 2006 solid waste management plan anticipates that the commercial sector will start to use the marine transfer stations once a new regulatory and pricing system can be developed.

But Bautista said that an overhaul of the city’s waste management infrastructure was essential before issues like recycling could be tackled. Almost all of the city’s residential recycling waste will eventually be barged from a network of private and public marine transfer stations to a newly constructed “state of the art material recovery facility” in Sunset Park’s South Brooklyn Marine Terminal. The facility will be operated by Sims Metal Management, which processes all of the glass, metal and plastic collected by the city for re-use.

“This is not garbage — they are materials,” said Bautista. “It’s a zero-waste vision.”

MacBride argued that what will ultimately determine how much commercial waste is recycled are the markets for recycled materials. “By and large, it’s market forces that are pushing valuable materials out of the waste stream.” In terms of private sector recycling, she added, “all in all, it looks like the market is doing its job.”

She said that the city’s recent move to recycle rigid plastics was a “worthless, feel good endeavor,” arguing that the markets for these types of plastics was weak, while the markets for paper and metal were consistently strong.

While the city was not available to comment on MacBride’s assertion, a March report by Resource Recyling, Inc., found that “a robust and growing market for mixed rigid plastics had emerged in the past five years.” But the Portland, Ore.-based publisher of recycling industry journals also highlighted concerns about the consistency and stability of end markets for rigid plastics.

Nespoli and Gonen said those who question the future viability of the city’s recycling programs only have to look at the “organized” theft of materials set out for recycling to see the economic potential that exists. Nespoli said that the theft of paper and metal left on the street for city collection was “widespread without a doubt.” “We don’t have enough sanitation police — we see the trucks, we take down plate numbers, and we turn it into the department,” he said.

In response, the City Council has passed legislation that increases the fines for the theft of recyclables.

Bloomberg’s approach to waste appears to have moved beyond financial calculations. The mayor’s suspension of curbside residential recycling in 2002 for city budget reasons was widely criticized at the time. Goldstein said that the city now linked waste disposal to its broader sustainability goals.

“There’s also recognition that the city’s policy of exporting waste to landfills generates a lot of greenhouse gases,” he said. But, perhaps more importantly than ever, he said, “the city is thinking about the mayor’s environmental legacy.”

Council Bill Aims To Keep Bags Out Of The Trash


NEW YORK — In an effort to cut down on waste, City Council members and environmental advocates say they want to impose a 10 cent charge on each carryout bag.

Proponents of the bill that was announced earlier today say it will create a citywide incentive to reduce the use of plastic and paper carryout bags. But an industry group said the mandatory fee was a new tax and that it was unlikely that the proposed law would benefit the environment.

Councilman Brad Lander, one of the co-lead sponsors of the bill, said he believes the legislation was based on a tried-and-tested, commonsense approach to reducing “bag waste in New York City by at least 60 percent in a way that works for the environment and works for the city.”

While several cities around the country have banned plastic bags with varying degrees of success.

Under the proposed City Council law, restaurants that rely on take-out and food delivery, as well as food stamps recipients, would be exempt. Some street vendors would also be exempt, unless they sell what a grocery store or retailer sells.

The American Progressive Bag Alliance, an industry lobbyist group, said it opposes the bill and argues that reusable bags are just as wasteful as carryout bags. Mark Daniels, chair of the APBA, said in a statement that lawmakers should “consider the facts and concentrate on meaningful legislation to boost proper reuse and disposal of grocery bags.”

In 2008, the city implemented a law that requires larger retailers and wholesale stores to establish an in-store recycling program for plastic bags; however, a state law adopted in 2009 superseded it with a similar in-store recycling program.

Speaking to those efforts at plastic bag use reduction, Landers said recycling is an ineffective solution. “We just, it turns out, don’t bring them back,” he said. “We either throw them away because it’s easier or they wind up blowing off the cart.”

Mayor Michael Bloomberg proposed a similar carryout bag fee in 2008 — for 6 cents rather than 10 — but it was defeated by the City Council. Lander said the difference between the new legislation and what the mayor proposed equated to a tax, with the city collecting the revenue rather than the stores.

The bill is co-sponsored by Councilwomen Margaret Chin, who along with Councilwoman Gale Brewer attended today’s press conference. Advocacy groups Bag It NYC, the New York League of Conservation Voters, Citizens Committee for New York City, among others, were also well represented.

Peter Kostmayer of CCNYC, one of the nation’s oldest micro-funding organizations, said he finds strong support from communities around the city.

“There’ll be some opposition and that’s to be expected,” he said

Jamaica Bay As A Lab For Studying Climate Change


NEW YORK — Jamaica Bay, the city’s largest wetland and open space, could be critical to the ongoing sustainability of the metropolis. The Bay’s marshes help to break waves from major storms and absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. The Bay is also a refuge for hundreds of local and migratory species.

While the Bay was already a focus of the city’s sustainability efforts, the devastation wrought by Hurricane Sandy highlighted the need to maintain and strengthen the city’s natural defenses against rising sea levels.

“Wetlands are among the most biologically productive ecosystems in the world; they also can dissipate the destructive energy of wave action during storm conditions,” Daniel Zarrilli, the city’s director of resiliency, said in an email last week. “Expected sea level rise and the increased frequency of the most intense storms associated with climate change will make this function even more important in the future.”

In recognition of the Bay’s significance, Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Interior Secretary Sally Jewell announced Aug. 12 that a new Science and Resilience Institute will focus on the 18,000-acre estuary. A consortium of academic and other institutions, led by the City University of New York, will conduct research on “resilience in urban ecosystems and their adjacent communities.”

Bloomberg made mention of the Institute in his weekly radio adress on Sunday, saying, “We expect [the] Institute’s work will do a lot to help reduce dangers to our city from future storms, and help other cities around the world confront the challenges of climate change, as well.”

The focus of the research will be the restoration of the Bay and its marshlands and islands. Hundreds of acres of intertidal marshlands in Jamaica Bay have been lost since 1974, and the rate of loss appears to be accelerating, according to the state’s Department of Environmental Conservation. Approximately 40 acres are lost per year. Possible reasons for marshland loss include dredging and erosion, excessive nitrogen and other nutient levels, and sea level rise.

The city also said that a public-private partnership — the Jamaica Bay-Rockaway Parks Conservancy — had been created to “raise funds for the planning and development of the Jamaica Bay-area parklands and waters.”

The conservancy will be chaired by billionaire Thomas Secunda, the global head of Bloomberg Financial Products and Services and one of the founding partners of Bloomberg L.P. Secunda chairs the National Parks Conservation Association. The conservancy board is to include representatives from nonprofits, such as former Parks Commissioner Adrian Benepe, now with the Trust for Public Land.

As the city confronts the growing impacts of climate change, planners are taking a deeper look at the the city’s relationship with its natural environment. Technology and hard infrastructure will be able to mitigate the effects of climate change to a certain extent. But natural systems will also play a large role in protecting the city, and making it livable as conditions become more extreme.

As much as Jamaica Bay can provide coastal protection and a link to nature for New Yorkers, it is also one of the city’s connections to the global ecosystem. According to the city’s Department of Environmental Protection, the Bay is a “critical” stopover area for birds on the Atlantic flyway, an “avian superhighway” stretching from Canada to Mexico.

Jamaica Bay is also a stop for migratory butterflies, like the monarch, and supports other seasonal and year-round species like the piping plover, osprey, peregrine falcon and seabeach amaranth.

Zarrilli said the Institute will play a “central role” in advancing many of the initiatives detailed in the city’s climate change resiliency plan released in June.

“The Institute will have the scientific capabilities to provide research and analysis of many of the phase 1 coastal protection initiatives,” he said. “Our plan specifically calls out the study of innovative coastal protection techniques.”

Zarrilli said that research at the Bay would allow the city to understand the efficacy of its resilience planning going forward.

“The basic premise of using natural protections such as wetlands requires more in depth study to understand the exact parameters where those measures work best,” he said. “Successful evaluation and monitoring of our phase 1 initiatives can lead to further expansion of specific coastal protection techniques.”

Study and restoration of the Bay and its marshes will also provide valuable information on the sustainability of local ecosystems. The American Littoral Society, a nonprofit organization that works to protect coastal habitats, has called the Bay “the most intact remnant of what was once a thriving estuarine ecosystem throughout the city” despite pollutants.

Home to 91 species of fish and 325 bird species (62 of which breed locally), the Bay is also “an important habitat for many species of reptiles, amphibians and mammals, ” according to the city’s DEP.

It is also part of the greater Gateway National Recreation Area, which encompasses some 26,000 acres in New York and New Jersey.

David Avrin, chief of resources for Gateway National Recreation Area, called the Bay a “living laboratory” and “environmental oasis.”

Avrin said that the Bay’s marshes — beyond offering protection from storms and absorbing carbon from the atmosphere — also provide a nursery area and food source for fish, such as flounder and bluefish.

He said the marshes in the Bay and around the country have been deteriorating for reasons that remain undeterermined.

“Marshes have to be able to respond to sea level rise—they are restricted to the amount of water they can tolerate,” he said. “How are all the marshes in the world going to respond? In a normal situation, marshes retreat upland. [Here] there is no option. They cannot retreat. That is the kind of research that will happen at this Institute.”

