City wants to blow bubbles in Newtown Creek; Environmentalists say plan stinks

Oily sheen on the Newtown Creek in Greenpoint. Attorney General Andrew Cuomo is suing ExxonMobil and other companies that he says spilled millions of gallons of petroleum.
Office of the Attorney General

The city wants to blow bubbles into Newtown Creek in an effort to clean the polluted waterway, but activists fear the plan will dispense foul sewage fumes into the air.

Department of Environmental Protection officials are trying to install a new $115-million aeration system that will pump oxygen into the Greenpoint sludgeway so the creek can meet state and federal water quality standards.

But neighbors and environmental advocates say the plan is only a band-aid solution designed to please bureaucratic bean counters rather than solve Newtown Creek’s problems, which include an antiquated sewer system that floods the canal with raw sewage during heavy rains and 150 years of chemical seepage so severe the viaduct needs a federal cleanup.

Worse, they fear noxious bubbles could become a public health risk if they churn organic waste to the surface.

“It’s a very narrow solution to a very big problem that’s just addressing current standards for dissolved oxygen,” said Phil Musegaas, lead investigator of Riverkeeper, an environmental watchdog group that wrote a scathing letter to the city earlier this month. “It’s not improving ecology of the creek at all.”

A city spokesman said the bubble plan would not pollute the air or put nearby businesses and residents at risk, citing a 2007 study indicating that air emissions at sewage plants do not cause health problems for workers

“For the past 75 years, our wastewater treatment plants have been aerating raw sewage at significantly higher levels than what is performed at Newtown Creek,” said Department of Environmental Protection spokesman Corey Chambliss. “We’ve had no documented health issues from employees working at these sites.”

But Musegaas says the city’s data is moot because it is limited to highly regulated plant facilities — not the great outdoors.

“If you install an aeration system in Newtown Creek it’s not in a controlled area, it’s in a public waterway used by recreational kayakers and tug boat operators,” said Musegaas, who points to a separate study showing that pathogenic bacteria and endotoxins can become airborne when bubbles rise through the water. “It’s a very different scenario.”

The city will need state approval before it installs the air pipe, which is part of an agreement between City Hall and Albany to improve water quality and reduce sewage overflow on Newtown Creek by 2017.

Workers already installed a pilot version of the aeration pipes two years ago at the end of Newtown Creek in English Kills, near several sewer drains and the Metropolitan Avenue bridge.

City officials hope to expand the aeration system across the entire creek by 2015.

Environmentalists, who regularly test the coffee-colored creek for bacteria levels, claim the strong sewage scent that arises from the bubbling made them sick.

Musegaas wants the city to launch its own study of aeration on the creek before going forward with its plan.

Greenpoint resident Laura Hofmann questioned the city’s commitment to actually cleaning the waterway while continuing to allow over a billions of stormwater and human waste continue to drain into the creek after rains.

“What good is having a bubble system in the river if they’re going to continue to pour raw sewage into it?” she said. “And if you have a power outage, any fish in that end of the creek will die right away.”

Reach reporter Aaron Short at ashort@cnglocal.com or by calling (718) 260-2547.

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