Thanks to a recent ruling by the New York State Supreme Court, the New York City Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) is required to notify the public of combined sewage overflow discharges within four hours, in accordance with the Sewage Protection Right to Know Act (SPRTKA). Pace Environmental Litigation Clinic, on behalf of seven environmental organizations – Riverkeeper, Save the Sound, Bronx Council for Environmental Quality, Newtown Creek Alliance, New York City Water Trail Association, NY/NJ Baykeeper, and Waterkeeper Alliance – successfully petitioned the Court to compel DEP to promptly notify the public of CSO discharges of untreated and partially treated sewage and to provide the group a list of all CSO discharges that were not reported as required from 2018 to June 2023.
Approximately 21 billion gallons of raw sewage enter the coastal waters of New York City every year through 460 CSO outfalls located across the five boroughs. Sewage discharges typically occur during rainstorms, when combined sewer systems – in which wastewater from buildings and stormwater runoff are carried in the same pipe – cannot handle the volume, resulting in an overflow and creating a public health hazard for people who come into contact with the polluted water. That includes kayakers, canoers, boaters, even water quality monitors.
Enacted in 2013, SPRTKA mandates that publicly owned treatment works and publicly owned sewer systems report these discharges within four hours of being discovered. Municipalities then notify the public through NY Alert, the mass alert system for New York State (registration available here). The alerts must include the date, time, and location of the discharge, as well as the duration and the estimated volume of the discharge. The alert must also specify whether the sewage is untreated or if it received primary treatment with or without disinfection. The complaint noted that DEP demonstrated a pattern of failing to provide much of that information to the public about any incident, a violation of its legal obligation to do so.
“New York City residents are increasingly recreating in local waters, but they need critical information about when and where it is safe to do so,” said Roger Reynolds, Senior Legal Director of Save the Sound. “CSO discharges create local conditions hazardous to NYC residents, and those discharges are only going to get worse as extreme weather becomes more frequent and more severe due to climate change. When this information is made available in real time, it will make it all the more clear how urgent it is to finally eliminate these discharges once and for all.”
“This victory marks an important milestone in Riverkeeper’s long standing fight to stop sewage discharges into the Hudson. The vast majority of that sewage comes from New York City to the tune of 21 billion gallons a year. We are confident that once New Yorkers are informed every time that sewage flows, they will join our call for New York City to treat its wastewater and stop using our rivers as open sewers,” said Mike Dulong, Legal Program Director at Riverkeeper.
“For more than a decade now, the waterfront stakeholder community has been asking DEP to improve its CSO monitoring programs and, especially, to provide clear and timely notification of the location, volume, and duration of CSO discharges. We believe that an informed public is precisely the ally and advocate that the agency needs to begin to solve this huge problem,” said Rob Buchanan, Steering Committee, NYC Water Trail Association.
“The timely notification of raw sewage dumps into the waters of the NY/NJ Harbor is critical to the health and safety of residents living locally in NYC and throughout the region,” said NY/NJ Baykeeper Greg Remaud. “We’re proud of our partners for ensuring this information will now reach the public when it should.”
“The Sewage Pollution Right to Know Law was a crucial step in further educating the public about the unfortunate realities of combined sewer overflow,” said Willis Elkins, Executive Director of the Newtown Creek Alliance. “This decision will protect human health, and hopefully encourage large scale improvements that reduce sewage overflow and make for cleaner and more accessible waterways.”
“It’s tragic that in 2023, more than 50 years after passage of the federal Clean Water Act, the City of New York continues to dump billions of gallons of raw sewage mixed with stormwater into local waterways each year,” said Daniel E. Estrin, general counsel and legal director for Waterkeeper Alliance. “Until this ‘combined sewer overflow’ problem is fully remedied, there will remain an urgent need for communities to know when and where these discharges are occurring so people can make informed decisions about whether it’s safe to come in contact with their public trust waters. We’re grateful that the court understood the public need for this vital information and has now ordered the City to comply with the letter of the Sewage Protection Right to Know Act.”
“The Bronx Council for Environmental Quality congratulates the Hudson Riverkeeper for their leadership on this important protection. We are the only part of NYC on the mainland and fronted by the Hudson, Harlem, East, Bronx, and Hutchinson Rivers, the Long Island Sound and Westchester Creek – all of which have CSOs. Our people have an inalienable right to know when it is safe to boat, swim, or fish in the water,” said Karen Argenti, BCEQ Secretary.