At least 150 acres of Jamaica Bay’s marshland have been restored over the last eight years, but Avrin said there was “a long way to go.”

Avrin maintained that Jamaica Bay — while “operating fairly well” — feels the ongoing impact of its location next to a huge metropolitan area. He said that at least four wastewater treatment plans currently release effluent into the Bay’s waters. The area is also the planned site for a natural gas pipeline project, which will extend from the Rockaway coast, underneath the Bay, and into Brooklyn. Construction on the cross-Bay lines began in March.

Last October’s hurricane also took a toll on the ecosystem. Residents reported that large amounts of fuel oil and debris entered the Bay as a result of the storm, and that two freshwater ponds were breached. The Rockaway coastline — which shields the Bay — was slammed by a 14-foot storm surge.

The Science and Resilience Institute will be formally established by the fall, with a temporary location at Brooklyn College.

Forgotten Coney Island: A Post Hurricane Sandy Tour


NEW YORK — On Neptune Avenue in Coney Island, state Sen. Diane Savino and a group of community activists walked a cracked and broken sidewalk on a recent day this summer — taking a tour of damage that remains nearly a year after Hurricane Sandy pummeled some of the city’s notable coastal neighborhoods.     

At one point, the group stopped to look past a contorted chain-link fence at a massive sinkhole filled with bags of trash, milk cartons and diapers. The crevasse yawned with fault lines that zigged and zagged onto the sidewalk and towards the street. It looked to be growing.

“That thing goes down a ways,” said Ken Jones, a longtime community activist, referring to the sinkhole. “It’s probably right under the sidewalk.” The fact that it has apparently been used on more than one occasion as a dump only added to the activists’ concern that no one — not the state, not the city — is paying enough attention to their neighborhood.

Only a few blocks down from the amusement district, where the sounds of the frolicking beachgoers and carnival games have come back with renewed vigor after the neighborhood's near-cataclysmic meeting with the superstorm, there is a different Coney Island that most tourists and beach goers don’t see.

This is the Coney Island that continues to struggle to return to normalcy. The Coney Island where parks and playgrounds remain fenced off because of sinkholes or other damage done by last year’s storm. The Coney Island where public housing tended by the New York City Housing Authority is wrapped in scaffolding and chain link fence; and where the library won’t reopen until October. The Coney Island where the local hospital isn’t operating at full capacity and where temporary structures containing furnaces and other critical infrastructure are still in full use.

“They say Coney Island is open for business. Sure, the entertainment district is, but no one talks about the parts of Coney Island where people actually live. They don’t talk about the neighborhoods,” said Ed Cosme, a resident who formed The People’s Coalition of Coney Island to raise awareness about the problems in the parts of the neighborhood that don’t normally draw tourists and bathers.  

It’s there, in those neighborhoods, that advocates on the July 8 tour of Coney Island said residents continued to struggle with the impact of the hurricane.

“We’ve got a bookmobile a few times a week instead of a library,” Jones said. “We got a mobile clinic instead of a hospital. This isn’t cutting it.” He carried in his hands a binder full of pictures of every sinkhole he has spotted — over a dozen — as well as fenced off playgrounds. He wanted the group to see as many of these spots as possible.

Some relief for the neighborhood could be at hand. Coney Island is eligible to receive over $6 million through the state’s “Storm Communities” plan announced by Gov. Andrew Cuomo on July 18. The program aims to address damage leftover from the hurricane that washed through the region on Oct. 29, 2012.

In the meantime, advocates say they are trying to draw attention to the needs of the community.

Councilman Domenic Recchia, whose district includes Coney Island, said he has been in contact with multiple city agencies that are working together to study the sinkhole problem in particular.

“They are trying to find out why we are having this problem,” Recchia said. “It isn’t clear if the earth is moving or the sand got pushed out from under the pavement by the flood. But I know it is a problem for a lot of people. They are getting them in their driveway or backyards. I get calls about it all the time.”

The Bloomberg administration’s recent report on the impacts of Sandy described how the area that is now Coney Island was developed from an island and a series of wetlands into the mostly-paved area we know today.

“The peninsula that now contains Coney Island and three other Southern Brooklyn neighborhoods was once an actual island,separated from the mainland by Coney Island Creek and reachable only at low tide,” the report said. “The entire area was a collection of wetlands, tidal marshlands, bays, inlets, creeks, and barrier islands — first the fishing grounds of the Lenape people and then part of a quiet farming community.”

The report goes on to describe how, during Hurricane Sandy, flood waters reached up to 10 feet in places like Neptune Avenue. Perhaps most striking is how drastically Sandy altered Coney Island’s beaches: The storm is credited with moving 272,000 cubic yards of sand. “At Ocean Parkway, for instance, waves pushed thousands of tons of sand northward, with water traveling 1.5 miles north to Avenue W, joining floodwaters from Sheepshead Bay and Coney Island Creek,” the report read.

Advocates and politicians alike speculate that flooding from Sandy also moved the sand and earth under the pavement, resulting in the sinkholes they see around western Coney Island.

Representatives for both the Department of Transportation and the Department of Environmental Protection said they have not received many complaints about potholes or sinkholes in western Coney Island.

DEP spokesman Christopher Gilbride said that sinkholes were a problem immediately after the storm because of broken water lines but he said there haven’t been problems reported since then. He noted that sinkholes are either caused by a broken water main or through erosion of dirt or sand under roads —  which is exactly what advocates say they are concerned about.

Savino’s office said they have made repeated calls about potholes, sinkholes — or whatever you want to call them — and some of the holes have been patched with asphalt only to reopen bigger than before. Savino’s office is working with Jones and Recchia’s office to compile a master list of all the holes around western Coney Island and to present it to the DOT and DEP.

But it isn’t just the sinkholes that have residents concerned that their part of Coney Island is being ignored. Looking past the massive sinkhole on Neptune Avenue, the tortured skeleton of a wooden dock uprooted and smashed by Hurricane Sandy could be seen. A number of boats remained lifted out of the water, stranded on rocks, water-damaged and rotting. “No one has claimed them yet?” Savino asked rhetorically.

The owners are likely long gone. Just like the proprietors of the closed Chinese food restaurant and bodega across the street. “They were just hanging on before Sandy,” Savino said. “They were already in debt. After that storm, another loan wasn’t going to save them.”

Aida Leon is the executive director of the Amethyst Women’s Project, a group that helps women struggling with substance abuse, domestic violence and HIV/AIDS.

As the tour of Coney Island progressed, she said she was concerned that established charitable organizations had been ignored by the larger groups that came in with funding to address problems caused by Sandy.

“They haven’t been on the ground like we have,” she said. “We lost a lot of people after Sandy. They didn’t come back to the programs and I don’t think they are coming back because the people with funding don’t know how to reach them.”

As the group of community advocates led by Savino continued their tour around Neptune, Mermaid and Surf avenues, it became clear that life for most residents here is far from normal.

Housing Authority properties like the 597-unit Surfside Gardens and 573-unit O’Dwyer Gardens were surrounded in metal fencing and scaffolding, each individual playground and park on the properties sealed off by chain-link fencing. Only a cursory glance revealed the likely reason: more sinkholes erupting underneath concrete at the bottom of slides, near merry-go-rounds and other playground equipment. Programs for children and seniors have been cancelled.

Jones insisted Savino see the sinkholes. He squeezed behind fences and lifted plywood that covered craters. “Look at this. This isn’t safe,” he says. “Where are the kids gonna play?” Jones noted that he lost a tire to a deep pothole, and has been documenting them since that episode.

A resident of the apartment complex walked by, suspiciously peering at the group. “What is they here for?,” she wondered out loud. “Maybe they looking for them rats,” she answered herself.  

NYCHA said in a statement that sinkhole repairs were “currently underway” at developments affected by Sandy, including in Coney Island. “NYCHA is beginning the process to complete the work for the play areas at various affected developments in the area,” the agency said.

Recchia said some programs for children were functioning. “We have summer programs like the Cornerstone program and others out of Kaiser Park. They may not all be open but there are programs,” Recchia said.

Savino’s staffers said their office had fruitlessly contacted NYCHA about playgrounds being closed and the scaffolding that surrounded the buildings and blocked windows. A recent report by Comptroller Bill de Blasio has highlighted the backlog of thousands of repairs dating back years that NYCHA has yet to address.

But Recchia was quick to defend the city’s response — taking responsibility for the fact that public housing was still under construction and that the library wouldn’t open until October.

“I’ve said from the start that we are not going to rush but address the long-lasting problems,” Recchia said. “The reason the library isn't open is because I want things done the right way.”

Recchia said his approach to addressing the problems left behind by Sandy was informed by a Council trip to Louisiana.

“The one thing they said they did wrong was that they rushed to get things back as quickly as possible,” Recchia said. “But now they need to fix them again because no one addressed the core problems.”

Savino is familiar with the damage Sandy wrought across the city. She served on the Senate’s Bipartisan Task Force on Hurricane Sandy and toured not only the boroughs that were impacted but Long Island as well. Her district office in Coney Island wasn’t spared Sandy’s wrath: Her staffers described how flooding rose nearly five feet up to a poster of Savino on the wall, destroying furniture and tossing a heavy air conditioner. The office reopened this spring.

