Stephen Nessen, Reporter, WNYC News
Stephen Nessen reports for the WNYC Newsroom and can often be heard live on Morning Edition.
The Harlem sewage wastewater treatment plant dumped 200 million gallons of sewage into the Hudson last week — and over the course of a year, 30 billion gallons of combined rain and sewage overflow is released into the New York harbor, according to the captain of the Hudson Riverkeeper boat, John Lipscomb.
Hundreds of millions of gallons of raw sewage leaked into the Hudson River after a fire tore through the North River wastewater Treatment facility in Harlem last week, but the presence of untreated waste water in the area’s waterways is very common.
Lipscomb, whose small team of scientists conducts water tests throughout the year, said tests conducted in May revealed all 14 sites in Manhattan failed to meet federal guidelines for swimming.
But a night before the spill at the Harlem plant, test results from 150 miles of river showed all sites had passed.
"All our sites were in the acceptable range per federal guidelines for swimming," Lipscomb said, because it hadn’t rained in days.
Rain this week at the North River has complicated matters.
"We're not going to ever get the clean end to this story because we're going to start having inputs from those chronic rain related sources," Lipscomb said, referring to regular sewer overflows that occur when it rains in New York.
Cortney Worrall with Waterfront Alliance, a consortium of water related advocacy groups, said her main concern now is "when can we determine that it is safe to swim or kayak in different places and that there might not be adequate monitoring data to know exactly what parts of the Hudson River are safe and which aren’t."
On Friday, as the Harlem plant pumped gallons of raw sewage into the Hudson, Lipscomb and Riverkeeper spotted a man and woman swimming just north of the plant.
"They clearly were not aware of the situation,” he said. “They clearly had not been advised when they entered the park that there was a severe issue with water quality at that time, at that location.”
"We were disappointed with the level of warning the public was getting from day one," he said.
The city’s Department of Environmental Protection declined to be interviewed.
City health officials continued to tell New Yorkers on Monday to stay out of some area waterways after the sewage spill at a Harlem wastewater treatment plant last week.
Beach advisories remain in effect at Sea Gate in Brooklyn and South Beach, Midland Beach and Cedar Grove Beach on Staten Island.
The health department also says the Hudson River, the East River — from the Robert F. Kennedy Bridge to the Verrazano Bridge — the Harlem River and the Kill Van Kull to the Goethals Bridge are not fit for recreational activities involving water contact.