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New York State Urged to Protect Water Quality in New York City


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Clean water advocates call for health-based standards to ensure coastal waters are safe for public use.

On behalf of the Riverkeeper, NRDC (Natural Resources Defense Council), and Save the Sound, the Pace Environmental Litigation Clinic submitted comments to the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) that strongly urge the agency to set new water quality standards for the coastal waters in and around New York City in a way that makes them healthier for recreation and restores ecological functions. The comments were submitted on Monday as part of a comment period to reevaluate New York City’s waters and consider new water quality standards.

In 2017, Pace Environmental Litigation Clinic filed a federal lawsuit on behalf of the partner organizations to compel the Environmental Protection Agency to adopt health protective standards that override the DEC’s. The pressure of that pending lawsuit compelled the DEC to open a comment period and propose new water quality standards.

New standards are needed to address New York City’s sewer overflows, which push about 20 billion gallons of raw sewage annually into coastal waters in all five boroughs, fouling the water with dangerous pathogens and potentially exposing recreationists to the contaminated water. The city’s current sewage management plans call for continuing the vast majority of those overflows for decades to come, but stronger water quality standards would drive more progress towards eliminating this pollution.

Using information submitted by the public through an interactive map created by the Pratt Institute Spatial Analysis and Visualization Initiative, the commenters documented more than 280,000 distinct uses of New York City’s coastal waters, including kayaking, shell-fishing, and swimming. Water quality improvements in the last several decades have brought New Yorkers back onto and in waters like Hudson River, Bronx River, and Flushing Bay for recreation; and there is a need for further progress to meet the recreational needs of New Yorkers.

“Our campaign to identify where the public swim, kayak and recreate in and around New York City and the Lower Hudson River proves that New Yorkers are taking to their waters by the tens of thousands in both sanctioned and unsanctioned locations in this region. The widespread water recreation we documented makes the case for the position we have been fighting for–that we must continue to strive to meet the swimmable goal of the Clean Water Act here in New York. The health and wellbeing of our communities depends on it,” said Tracy Brown, President of Riverkeeper. “In addition to our coalition partners, Riverkeeper would like to thank the Pratt Institute and the NY-NJ Harbor & Estuary Program for creating and promoting an interactive map that helped residents document their recreational activity so that New York State sees the critical need to set a high bar for improving water quality.”

“Our organizations have been litigating since 2017 to require EPA, DEC, and DEP to set appropriate public health standards for swimmable and fishable waters in and around New York City. We are gratified they have started a process to do so, but we will be vigilant to ensure it is done right,” said Roger Reynolds, senior legal counsel at Save the Sound. “The water quality standards are not theoretical – they will directly impact how quickly and thoroughly New York City will have to act to eliminate its more than 20 billion gallons of sewage overflows that constitute an ongoing environmental justice catastrophe and imperil the health of New York City swimmers and boaters.”

“New York City’s residents deserve clean waterways free of sewage so that they can go boating,  fishing, and swimming without worry. But the only way to ensure this is for the DEC to adopt health-protective water quality standards, which will curtail the huge amount of untreated sewage the city releases into local waterways,” said Larry Levine, Senior Attorney and Director of Urban Water Infrastructure at NRDC (Natural Resources Defense Council). “After years of lawsuits and delay, it’s about time for the state to act and we welcome these first steps.”

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