The same couldn’t be said for Liberation Diploma Plus, a school that was the next stop on the tour and serves students in grades 9 through 12. Only three blocks from the beach, the school was ravaged by flooding.

April Leong, principal of Liberation, described for the group how the flooding destroyed everything on the first floor — books, supplies, desks, the kitchen, gym floors. The second floor also suffered.

The Department of Education leases the property and as a result the owner had to apply for federal recovery funds. Leong said she worked sometimes 18-hour days to get the school cleaned up.   

The process took longer than it might have, but once repairs were finally initiated they were made quickly — too quickly. Water warped boards were left in place and new boards installed on top. As the group of activists stopped by, Leong was busy overseeing the second round of repairs.

Leong spent the early days of the storm struggling to get her students registered so that she wouldn’t lose funding from the DOE — she succeeded but still lost funding. Liberation is a transfer school for a students from around the city who have struggled in regular classrooms so finding all the students after Sandy was not easy. “These are kids that people already gave up on,” Leong said, stressing the importance of bringing Liberation back to life.

She took the group through the muggy first floor, into the cooler cafeteria where a few students sat and sipped juice.

Savino sat down at a lunch table, fanning herself from the heat. “This woman is single-handedly keeping this place afloat and it means so much to these kids and the community,” shes said, motioning to Leong.

Savino said a number of residents and issues have slipped through the cracks because of confusion over programs.

“The state and city seem to be working at cross purposes on a lot of stuff,” Savino said.

In announcing a home buyout program for areas that were in the dangerous flood zone, Gov. Andrew Cuomo told New Yorkers who lived next to the shore that “there are some parcels that Mother Nature owns. She may only visit once every few years. But she owns the parcel and when she comes to visit, she visits.” Mayor Michael Bloomberg offered the opposite tactic: a plan to strengthen existing coastal communities while continuing to build smart around the coastline.

Savino noted that a number of homeowners have not requested help. She said she believes it is because they are undocumented immigrants from China who bought their homes with cash and are afraid to seek help from the government.

And both Savino and Recchia acknowledged they were at a loss at what to do about the small businesses that have left. “People are worried about taking the risk on Coney Island,” Savino said.

Recchia said that things aren’t back to normal, that life isn’t easy for all those living in Coney Island. But he said the neighborhood was on the road to recovery. “Compared to other parts of the city, I think we're doing pretty good,” he said. “Take a look at the NYCHA facilities — they are working on them. It’s not like the work isn't happening.”

After two hours of walking in the heat, the group members said their goodbyes. But Jones had a shocker for Savino. He said he was thinking about moving to New Jersey. “You can’t go to Jersey!” Savino said. “You are Mr. Coney Island. You can’t leave.”

Jones hung his head for a second and looked up, smiling. “This is getting to be too much for me,” he said. “I’m too old for this.”

No Retreat From The Coastline


NEW YORK — Striking a tone of defiance, Mayor Michael Bloomberg said today that New York City will not retreat from its coastline despite the threat of rising sea levels and the possibility of storms more catastrophic than Hurricane Sandy.

On the contrary, he argued, the city should not only continue to build along the waterfront but build better.

“As New Yorkers, we cannot and will not abandon our waterfront. It’s one of our greatest assets. We must protect it, not retreat from it,” the mayor said at the unveiling of a voluminous report detailing the city’s assessment of the impact of Superstorm Sandy and the risks posed by climate change.

The report itself states that, prior to Sandy, the city had made significant strides in preparing for climate change.

“Our resiliency investments performed well during Sandy,” the authors write. “But Sandy’s magnitude, its effects on so many parts of the city, and the threat of even greater risks from climate change also taught a second lesson: we needed to redouble our efforts.”

From sand dunes to temporary flood barriers to funding for building system upgrades, the plan unveiled by the mayor aspires to fortify the city — at an estimated cost of $19.5 billion — in the face of a rapidly changing environment rather than pull back development from the waterfront.

It is also ambitious, asserting that a large, new residential and office development project off the tip of Lower Manhattan and similar to Battery Park City, was not only realistic but necessary.

The report released today, "A Stronger More Resilient New York," is part of the city’s ongoing and far-reaching sustainability initiative, PlaNYC.

The risks posed to New York City are daunting. Underpinning the conclusions of the report is new data generated by the city’s Panel on Climate Change, also released today. The panel projects that “by mid-century, sea levels could rise by more than 2.5 feet, especially if the polar ice sheets melt at a more rapid rate than previously anticipated. That magnitude of sea level rise would threaten low-lying communities in New York with regular and highly disruptive tidal flooding.”

The Panel also projects that average temperatures in the city could rise as much as 6.5 degrees Fahrenheit by the 2050’s, while precipitation could increase by fifteen percent. As a result, both the number of annual heat waves and days with intense precipitation — rainfall in excess of 2 inches — will increase steadily.

By that point, the mayor said in his speech, “up to one-quarter of all of New York City’s land area, where 800,000 residents live today, will be in the floodplain.” Precisely because so much of the city is now threatened by rising sea levels, retreating is not considered an option, he argued.


The mayor noted some 270,000 jobs are now in areas within the federal government’s 100-year flood maps.

“They are not going anywhere, and we cannot and will not abandon them,” Bloomberg said. Instead, the city’s response, as detailed in the report, is to aggressively and pro-actively construct “layers of defense.”

One layer would consist of off-shore barriers like breakwaters and wetlands that would help to blunt the force of powerful storm surges.

Another layer is what the mayor described as “a strong line of coastal defense,” which would rely on reinforced dunes and widened beaches, levees, floodwalls, bulkheads, tide gates, and surge barriers. The mayor noted that constructing a massive barrier across New York Harbor — one idea being floated — was impractical. But smaller “localized” surge barriers, he argued, could make a big difference.

Many of the surge and tidal barriers now being proposed by the city are intended to address “back-door” flooding, when a storm surge pushes floodwater into rivers, creeks and canals. The city is looking at possible barriers in several locations, including the mouth of Jamaica Bay, Newtown Creek, the Gowanus Canal, and Coney Island Creek.

The report includes 37 proposed coastal defense projects, some of which are already underway, such as beach and dune restoration projects on Staten Island, Coney Island and along the Rockaways. The city said construction of flooding and erosion barriers on the South shore of Staten Island has also begun.

Other layers of defense include green infrastructure, like permeable pavement surfaces, which can absorb floodwater or channel it into “higher capacity” sewers.

An especially critical layer is the city’s building stock. The Bloomberg administration is proposing a $1.2 billion incentive program – in conjunction with HUD – to assist property owners in vulnerable areas with flood-proofing their heating, electrical and other building systems.

The report also examines how to protect and upgrade local utility, telecommunications and fuel supply networks in light of climate change and its impacts. The mayor noted that two-thirds of major substations and nearly all of the city’s power plants are situated in floodplains.

Measures to safeguard critical infrastructure, such as hospitals and other health care facilities, along with the city’s transportation network, parks, water, wastewater and solid waste systems, are outlined as well.

The mayor said that more than $100 million of the $1.77 billion in federal relief funding that had been allocated to New York City would be diverted to public housing for upgrades. The city’s Housing Authority is also slated to receive funds from the Federal Emergency Management Administration. Four-hundred NYCHA buildings — housing 80,000 residents — were damaged during Sandy. Several NYCHA developments are located in coastal areas.

Building in flood-prone areas can be done safely, argued the mayor. “We’ve proposed new zoning that makes it easier to elevate existing buildings above the floodplain,” he said. The city will also be making changes to its construction codes that it said will raise standards for new buildings.

The mayor argued that waterfront development does not have to be deterred by rising sea levels. Referring to Lower Manhattan’s need for housing and office space, the mayor proposed a new waterfront development similar to Battery Park City called “Seaport City” that would be constructed on the East Side. The development would potentially house “thousands of new residents and hundreds of businesses.”

The mayor asserted that Battery Park City was specifically designed to withstand major flooding and for the most part did so. He described Seaport City as an “ambitious idea” and added that the new development had the potential to protect “existing residents and businesses from future storms.”

“Yes, it would be expensive to build. But over time it could prove to be a great investment,” he said.

When asked if the administration believed that any areas of the city would eventually have to be abandoned due to sea level rise, Economic Development Corporation President Seth Pinsky said that “building on the coast is not a problem.” Pinsky, who led the team that created the city’s new report, added that construction had to happen at “the right elevation.” The city’s confidence that it can retain use of its entire coastline is not shared by all climate experts.

Klaus Jacob, a member of the city’s Panel on Climate Change and a geophysicist with the Columbia University Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, told the Gotham Gazette in January that it was necessary to think beyond the next few decades. By the end of the century, he maintained, sea level could rise by 6 feet, making parts of the city uninhabitable.

“Sea level rise is the ultimate fate of the city,” he told the Gazette. “It truly threatens the livelihood of the city as we have it now — unless it adapts. It can adapt. It can be a totally lively city without barriers. We are lucky. We have high ground within our boundaries. Neither New Orleans nor Amsterdam nor Venice have that luxury. We have that luxury. We just have to move together on higher ground.”

The city estimates that the initiatives and projects it proposes within "A Stronger, More Resilient New York" will cost $19.5 billion. The mayor said that $10 billion was covered by existing city capital dollars and federal funds. Another $5 billion would be available from FEMA and future rounds of federal Sandy relief dollars that have been appropriated by Congress.

