NYC Beachgoers Beware, EPA Hit With Sprawling Sewage Suit

MANHATTAN (CN) – Nine conservation groups brought a federal complaint Thursday over the flood of raw sewage befouling borough shorelines thanks to New York City’s outdated sewer systems.

“In the waters surrounding New York City, pollution from sewer overflows and polluted runoff keep millions of New Yorkers from safely enjoying the water for recreation,” the complaint states. “Over fifty times a year, when New York City receives as little as one-tenth of an inch of rain, its outdated sewer systems are inundated with storm water and dump raw sewage from over 400 locations along the shoreline in all five boroughs. Further, in many locations in New York City, polluted runoff alone, without raw sewage, is discharged without treatment into coastal waters.”

Sewage runoff is liable to give any unsuspecting kayaker a bad case of pink eye, but Riverkeeper and the other challengers say the problems are worse for children, the elderly, pregnant women and those with weakened immune systems.

They brought their complaint in the Southern District of New York to compel action by the Environmental Protection Agency, complaining that the government is letting state officials rely on “outdated water quality standards for pathogens that are found in raw sewage and polluted runoff.”

Indeed when the New York Department of Environmental Conservation submitted its revised water quality standards to the EPA on Feb. 24, 2016, according to the complaint, the EPA found the standards not scientifically defensible.

“Despite expressly determining that the state’s use of total and fecal coliform as water quality criteria was inconsistent with the act and scientifically indefensible, and despite instructing the State, as required by section 303(c)(3), as to the specific changes that must be made to those criteria to comply with the act, the Agency purported not to expressly disapprove of the revised water quality criteria,” the complaint states. “Rather, the agency stated it was ‘not taking action’ as to the revised criteria.”

Riverkeeper and the other challengers say they warned inaction would prompt a lawsuit back in April.

With the EPA shunning its duty, according to the complaint, New York “is still relying on water quality standards that are not scientifically defensible and allow for disease-causing pathogens in Class I and SD waters at levels that do not protect human health.”

Riverkeeper’s complaint comes one day after the Trump administration proposed a repeal of the Obama-era “Waters of the United States” rule, also known as WOTUS, which gave the EPA broad powers to regulate pollution levels in waterways and natural wetlands throughout the United States.

The National Resources Defense Council, which is also participating in the lawsuit, notes that Trump’s repeal would remove protections for streams that provide drinking water for more than 117 million people, and gut the budget for clean water enforcement and regional cleanups.

Riverkeeper and the NRDC are joined in the case by Save the Sound, Waterkeeper Alliance, NY/NJ Baykeeper, NYC Water Trail Association, Jamaica Bay Ecowatchers, Bronx Center for Environmental Quality, and the Newtown Creek Alliance.

The groups all belong to a larger coalition campaigning for stronger sewage-overflow cleanup plans under the banner of Storm Water Infrastructure Matters (SWIM).

A SWIM fact sheet claims that after the implementation of New York’s 2016 rule revisions will cause sewer overflows in the Bronx River, Flushing Bay, Flushing Creek, Alley Creek, Hutchinson River and the Gowanus Canal, producing hundreds of millions to over a billion gallons of sewage annually, with up to 35 overflows per year.

Representatives from the EPA did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

The NRDC is represented by Todd Ommen of Pace Environmental Litigation Clinic in White Plains, New York.

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