Advocates irked by slow pace of Harlem River cleanup

Bronx residents and environmentalists are voicing frustration at the slow pace of city action on a plan to reduce sewage overflows into the Harlem River that are producing unsafe bacteria levels in the river.

By Christina Taylor. The point at which water from Tibbetts Brook enters the sewer.
By Christina Taylor. The point at which water from Tibbetts Brook enters the sewer.

Cost for one proposal could top $50 million

Bronx residents and environmentalists are voicing frustration at the slow pace of city action on a plan to reduce sewage overflows into the Harlem River that are producing unsafe bacteria levels in the river.

At a meeting of the Harlem River Working Group on May 11 at Bronx Museum of the Arts, leaders of the group lamented the city’s lack of action and communication, and said they did not know when or if a proposed corrective plan would be implemented.

“The biggest problem in America for water is combined sewer overflows,” said Dart Westphal, co-chair of the water committee of the Bronx Council for Environmental Quality and a member of the working group. “The sewage treatment can’t handle the overflow.”

Tibbetts Brook, an underground stream, flows into the city sewage system. When rainwater causes sewer overflows, untreated sewage flows directly into the Harlem River. Westphal said the untreated sewage dumping into the river has 300 times the acceptable level of germs and that the river’s edges have tested at 2-3 times the acceptable level of pollutants.

“We have 4.5 to 45.5 million gallons of water going to the sewer from Tibbetts Brook every day,” said Christina Taylor, executive director of Friends of Van Cortlandt Park. “This is like science fiction. It’s mind boggling.”

Tibbetts Brook, which was buried in the early 20th century, begins its journey north of the Bronx into Van Cortlandt Park. The stream cuts through the park and into Van Cortlandt Lake, then continues underground to connect with the Harlem River.

A proposed process to bring the buried stream above ground so that it empties into the river without passing through the sewage system is called “daylighting.” The working group has developed a petition to “daylight” Tibbetts Brook. Bronx Community Board 8, which includes Van Cortlandt Park, passed a resolution in March in support of the initiative.

“Daylighting Tibbetts Brook will not only reduce the combined sewer overflows and pollution in our water bodies, but will help with severe flooding issues along the Broadway Corridor,” noted the Board 8 statement.

It is unclear which government agencies would ultimately pick up the tab for Tibbetts Brook’s diversion plans. Organizers speculated that earmarking funding for the project might be a cause of the delay in implementation. Karen Argenti of the Bronx Council for Environmental Quality (BCEQ) said the city’s Department of Environmental Protection should fund the initiative and seek some reimbursement elsewhere, if possible.

In an email to The Herald, Argenti said that the lengthy delays have occurred because “the project is costly and still needs to be designed,” adding that the DEP estimates the daylighting initiative could cost about $50 million. In addition, she said there is uncertainty over the scope of the project. “No one can tell us exactly how much water we are talking about.”

The DEP did not respond to requests for comment.

The Waterfront Alliance, another member of the Harlem River Working Group, expressed concern over directly pumping stream water into the river under the diversion plan. “It would really be nice to know what kind of water is being dumped into the Harlem River,” said Louis Kleinman, the group’s community liaison. That view, however, is not shared by others from the group.

At the May 11 meeting, the working group also heard state officials provide an overview of the state’s Clean Power Plan and Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, a mandatory program to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

A representative from The Point Community Development Corporation was disappointed so few residents came to learn more about local environmental issues and questioned whether city agencies are doing enough to engage them.

“The conversation was at times rather technical,” said Danny Peralta, executive managing director at The Point. “There were no people from the community there, that’s for sure. It’s a pretty big meeting to not have a better attempt at conveying that message out.”

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