City officials said they will press the federal government for the remaining $4.5 billion.

Regulators Seek Answers About Rockaway Pipeline Project


NEW YORK — Regulators are aggressively seeking answers about potential environmental risks to the Rockaway pipeline project, including whether flooding caused by future extreme storms could damage critical infrastructure.

Both the state’s Division of Coastal Resources and the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission are seeking answers from Oklahoma-based Williams Cos., whose subsidiary, Transco, is building part of the complex project.

In particular, they want to know how flooding from category 3 to 5 storms could affect a natural gas metering station planned for Floyd Bennett Field in southeast Brooklyn.

After receiving what it described as an incomplete response to its question about potential flooding caused by extreme weather, FERC said yesterday that it wanted a fuller response within 10 days.

“Transco’s response to the [state] does not provide an assessment of impacts,” FERC said. The agency said it was seeking information about measures that would be taken to address flooding associated with the "potential increase in the frequency and intensity" of major storms "due to climate change sea level rise."

The state has also requested information from Transco regarding potential risks to the Rockaway pipeline, generally, from catastrophic storms.

Williams operates the 10,000-mile Transco natural gas pipeline, which runs parallel to the Rockaway coast. Plans call for building a 2.79-mile feeder line from the Transco pipeline, along the ocean floor toward Jacob Riis Park, and then underneath it, delivering gas to new mains below Jamaica Bay. National Grid is constructing the new mains.

Transco responded in documents filed last week that it did not expect that the natural gas metering station at the park “would be subject to a flood risk of greater than one percent a year (i.e., a 100-year flood) following a one-foot increase in sea level.”

The Rockaway pipeline project consists of several interdependent parts being built by different companies, under the regulatory scrutiny of multiple levels of government. Half of the project — managed by National Grid — has already been approved and is underway. The other half — managed by Williams Cos. — is undergoing a lengthy federal review process which offers opportunities for public comment.

The project’s very complexity has fueled confusion about its potential environmental impact and led community leaders and local elected officials to question its safety.

The first phase of construction on the Rockaway pipeline project began in March. National Grid is constructing two gas pipelines — 1.6 miles in length and 50 feet below seabed — underneath Jamaica Bay’s Rockaway Inlet.

According to company spokeswoman Karen Young, the utility is now drilling underneath the Bay to accommodate the first of the two pipelines.

“Welding of the 1.6 miles of the 26-inch pipeline is almost complete,” she said. “Once the drilling is complete, the pipeline will be installed underneath the Rockaway Inlet and the same process will begin for the 12 inch pipeline.”

National Grid will later connect these cross-Bay lines to customers in Brooklyn and Queens via the gas meter and regulating station that will be housed within a historic hangar at Floyd Bennett Field. Gas entering the meter station will eventually link to an existing gas main on Flatbush Avenue.

National Grid’s new delivery capacity will be supported by the off-shore feeder pipeline to be constructed by Williams.

The National Grid portion of the Rockaway pipeline project was reviewed under the New York City “Environmental Quality Review Act.” In December 2011, the city found that the project “would not have an adverse impact on the environment.” Because of this, the project did not require a public review process or full-scale environmental review. The Bloomberg administration has been a supporter of the project.

Williams’ off-shore pipeline, meter station, and capacity increase proposals, however, must work their way through the federal environmental review process. This will be followed by a public commenting period on the draft environmental impact statement.

Much of the construction on the Rockaway pipeline will take place in Gateway National Recreation Area, a 26,000 acre National Park, which includes ocean-facing Jacob Riis Park and the Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge.

The project also continues to expand and change over time, adding to the complexity surrounding it.

For instance, Transco is now proposing an increase of 100,000 dekatherms in the amount of natural gas the pipeline will deliver each day to the New York City area. The Rockaway project was originally slated to deliver a daily total of 647,000 dekatherms, approximately 625 million cubic feet of gas. The proposed capacity increase will be facilitated by upgrading gas compressor stations in Pennsylvania and New Jersey.

In documents filed with FERC on May 6, Transco said they also now intend to construct an additional, eight-inch pipeline between the meter station at Floyd Bennett Field and Flatbush Avenue “at the request of National Grid.”

Besides preparations for flooding caused by extreme weather, regulators have posed a series of additional questions about seven-year intervals between pipeline inspections; whether alternative drilling methods would be less disruptive to marine life; and a proposed off-shore pit that would contain used drilling fluid.

Transco responded last week that the seven-year inspection schedule followed federal regulations; and that it would monitor the impact of the pipeline's operations on marine life. The company has not yet released requested information about how it would handle accidental releases of drilling fluid off the Rockaway coast, or alternative ways to dispose of used drilling fluid and cuttings.

Project documents estimate that construction of the off-shore section of the pipeline will disturb a 30-acre area, displacing 157,600 cubic yards of material.

The Future Of New York City's Water


This is part 2 of a 2 part interview. Read the first part here. 

NEW YORK — Even after decades of commercial and residential development in upstate New York, the city’s mostly unfiltered drinking water is renowned for its purity. The water system will face increasing challenges — from growing demand to aging infrastructure to the possibility of gas drilling in neighboring counties — in the years ahead.

In the second part of Gotham Gazette’s exclusive interview with historian David Soll, the author of the newly released book Empire of Water (Cornell University Press) discusses the current and future challenges facing the city’s water supply system, which delivers over one billion gallons of fresh drinking water to nine million people each day.

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In the interview, Soll describes how the city of New York was ordered by the federal government to build a filtration plant for water from the Croton system in 1993. Twenty years and over $3 billion later, the plant in the Bronx’s Van Cortlandt Park is nearing completion. At the same time, the city has invested heavily in securing land that surrounds critical water sources. By 2017, the city will have spent nearly $2 billion protecting and managing upstate watersheds.

Soll also discusses the highly contentious question of hydraulic fracturing, why the practice has been essentially banned within the city’s watershed, and how the city of New York is trying to accomplish multiple — and perhaps contradictory — objectives through its current approach to fracking.

Soll is an urban environmental historian at the University of Wisconsin, Eau Claire. He is particularly interested in the relationship between urban and rural areas and in the role that water plays in shaping the urban built environment. His current research focuses on water supply and sanitation in Bangalore, India.

GG: Can you explain more about the new water filtration plant in Van Cortlandt Park that is coming online? I thought our water was unfiltered.

DS: The plant is very close to being done. New York officially has three water supply systems: the Croton, Catskill and Delaware systems. The Catskill and Delaware systems are very interlinked. Because Catskill and Delaware water is coming from a place that is not very densely populated, with relatively little industry, the city could take watershed protection measures to ensure that it could still meet the health standards. They are [also] building an ultraviolet facility in Westchester — that is almost done – so they don’t have to use as much chlorine to get rid of bacteria. Catskill/Delaware water is not filtered because the natural landscape acts as a filter.

There was no way NY could comply with safety standards for water coming from the Croton region. There’s too much development. That’s why they are required [by the federal government in 1993] to build the plant. That filtration plant is only for water coming from the Croton system, roughly 10% of the city’s water supply.

GG: Based on all your research, is it your sense that the fundamental objective of the 1997 Watershed Agreement — maintaining water purity in the Catskill / Delaware system — is being accomplished?

DS: Yes. It’s one of these things that’s working until it isn’t.

If there was evidence that the water was no longer meeting safety standards, the federal government could come in and say to New York: we understand you’ve invested lots of money, time and energy into watershed protection but it’s not enough. You’re going to have to build a filtration plant after all. New York has a ten-year “filtration avoidance determination” until 2017 because they’ve been very successful and demonstrated a real concerted effort in trying to make watershed protection work. It’s somewhat of a lifetime probation.

In analyzing how the 1997 Watershed Agreement was implemented, [I’ve looked at] the pattern of land purchases by the city. They can only buy land that people agree to sell to them. There was a fair amount of criticism in the early years of land purchases that a lot of this land wasn’t that important for water quality. There was a bit of a disconnect between the ostensible purpose of buying the land, which is to protect the water, and the actual physical repercussions of buying properties.

This is the messiness of democracy. They had to come up with some mechanism to acquire land but doing it by eminent domain was not going to be acceptable politically. No one is going to coerce any landowner into selling their land. What we do to make things fair and democratic is not always going to be the most efficient.

They [the city] are trying to strike a balance between those two poles. Residents in the Catskills are concerned about the economic future of their region, and they should have a role in the conversation. One of the frustrations that they had in 2007/2008 is that the federal government is awarding New York city this big extension [the 10-year filtration waiver] and they felt like they were excluded from a lot of those conversations.

This story doesn’t end in 1997 when the Watershed Agreement is signed. The story goes on. There continue to be conflicts and disputes. When 2017 rolls around, there will probably be a lot of discussions around land purchasing or other sorts of conflicts that residents in the watershed are having with the city. It’s very much an evolving kind of thing. It’s not a static process. These [conflicts over long-distance water supply systems] are by no means unique to New York. But the partnership aspect — watershed residents working together with the city — is a much closer and more intense relationship than in other places. That’s what distinguishes it.

GG: Water quality is tested regularly? If problems began to emerge, is it fair to assume the federal government would be involved?

