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Environmental groups sue NYC to enforce Sewage Pollution Right to Know Act

Pace Environmental Litigation Clinic files lawsuit against NYC DEP on behalf of eight national, regional and local organizations to ensure the public is warned when city sewers are discharging. 

Groups say that New York City’s lack of compliance puts the public’s health at risk. 

NEW YORK — The Pace Environmental Litigation Clinic sued the New York City Department of Environmental Protection for not complying with a state law requiring operators of public sewage treatment works to notify the public of sewage overflows within a reasonable amount of time. 

The Pace Clinic sued DEP behalf of Riverkeeper, Connecticut Fund for the Environment/Save the Sound, Bronx Council for Environmental Quality, Newtown Creek Alliance, Hudson River Watertrail Association, NY/NJ Baykeeper, and Waterkeeper Alliance.

On days when it hasn’t recently rained, city waters are typically safe for kayaking and recreation. But almost every time it rains, polluted stormwater runoff mixes with raw sewage in the combined sewer system and overflows into our waterways where people swim, fish, and boat. These are called “combined sewer overflows.” New York City discharges more than 20 billion gallons of sewage through these overflows each year.

The Sewage Pollution Right to Know Act, the law which the groups are trying to enforce, mandates that the operator of public sewage treatment works must notify the public within four hours after the discovery of combined sewer overflows. New York City isn’t complying, putting public health at risk. 

As a matter of practice, instead of notifying the public when its sewers discharge, the NYC DEP waits to send notifications only if, according to its modeling, it expects enough sewage has been discharged to exceed state water quality standards. When the sewers are discharging but there has not been a water quality violation, this notification procedure jeopardizes the health of those who live, work or recreate on the waters and may come into contact with raw sewage. Raw sewage contamination can cause gastroenteritis, skin rashes, pinkeye, ear, nose and throat problems, respiratory infections, meningitis, hepatitis and other illnesses.

“By law, the city must provide real-time information to help the public avoid exposure to dangerous waterborne pathogens,” said Daniel E. Estrin, advocacy director of Waterkeeper Alliance. “Waterkeepers like Riverkeeper, Long Island Soundkeeper, and NY/NJ Baykeeper are the eyes and ears of their waterways, constantly in contact with the water. They rely on sewage dischargers providing timely and accurate information to avoid illness.”

“The Sewage Protection Right to Know Act gives communities and individuals the right to know when and where sewage is fouling their local waterways so they can take measures to protect themselves and their families,” said Roger Reynolds, Senior Legal Counsel for CFE/Save the Sound. “New York City is imperiling public health by discharging 20 billion gallons of untreated sewage into local waterways per year and compounding that danger by illegally failing to notify the public as the SPRTKA requires.”

“When boaters, anglers and, yes, swimmers get into the water in New York City, they should be alerted when the nearby outfalls are discharging raw sewage and industrial waste,” said Mike Dulong, Riverkeeper Senior Attorney. “Anything less puts them at risk of serious illness. Riverkeeper fought for Sewage Pollution Right to Know notices in part because they are one crucial way to notify the public about how our sewers operate. Armed with that knowledge, we can push more strongly for fishable, swimmable waterways.” 

“Notification of sewage overflow into our estuary is not just about protecting the health of waterway users, but also informing all upland residents as to when the City, and we as producers of waste water, are directly polluting our local environment,” said Willis Elkins, Executive Director of the Newtown Creek Alliance. “Reducing CSO and creating cleaner waterways can only be achieved when the public is fully aware of how and when our sewer system is failing. “


About Waterkeeper Alliance
Waterkeeper Alliance is a global movement uniting more than 300 Waterkeeper Organizations and Affiliates around the world, focusing citizen action on issues that affect our waterways, from pollution to climate change. The Waterkeeper movement patrols and protects over 2.5 million square miles of rivers, lakes and coastlines in the Americas, Europe, Australia, Asia, and Africa. For more information please visit:

About Riverkeeper
Riverkeeper is a member-supported watchdog organization dedicated to defending the Hudson River and its tributaries, and protecting the drinking water supply of more than nine million New York City and Hudson Valley residents. Riverkeeper has helped to establish globally recognized standards for waterway and watershed protection and serves as the model and mentor for the growing Waterkeeper movement that includes more than 300 programs around the globe. Visit us at


About Save the Sound
Save the Sound is a bi-state program of the Connecticut Fund for the Environment with an established 45-year track record of restoring and protecting the waters and shorelines of the Long Island Sound. From its offices in Mamaroneck, NY and New Haven, CT, Save the Sound works for a cleaner, healthier, and more vibrant Long Island Sound where humans and marine life can prosper year-round. Learn more at

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