Sewage Leak Plugged, But Questions About Hudson Safety Remain

Millions of gallons of partially treated human waste have been released into the Hudson River since Wednesday, making the river a no-go area for boaters and swimmers, and threatening this weekend's Ironman triathlon.

On Friday afternoon, Ironman organizers announced the swim would proceed, following the repair of the ruptured sewer line. A warning to stay away from the river will be lifted at 11 p.m. Friday.

The Westchester Department of Health said a sewer line break in Tarrytown left officials no choice but to allow 3.4 million gallons of raw sewage to flow into the Hudson. The waste was been treated with chlorine, but was still considered a danger to public health — and to sensitive noses.

The nick-of-time patching of the sewage line is a relief to 2,500 Ironman contestants who paid nearly $900 each, but the spill underlines the susceptibility of the mighty Hudson, to human-caused contamination, as evidenced by a spate of other accidents connected with infrastructure breakdowns.

Almost one year ago, a ruptured sewer main caused waste to spill into Sing Sing Creek, which flows into the Hudson. Weeks earlier, 200 million gallons of waste were released from the North River Wastewater Treatment Plant as the result of an electrical fire.

Beach closures in New York nearly doubled due last year, in large part, to waste water releases, according to a study by the Natural Resources Defense Council.

Riverkeeper, an environmental group that focuses on the area’s waterways, said federal funding for wastewater infrastructure has dropped sharply in recent years, leaving more than 600 facilities in New York operating beyond their life expectancy.

John Lipscomb, patrol boat captain and manager of the water quality program for Riverkeeper, said a much bigger problem is combined sewer overflows, the mix of rainwater and household waste that is discharged into New York waterways after heavy rains.

Lipscomb estimates CSO’s resulting from rains Friday and Saturday could cause the release of 150 million gallons of untreated water – nearly 50 times what was spilled this week in Westchester.

“I would not swim tomorrow,” Lipscomb said.

One day after the Westchester spill, Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed a bill, the Sewage Pollution Right to Know Act, promoted by Riverkeeper and other groups, ,which would require treatment plants to alert the public when they release waste into waterways. (Regulators already must be notified, but the new law requires waste discharge alerts, similar to the pollen and severe weather warnings issued by authorities).

The law does not take effect until May 2013.