DS: New York City has a rigorous testing mechanism, and they’re testing water in various places. If you walk around New York City, you see water testing stations — the grey metal boxes. That’s another example of how the water system affects what the city itself looks like. It’s not just about are we literally complying with the standards. It’s about which parts of the system are likely causing problems.

GG: How actively is the federal government monitoring the land acquisition targets within the 1997 Watershed Agreement? Are they micro-managing this process? For example, you write about a target of acquiring one-third of the land within the Delaware Watershed.

DS: My sense is that they require New York City to produce an extraordinary amount of data and reports. A lot of it — at least initially — had to do with solicitation targets … The city would develop these maps [of the watersheds] and break them out into priority areas. The highest priority areas had the most effect on land quality. In those areas, the requirement for solicitation was higher … In areas that are more distant, the requirements were a little less onerous. My sense is that the federal government recognizes that New York City can’t put a gun to anyone’s head and say sell. That’s contrary to the spirit and the laws that govern the Watershed program. What they can do is ask.

Land acquisition [as part of the 1997 agreement] was not just in the Catskill/Delaware system; they [the city] also acquired land in the Croton area. That was much more expensive land.Very high cost per acre. The water for the Catskill/Delaware system was passing through those [downstate] reservoirs at some point in time, whether for a few days or six-months. Acquiring land in those areas was also really critical. That’s where the Catskill/Delaware system’s water flows through on its way to the city.

GG: How did the 1997 Watershed Agreement/MOA establish a new paradigm for accomplishing an environmental objective?

DS: It pushes things in a new direction. We all want clean water but what’s the way that we get there? The initial reaction of city officials is to adopt top-down command and control regulations. It wasn’t necessarily far-sighted geniuses who said the environmental system is not working now. People resisted, and they said, ‘No, we’re not going to let you take our land and destroy the economic vitality of our region. So let’s figure out a different way to do this.’ And it took a lot of creativity and a lot of hard work.

The solution they came up with is really a combination of things. In some ways it’s a low-tech solution — buying land, protecting the watershed, changing the way that people farm, making it less chemical intensive. It’s important not to be too romantic. It’s also about building new sewage treatment plants for those communities, many of which New York City itself owns.

It is the kind of thing where there were various components of the plan and some of them are very straightforward — like sewage treatment plants so not as much bad stuff goes into the streams that feed into the reservoirs. But it’s not just that. It’s a combination of grey and green, which New York City is [also] trying to do with its sewage inside the city. Up until then, New York City hadn’t shown much creativity at all, just building one reservoir after another. The focus here is quality versus quantity. It’s a very different mindset.

GG: It does appear that the federal government pushed New York City to consider strategies that they may not have.

DS: That’s another important point. None of this would have happened if the federal government didn’t push this. The people [in city government who advocated a new approach] were in the minority and they probably wouldn’t have been able to effect this kind of paradigm shift without the pressure of the federal government saying, ‘You’ve got to build this plant [for Catskill/Delaware water] or come up with some other solution that’s going to satisfy us.’ In some ways this is a story about thinking outside the box.

At the same time, it’s important to remember that it was environmental regulations that started the ball rolling in the first place. The Safe Drinking Water Act says that every surface water supply had to be filtered that the Watershed Agreement really came about. There were a lot of interim steps but that was the trigger. Without pretty conventional government regulations it’s hard to see how that paradigm shift would have come about.

It’s also important to recognize that it doesn’t mean that we don’t need regulations — that we can just assume that people can hammer out agreements because people are reasonable. There were particular things going on in this case that enabled the outcome that occurred. Having those regulations on the books was an important part of it. I could see how this story could be potentially interpreted in different ways.

GG: Early on in the book you use the term “hydrological commons.” What does that mean?

DS: What it means for me is the area that is essentially affected by New York City’s water system. In some ways [for instance] Long Island is not part of [our] hydrological commons because it’s not getting its water from New York. In other ways, it is part of the city’s commons. Once Brooklyn stopped pumping water [from Long Island] there are a lot of places that used to be dry that all of a sudden get a lot wetter.

There are all of these connections — sometimes they’re physical, sometimes they’re political — that we don’t necessarily see. It’s common to talk about watersheds now. Many people have a sense of what that means. It’s a fairly big area —as far away as Philadelphia [which also relies on the Delaware River] — that ends up getting affected by New York City’s actions. This is a story about New York City, but it’s also a story about the region, mostly southeastern New York, but also Philadelphia, New Jersey … That end up being affected by things that New York did.

GG: How do you see the question of hydraulic fracturing in terms of this ongoing narrative between the city and the state, and trying to balance water safety and economic development?

DS: New York City presents this as a catastrophic risk to the city’s water supply system. There are many people [upstate] who wish they weren’t in the New York City watershed, but then there are others — who are outside the watershed —who say, ‘I wish I was in the watershed so we wouldn’t have to worry about this drilling thing.’

It’s very complex in terms of the potential risks. I come back to the question of how much has been invested over time in this water system. Is the potential risk of contamination worth putting that investment at risk? I tend to think no.

There’s another response that says this is such a large system with such enormous volumes that a well-regulated system — even with a few spills — would have relatively little impact. I’m not a geologist, or a hydrologist. I’m a historian. New York City has a fairly compelling case that to risk the system doesn’t make a lot of sense.

Does there need to be economic compensation for that? If you think about what the basic premise of the Watershed Agreement is — yes, New York City, you can have your water but you have to offset some of the economic difficulties that people experienced there as a result of you needing this water. Should the city or the state — or some combination of the two — compensate people for their lost economic opportunities? That doesn’t strike me as an unreasonable question to ask.

GG: Now that its watershed is off limits to drilling, the city is not going to fight drilling in other parts of the state. At one point the city wanted upstate water, but they also want sources of energy that could potentially come from upstate New York.

DS: New York City government has the responsibility to ensure that its citizens can have access to basic resources. Water and energy are both basic resources. The city operates a system that supplies water, and it wants to — very rationally — protect those investments. It also wants to ensure energy to its citizens. If they’re able to get that energy closer to New York City, it stands to reason that the cost of delivering that energy is going to be cheaper. The city is advocating on behalf of its citizenry. Does that seem selective to the upstate resident who says, ‘Well, you’re protecting your own, why can’t I protect my own?’ Sure.

They’re doing their job as they understand it. Both perspectives are legitimate. That’s part of what presumably state government is supposed to do — to try to be a broker and figure these things out. New York City is part of the state, but it’s not the whole state. The role of the state is to weigh these competing interests.

GG: In closing, what else would you want to say about the NYC water system?

DS: The other angle is that the city’s water network is really important for recreation. Certainly within the city, but also outside of it. The reservoirs in Westchester are really popular for ice fishing, people go picnic at the Kensico Reservoir. Yes, the purpose of this system is to provide water to the citizens of New York [and 90 percent of Westchester’s water] but there are all of these other ancillary benefits. It doesn’t mean that from the perspective of the person in the Catskills, it necessarily makes up for the destruction of their grandfather’s farm. They have to decide.

But it created this whole network of recreation in a region like the Catskills that doesn’t have many natural lakes; in a region like Westchester where it can be hard to find peace and quiet. These other aspects are important. It’s worth seeing infrastructure in a different way. It’s not just a big pipe in the ground. It can also have all of these other benefits in our lives. That’s a useful perspective to bear in mind when there’s a lot of discussion today about decaying infrastructure and do people want to pay for it. It’s a way to get people invested in public infrastructure.

That was a major point of contention for people in the Catskills. If New York City was going to buy up a whole bunch of land, [people there] wanted to make sure they had access to these lands for hiking, hunting, bird watching, etc. After a lot of struggle and pushback from New York City’s side, in the last 5 to 10 years, the city has opened up a significant amount of the acreage they’ve acquired.

GG: As time goes on, and as areas in and outside of New York City become more congested, these areas will presumably remain an important connection to nature?

DS: People may look at the system differently in 2013, than they did in 1980, or 2050. We also need to be careful not to say the Catskills are one entity. There are divides depending on which particular reservoir, which region you’re talking about. There are a lot of nuances. Part of the story is definitely downstate / upstate. But even within that, there are divides. Cannonsville is the example par excellence. The city just assumed it was like the Pepacton Reservoir. Well, it wasn’t. There was a lot more agriculture. It was a different topography. It got a lot more polluted. To the city person, everything looks the same. [But] one farm can be as different from the next farm as black and white.

Canoes & Go-Bags: How Communities Are Preparing For The Next Big Storm


NEW YORK — Left without power, basic supplies, and often potable water, Hurricane Sandy victims in the city's poorest and low-lying areas say they were often forced to look after each other for help rather than wait for the government.

Now, six months after the storm, several grassroots organizations that work in those communities are taking preparations for the next big storm into their own hands by organizing first responder plans and developing their own vision for a sustainable, resilient waterfront.

Calling it “essential” to start the conversation from the local-level, Eddie Bautista, director of the New York City Environmental Justice Alliance, said for too long grassroots groups have “waited and responded” to governmental plans. That is why an umbrella group of grassroots and environmental advocacy groups released its agenda for responding to extreme weather in April.

By releasing what’s billed as the “Sandy Regional Assembly Recovery Agenda” before plans from the city and federal government are released this summer, Bautista said he hopes community concerns can take the lead in discussions.

The agenda aims to reduce infrastructure vulnerabilities, they say, while mitigating environmental hazards posed by flooding in toxic areas. That includes building out the proposed greenways in Sunset Park and the Bronx, projects that could cost almost $150 million but would provide permeable surfaces to help disperse water in serious storm events.

“We've circulated the plan to city, state, and federal officials,” said Bautista, whose organization is a member of the Sandy Regional Assembly, which has over 40 groups from New Jersey to New York City and Long Island.

Other plans in the agenda call for investing $1 million towards upgrading the New York City Department of Environmental Protection’s Port Richmond Sewage Treatment Plant and a half million dollars to build out rain gardens and bioswales on New York City Housing Authority properties.

At a recent mayoral candidate forum, Sandy recovery discussions focused on high-profile ideas like expanding ferry service or large-scale environmental solutions such as storm surge walls. Important as these broad, expensive plans might be, they do not meet the criteria of the Sandy Regional Assembly, which points to more “sustainable” soft-environmental solutions and the needs of low-income areas.

The agenda also calls for emergency generators at all NYCHA properties and re-building with natural, sustainable solutions such as sand dunes that have been eliminated along beachfront areas.

Citing an analysis of Sandy's effects on housing by New York University’s Furman Center for Real Estate and Urban Policy, the Assembly's agenda notes that the hurricane affected 20 percent of NYCHA properties, many of which are by industrial areas, where receding flood waters can spread chemical toxins to waterways and residential areas.

Furthermore, six of the city's “significant maritime industrial areas” are located near neighborhoods with large low-income populations, including the South Bronx, Newtown Creek, Brooklyn Navy Yards, Red Hook, Sunset Park, and the North Shore of Staten Island. The agenda calls for expedited cleaning of the city's Superfund sites, such as the Gowanus Canal.

Environmental cleanup will be part of FEMA's recovery strategy, but Ken Curtin, the federal disaster recovery coordinator for FEMA, acknowledged there isn't the “political will” in Congress to include more funding to clean these Superfund sites.

Even as the Sandy Regional Assembly's plans were circulated to create dialogue, it’s unclear what direction the city’s plans are taking.

In December, Mayor Michael Bloomberg and City Council Speaker Christine Quinn called on the nonprofit Urban Green Council to convene a task force to help draw up plans for making the city’s structures more sustainable and resilient in the face of extreme weather. The task force itself includes over 200 experts, including architects, engineers, real estate owners, contractors and other technical professionals. 

The task force is expected to coordinate with the mayor's special initiative for rebuilding and resiliency. 

Bautista claimed that the mayor's initiative had not been forthcoming with information, though it has released a partial action plan. The mayor's office didn't respond to a request for comment before press time. A spokeswoman for the Urban Green Council said the organization could not weigh in on the specifics of the task force recommendations until a final report is released this summer.

However, the Urban Green Council has published a summary of broad proposals. Without price tags or locations suggested, the UGC will look to create more permeable surfaces, call for critical building utilities to be placed above flood levels, and consider alternative energy sources such as solar energy and cleaner back-up generators. 

But Bautista and other members of the Assembly said they think their voices are being left out of the discussions.

In Sunset Park, Brooklyn, UPROSE — the United Puerto Rican Organization of Sunset Park — said its residents were stung by Sandy, and relied on non-governmental groups to provide supplies instead of the city or state. For instance, the Occupy Wall Street off-shoot known as Occupy Sandy used St. Jacobi's Church in the neighborhood to distribute food, clothing and water.

“Government officials have a standard, traditional way of approaching community engagement,” UPROSE Executive Director Elizabeth Yeampierre said in an interview. “But climate change is and should force them to think differently about the relationship.”

The government, she added, “should stop thinking about communities as things that have to be managed, rather as partners in addressing this complicated issue.”

Already UPROSE has taken the initiative in organizing themselves. “People want to be trained as first responders,” Yeampierre said, adding that UPROSE has begun mapping backyards and coordinating with landlords to reduce impermeable surfaces and add bioswales to better disperse water.

Up in the South Bronx, which escaped Sandy’s wrath but is nonetheless a vulnerable waterfront community, advocacy group Youth Ministries for Peace and Justice is now offering emergency preparedness training, according to Anthony Thomas, the organization’s environmental justice coordinator.

The group has already purchased 10 canoes in case of severe flooding, are putting together plans to prepare go-bags full of medical and emergency supplies, and are spreading the word to people who might not be able to be reached through official city announcements. The effort, Thomas said, affords local communities a measure of control of their own lives that feels absent when dealing with governmental officials.

“People have a fear of government not necessarily taking them seriously,” Thomas continued. “We really want to take things into our own hands. We are the only people who can define the best strategies for our neighborhood, we are the people who know what's needed.”

Although Sandy had a limited impact on the South Bronx, Thomas said early predictions had the storm hitting the area hard. "Who knows what it will be like next time," said Thomas, whose group has learned the lesson the easier way.

To aid in these efforts, lawmakers like Assemblyman Marcos Crespo, whose district includes industrial and residential areas abutting the Bronx River, such as Hunts Point, have looked to bridge the gap.

Crespo introduced legislation to fund micro-grids — miniaturized versions of the usual grid can be disconnected and operate independently — which was incorporated into the state budget. Micro-grids are seen as more resilient than the city's broader power grid, and would generate energy for first-responder needs.

“One of the many lessons learned from Sandy is how much of our critical infrastructure is susceptible to power loss and what can be done to prevent that,” he said.

With hospitals losing power and back-up generators sometimes failing, this micro-grids would better ensure power. Crespo, however, said some of the technical aspects with the micro-grids were still being worked out.

Crespo is also sponsoring legislation that would offer emergency supplies tax-free for two weeks during the year. The state needs to be “more aggressive” when preparing for future disasters, Crespo argued. And that, he said, begins with helping communities be prepared.

But Patricia Simon, director of the Ocean Bay Community Development Corp. in Far Rockaway, said a main challenge is that the scope of the rebuilding remains more than many residents in her area can envision.

She said her group, which is also a member of the Assembly, is partnering with the Pratt Center For Community Development to provide workshops for residents “so people won't feel [officials or contractors] are talking over their heads.”

Flood maps, she said, “have to be broken down,” and the new requirements for homeowners need to be explained. And, she said, “There's always the risk of contractors ripping people off.”

Which is why Thomas said he thinks the responsibility often has to come down to the community rather than waiting for government assistance. "We really want to take things into our own hands. We are the only people who can define what the best strategies are."

Yeampierre said she was unsure if her community was prepared for the next storm, and other problems could arise because of different environmental challenges, such as extreme heat.

"But we've begun to provide the tools so people can take ownership in an emergency," she said.

Image of canoes that could be used in the South Bronx if there's another big storm, photo courtesy of Youth Ministries For Peace And Justice. 

The Remarkable Story Of How New York City Gets Its Water


Editor's note: This is the first of a two-part interview. 

NEW YORK — Largely invisible — but essential — is New York City’s water supply system, stretching across 125 miles and delivering over one billion gallons of drinking water to nine million people.

In his new book, Empire of Water (Cornell University Press), historian and public policy expert David Soll takes a multifaceted look at New York City’s water supply system, one of the largest, largely unfiltered municipal water supply systems on the planet. The system, which relies on mountain water flowing into upstate reservoirs, is delivered to the city through an astounding network of tunnels and aqueducts.

Soll spoke to the Gotham Gazette in an an exclusive interview last month about how that system came to be through rough-and-tumble politics, the destruction of entire towns and the flooding of thousands of acres of land. 

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Soll also touches upon the engineering challenges that New York City faced as it constructed the system; and the social, economic and regulatory shifts that would force New York City to re-think how it managed its water supply system in the last decades of the 20th century.

He also explores what led to the 1997 Watershed Agreement, a landmark urban-rural accord that enabled New York City to obtain permission from the federal government to avoid construction of a multi-billion dollar filtration plant. The Watershed Agreement cements a close partnership between New York City and upstate communities in the Catskills and the Delaware River Basin in order to maintain water purity through sewage management, sustainable farming practices, limits on development, and other strategies.

Soll, an urban environmental historian who teaches environmental studies at the University of Wisconsin, Eau Claire, focuses his research on the relationship between urban and rural areas and in the role that water plays in shaping the urban built environment. He is working on a study of the water supply and sanitation in Bangalore, India.

GG: Was there something in particular that really surprised you as you wrote the story of the city’s water supply system?

DS: What surprised me was the ability of people to overcome a lot of misunderstanding and rancor that in many other situations present obstacles that are too high to get over. There are a lot of lessons from the story of the New York City water supply, but one of them has to do with the passage of time. There was a lot of resentment and misunderstanding on both sides, but the fact that the [1997] Watershed Agreement [between New York City and upstate watershed communities] was discussed in the 1990s, rather than in the 1970s or the 1950s was really important ... There’s a lot of resentment and conflict that is still ongoing but these two sides — who were really diametrically opposed and had very different viewpoints — were able to come together.

The other thing that surprised me was the importance of particular individuals … People tend to talk about government as an abstraction, as a faceless entity. This story showed me that people in particular points in time can really make a difference one way or the other … It’s not just rules and regulations—it’s actually individual people.

GG: What are the fundamental elements of the story of how the city built its water supply system, from the mid-19th century to 1967, which you describe as the end of its expansionist period?

DS: For most of that period, until roughly the 1950s, New York was experiencing really tremendous growth. The consolidation of the city in 1898 was an important part of that story. The water system developed in tandem with that population growth. There was a fairly explicit understanding on the part of the people who were responsible for the water supply system that growth was good and growth was necessary, and they had to keep expanding the system to keep up with the pace of growth. Conservation was reserved for emergencies. It wasn’t part of the normal course of business.

They [the City] expanded the Croton system until they got virtually every drop that was available. The last piece of that [Croton system] was completed in 1911 … They had to figure out where to go for more water and they ended up getting it from the Catskills. That same cycle repeats itself where they complete the Ashokan Reservoir and they just keep building and building … It’s a constant expansion — more, more, more — until some combination of politics, financial circumstances and the environmental movement cause them to take a different approach.

GG: What was the source water for the Croton system?

DS: The Croton River and also its tributaries. They [the City] complete the New Croton Aqueduct in 1890/1891, and it’s basically this really powerful straw, but they don’t have enough water to supply the straw … Right after they build this aqueduct, there’s this drought and they’re concerned about running out of water ... they find that they don’t have enough storage capacity to make sure they can always fill the aqueduct. Even within that [Croton] system they are constantly expanding and building additional reservoirs to keep up with the conveyance power of the aqueduct.

GG: What is an aqueduct exactly?

DS: In New York’s case, it’s a pipe or tunnel, a horseshoe shaped structure that is going to convey the water from reservoirs underground generally to a reservoir in the city, from which it goes into water mains ... One of the paradoxes of the New York system is that it’s an incredible system, but you can’t see a lot of it. For the most part the system is invisible.

GG: You talk about how unification of the city in 1898 saved Brooklyn from a water supply crisis.

DS: Brooklyn was really struggling … They were trying to get more water from infiltration galleries and wells on Long Island. Brooklyn was growing tremendously. It was annexing a lot of communities, many of which decided to join Brooklyn in part because of improved services … Gravesend, Flatbush and these other villages that had been independent entities ... Brooklyn was trying as hard it could to keep pace with the growth … A lot of it was financial. They didn’t have the real estate resources to raise the funds to expand the system in a significant way. By the 1890s it had become a pretty perilous situation. There had to be some sort of a larger solution, and consolidation provided that. One of the points that was raised prior to the vote on consolidation was that it would save Brooklyn’s water supply.

GG: You use the term “urban democratic imperialism” to describe how New York City initially related to communities in the Catskills as it searched for new sources of water.

DS: I would no longer describe it that way. I don’t think that the relationship today fits that bill. For me, a lot of the book is about the evolution in that relationship from one that is more one-sided to one that is certainly much more balanced. That’s what the narrative arc is about.

New York City [historically] is the economic engine of the state. Even though in the late 19th/early 20th century and beyond the Legislature is dominated by rural interests, there’s a recognition that New York City needs an adequate water supply to function. And if New York City falls apart, the state is not going to succeed. Through the democratic system, through the legislature, New York [City] is able to secure rights to take water from the Catskills. That’s the democratic part — they have to get permission from the state.

But the way they actually go about it, they pretty much have free reign. There are a lot of caveats to that. They had to compensate people [for the seizure of farms, businesses, etc. that stood in the way of reservoir and aqueduct construction] … some people were fairly compensated, some clearly were not, some of that had to do with gender and education … New York [City] got pretty much what it wanted. It certainly had to do some things — maintain certain highways and bridges, compensate people who were directly affected … For the most part, it held most of the cards. That’s what begins to change because of the environmental movement and some of these federal laws. 

GG: As the book goes on, the city’s construction of new reservoirs in the Catskills seems more questionable. You argue that the city had other options, like conserving water through metering and tapping the Hudson River, which they refused to do.

DS: A lot of this gets back to self-image. To this day, one of the points of pride of the city is its excellent water supply. It’s part of the ethos and self-identity of the city. That was a big part of the debate about the Hudson … We’re a world class city after World War II … The idea that we’re going to take this crappy water from the Hudson? No way.

There clearly were other alternatives that existed. It’s clear a city the size of New York had to obtain water from outside the city. If New York [City] had been serious about conserving water from the nineteen-teens or nineteen-twenties, maybe they didn’t need to build all those reservoirs. That’s a little bit speculative but it’s not a crazy assertion. It’s quite possible they could have instilled an ethos of conservation. This is what happened in many other cities. New York [City] was way behind the times. They didn’t start really getting serious about metering residential properties until the late 1980s/early 90s, and they didn’t finish that until several years ago.

The differences between Philadelphia and New York [City] are quite stark. Philadelphia was taking dirty water from industrial rivers and cleaning it up, and putting a lot of emphasis on conservation. And New York is doing the exact opposite. They’re taking this very pure water from far away and they’re not too concerned with how much they use. It is a disturbing story and it shows various things. This gets back to the imperial angle. No one was too concerned about what New York City was doing … The state aided and abetted that behavior. The federal government wasn’t on the scene in terms of regulating municipal water supply in any serious way. New York [City] was sort of this colossus that could do what it wanted to do. By the 1970s/80s that starts to change. And the real wake-up call comes in the late 80s, early 1990s when the federal government orders it to build a filtration plant. That’s this really significant moment where I think the story is before and after that point in time.

GG: So the state did not pressure the city of New York to look at other water supply options — like the Hudson River — because of its economic importance?

DS: That was part of it, and there was a lot of inertia. They had built all of these other reservoirs. There were a few thousand people who were going to be directly affected [by the building of the last reservoir and dam project, Cannonsville in Delaware County]. New York City had tremendous political power at that point [1950s and 60s]. There were mechanisms — the state Water Power and Control Commission — that had to sign off on the plans for building Cannonsville. But the whole discussion — at the state level — became about the quality of the Hudson water. New York City did an excellent job of framing the argument and making it be about how polluted the Hudson was rather than … We can clean it up.

As it turns out, the Cannonsville Reservoir has not been a resounding success. It’s prone to a lot of pollution problems, particularly more so in the past when there was more agricultural activity … In many cases the reservoir — for a certain period of time — doesn’t get used that much for the purpose it was built for. That decision [to build Cannonsville] probably didn’t make a lot of sense. New York [City] could have gotten the next increment of water from the Hudson. You could have saved that landscape from being developed... That story could have turned and taken a different direction. I hadn’t seen very much discussed [about this] in the research I had done — people just glossed it over.

[But] I ended up finding these papers of Abel Wolman … the most prominent sanitary engineer in the United States [he was sharply criticized for his recommendation that the city look seriously at the use of Hudson River water] … It was this interesting “what if” kind of moment … He’s this sort of enemy of the city in the 1950s, and then he comes back in the 1980s [at age 94] and gives a very powerful presentation at a public hearing [on the need to increase safeguards for the city’s upstate watershed]. He’s been part of the story for 40 to 50 years … That was one of my favorite things that happened in researching the book.

GG: What were others?

One of the most rewarding aspects of the research was figuring out that New York has all these reservoirs and water-related infrastructure that became other things that most people are not aware of. There’s this whole network of parks and the Great Lawn and pools and other things that used to be reservoirs that are now this pretty formidable recreational network. I kept turning up examples of the connection between the water system and culture and recreation.

One of the conditions of building the [about to be completed] Croton filtration plant was that New York City agreed to pump a couple hundred extra million dollars into rehabilitating parks in the Bronx. The filtration plant is being constructed in Van Cortlandt Park and there was a lot of resistance to losing parkland … in order to get the deal through the state Legislature, New York [City] had to agree [to this investment] … a significant number of rehabilitation projects [have been] funded with money linked to the water system. To me, that was one of the most interesting aspects of the book … the transformation of what the city itself looked like. As they started to get more water from outside the city, the [original] reservoirs within the city could then be turned over for other uses, parks, libraries, etc.

GG: It seems like a part of our history that’s so below the radar. Why don’t we have more of a sense of that part of our physical heritage?

DS: That’s a good question. Part of it is that these things are geographically scattered. Williamsbridge Park in the Bronx, which is far away from Ridgewood Reservoir in Brooklyn, which is far away from the main branch of the New York Public Library [the main library building at 42nd Street and Fifth Avenue is the former site of the Croton Reservoir, a four-story gray edifice that dominated what would become midtown Manhattan] … It’s not well advertised. They are also scattered in time … This is something that happens over and over again. The water system shaped what the city itself looked like. That was really important to me.


Note about the featured image: 

Completed in 1915, the Ashokan Reservoir holds 122.9 billion gallons at full capacity. The Reservoir is located in Ulster County, about 13 miles west of Kingston and 73 miles north of New York City. It was formed by the damming of Esopus Creek, which eventually flows northeast and drains into the Hudson River. Including the water it receives from the Schoharie Reservoir, the Ashokan supplies about 40% of New York City's daily drinking water in non-drought periods.

According to David Soll, construction of the Ashokan flooded several thousand acres, erased eight towns, and forced two thousand people to relocate.

All images courtesy of the city's Department of Environmental Protection.  

What Future For The City's Waterfront?


NEW YORK — The destruction along the city's waterfront caused by Superstorm Sandy was a wake-up call about the city's present and future as the ocean surged and whole communities were torn up.

Even so, very little of the discussion churned up by the storm has been translated into actual policies aimed at meeting the challenge of rising sea levels while balancing development and recreation along the coastline.

The Metropolitan Waterfront Alliance, a coalition of over 700 partners, hopes to change that.

Roland Lewis, the executive director of the alliance, said that before Sandy hit, it might have been easy to forget the geographic destiny of the five boroughs. "We were reminded that we are an island people and a coastal city," he said.

His organization hosted a conference yesterday at Hudson River Park's Pier 40 that brought together policymakers, industry officials and activists to talk about how New Yorkers and the coast can prosper together. Six candidates for mayor participated in a forum on a boat moored to the pier, answering questions on topics ranging from ferries to sustainability.

RELATED: Superstorm Sandy Shapes Discussion At Mayoral Forum

Predictably, given the seriousness of the debate, registration was up from last year with over 600 people expected to attend — about 100 more from the previous year.

The conference, besides bringing together stakeholders of the waterfront to discuss important matters of how to use the coastline for industry and recreation, served as an opportunity to showcase the alliance's "five-point strategy for the restoration, resilience and revitalization of the NYC waterfront."

The platform calls for creating a system of ferries integrated with the transit system and serving as a backup when disaster strikes; setting guidelines for developers to build according to the goals of making structures resilient against storms; exploring ways to enhance use of docks; reinforcing the role of the waterfront in industry; and establishing a Department of Waterfront that would take over for what more than a dozen agencies do.

Lewis said the platform was already in the works when Sandy struck. The alliance had scheduled a conference at the South Street Seaport Museum for Nov. 9 — just days after Sandy pummeled the city. The museum, though, was flooded, and the alliance was forced to move because the venue was washed out. There was an upside to the storm's timing: Sandy forced attention on the waterfront, and the conference attendees were together at the right time to give mutual support and reassess the issues.

"I think these issues would have been high-level and we would have pushed forward, but obviously Sandy has made it a multibillion dollar existential question," Lewis said.

The alliance has a track record of helping to shape debates surrounding the waterfront, Lewis said. He said its 2008 platform helped inform the city's comprehensive waterfront plan, which has been lauded as a national model.

Of the new platform, Lewis said that the alliance's partners don't all agree with the positions, but that there is a "consensus."

"They agree with the general idea of creating a vibrant, resilient waterfront," he said.

One subject left unaddressed in the platform is the question of waterfront communities, and plans being made to offer buyouts to homeowners.

Lewis said that was on purpose. "I think speaking broadly there will obviously be changes in the lives of waterfront communities," he said.

But he said the alliance was waiting to hear what the Bloomberg administration had to say about the matter. The city's Economic Development Corp., is expected to release a study soon.

The mayor, however, has made clear that the city would not pullback from developing the waterfront. Lewis was not as certain. "I'm not sure that's tenable as time goes on," he said. "I think there's going to be a more nuanced view of that."


Photo of Long Island City, Queens, waterfront by Hanna Elise, used under Creative Commons license.

State Moves Forward With Plan To Let Polluters Audit Themselves


NEW YORK — New York is moving forward with a new policy that could transform the way polluting industries interact with state regulators.

Polluters across New York will be able to see penalties waived in exchange for reporting violations themselves, according to the proposed “self-audit” policy that Gotham Gazette first reported about last year before it was made public.

Under the proposed policy, any entities regulated by state law — such as chemical storage and industrial facilities, wastewater treatment plants, and farms — will be eligible.

The public has until April 22 to review and comment on the self-audit policy before it is finalized and put into place by the DEC:

The state says a more flexible approach to enforcement will lead to enhanced compliance with environmental regulations.

Similar policies have been enacted in other states, and at the federal level.

Pollution generators may also be able to secure more time to report and correct violations in exchange for making their operations more transparent to state environmental regulators. State Department of Environmental Conservation spokeswoman Lori Severino said it is likely the policy will be finalized this year.

The DEC maintains that the new policy would not impact how the state monitors sources of air, water, and ground pollution.

Severino said in an email that “all current means of scheduling inspections would continue.” She explained that “the scheduling of inspections varies by program and statutory or regulatory requirements … Certain facilities must be inspected on a regular basis … Other facilities may be selected for inspection randomly from a large universe of regulated facilities. Inspections may also be scheduled based upon a complaint from the public.”

One key aspect of the policy is that the state will offer increased incentives to companies in exchange for more substantive steps to control pollution.

Examples of meaningful steps that companies can take include compliance audits, and environmental management or pollution prevention systems that “reduce the adverse environmental impact of their (companies’) activities, products, and services.”

In a Feb. 22 statement on the draft self-audit policy, DEC Commissioner Joseph Martens noted: “This policy will encourage companies to audit their operations and quickly return to compliance before an inspection is scheduled and fines are levied for violations.” He added, “It will also reward companies who make a long-term commitment to beyond compliance performance in order to save money and protect the environment.”

The policy has been endorsed by the Business Council of New York State. It also has qualified support from some environmental groups.

Rob Moore, executive director of Environmental Advocates of New York, said that the draft policy is a significant improvement over an earlier version obtained by the Gotham Gazette in May 2012. He noted that repeat environmental offenders will not be able to take advantage of the new policy.

“They’ve done a really good job moving this in a positive direction,” he said, referring to state regulators. “It’s an incentive for people to report infractions … (and) they are also on a pathway for the DEC to take a look at the whole operation.”

The draft policy waives civil penalties for polluters that report infractions prior to a state-ordered inspection. Certain violations are excluded, including recurring violations, those involving criminal activity, and those categorized as “significant” or “high-priority” under the provisions of the Federal Clean Water and Air acts.

The draft document states that a violation entailing “serious actual harm, or one that may have presented an imminent and substantial endangerment to human health or the environment” is not eligible for penalty waiver under the new policy. But the draft also acknowledges that the new policy will pertain to “violations that negatively impact human health or the environment.”

The policy appears to give the DEC expanded latitude in determining how to approach a violation of environmental law, and in deciding whether penalties and other punitive actions should — or should not — be taken.

Lori Severino said in an email that “serious actual harm would be determined based on the particular circumstances of the violation, but could include illegal disposal causing contamination of surface or ground water, or intentional releases of carcinogens into the air.”

Richard Walka, a senior vice-president at D&B Engineers and Architects, which specializes in environmental projects and works with private firms on compliance issues, argued that the DEC would proceed with caution. “That latitude is always going to go to the conservative side … They’re not going to give up any power,” he said of the DEC. “They’d be foolish to stop that (use of enforcement capabilities).”

To be eligible for a possible penalty waiver, violations must be reported within 30 days, and “corrected” within 60 days. Correcting violations includes “remediating any environmental harm associated with the violations, as well as implementing procedures to prevent future violations.”

The draft policy notes that an alternate time frame may be established “as part of an environmental audit agreement.” As a further incentive, companies and other pollution generators that enter into self-audit agreements with the state will “not be prioritized for inspection during the limited audit period” if they meet certain conditions.

Severino said that audit agreements would generally be completed within a year or less. She explained that during that period “DEC would not prioritize (will not target) that facility for inspection to identify violations, since it would not be an effective use of DEC resources to inspect a facility that has agreed to undergo a compliance audit and report those findings to the DEC.”

But, she added, “That said, DEC always has authority to enter a facility, and conduct an inspection, if warranted, and will do so …”

Polluting facilities that enter into self-audit agreements with the DEC may also be able to secure additional penalty waivers, financial and technical assistance with implementing pollution control strategies, and public recognition under the DEC’s New York Environmental Leaders program.

The union that represents DEC’s professional and technical staff has argued in the past that the DEC does not have sufficient resources to properly monitor self-audit agreements with regulated polluters. The agency has lost several hundred staff members since 2008.

Moore agreed that this was an open question. “The situation with DEC staffing is troublesome,” he said. “(The DEC is) almost fully reliant on self-reported information … They don’t have the resources to collect information … That’s really shameful. The state has to correct that problem. Even people being regulated recognize that it’s a problem.”

He said the self-auditing program would be “most successful when it complements a robust enforcement program.”

Darren Suarez, government affairs director at the Business Council, concurred that the new policy was not intended to deal with bad actors. He agreed with Moore that DEC enforcement was still a critical tool for dealing with environmental offenders and, he added, to “put them out of business” if necessary.

Walka, who worked at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency before entering the private sector, said that the EPA’s development of a self-audit program in the late 80’s led to a “tremendous increase in compliance. I see this (the new DEC policy) as an opportunity for compliance.”

He agreed that the policy represented a shift in philosophy. But he argued that it could actually be a more effective way to expand the DEC’s — and the state’s — regulatory reach, especially into new companies and growing industries. It could even be a way to attract companies into the state, he said.

“It’s a little bit of a paradigm shift. The state has always been a rigorous enforcer. They would not have done this before. They have realized they have had some changes in resources … They are focusing on the new owners in this policy. These are the new low hanging fruit.”

Could a more flexible approach to compliance lead to less pollution of New York’s air, soil, and waterways?

“Will it work? Time will tell. The next step will be metrics. How do we track this? That will be the next challenge. They can pull the plug on this if they need to,” said Walka.

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