Newtown Creek group criticizes EPA’s CSO plan
by Benjamin Fang
Feb 26, 2020 | 2655 views | 0 0 comments | 237 237 recommendations | email to a friend | print
A community group closely observing the federal cleanup of Newtown Creek is unhappy with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)’s decision to take no further action regarding combined sewer overflows (CSO).

Last November, the EPA released a proposed plan that determined that the city’s Long-Term Control Plan (LTCP) to address CSOs met the needs of the Superfund cleanup of the polluted waterbody.

As part of the $1.3 billion LTCP, which would be fully implemented by 2042, the city’s Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) would construct a storage tunnel to house CSO discharge.

The plan estimates a 61 percent reduction of the over 1.2 billion gallons of CSOs, a combination of stormwater runoff and sewage, discharged into the Newtown Creek annually when heavy rains overtax the sewer system.

Members of the Newtown Creek Community Advisory Group (CAG), which represents stakeholders like property owners, environmental groups and government agencies, criticized the EPA’s proposed plan.

In a written comment submitted to EPA, CAG wrote that it was “deeply concerned” that the agency would take CSO reduction “off the table,” given the dangers it poses to people who live or work near the creek.

“Allowing ongoing pollution to continue is unjust for us and unacceptable for EPA,” the group wrote. “We believe the EPA has the responsibility to pursue further action and prevent this ongoing pollution source.”

CAG also blasted the EPA for attempting to “downplay the severity” of CSOs by comparing it to other pollution sources that have yet to be evaluated.

“It seems very premature to say this is not an issue when there’s not even a comparison or a baseline to make that evaluation,” said Willis Elkins, co-chair of the CAG and executive director of the Newtown Creek Alliance (NCA).

The group called it “premature” for the federal agency to make a decision on CSO reduction, given that proposed remedies for the Superfund site have not been finalized yet. The creek is still in the remedial investigation and feasibility study phase of the Superfund process.

CAG members also noted that deciding no further action is needed other than the LTCP requires review from the National Remedy Review Board.

Elkins said he wanted to see a lot more than a 61 percent reduction in CSOs. While 100 percent capture is both difficult to attain and incredibly costly, he said, he would have liked to see an alternative that would have captured 75 or even 85 percent of CSOs.

Some possible alternatives could have included additional green infrastructure, capture, treatment and diversion.

“There is not a lot of middle ground there,” he said. “I’m concerned that they didn’t properly evaluate other remediation options.”

The EPA anticipates monitoring samplings of CSO discharge on a quarterly basis until the LTCP is fully implemented in 2042. If there are persistent increases in chemical concentrations in the CSO, the EPA would consider a “track-back program” that identifies sources of elevated contaminants.

Other controls could include sediment traps, oil absorbent pads or in-creek maintenance dredging.

CAG wrote in its comment that it found those approaches “ineffective and unproven Band-Aids that will achieve very little” in the cleanup of the CSO discharge.

Elkins added that those proposed ideas didn’t seem fully thought out.

“We would’ve liked to see more proactive solutions being proposed as part of it,” he said.

Public comment on the EPA’s proposed plan for CSOs ends on February 28. According to EPA project manager Stephanie Vaughn, the agency hosted two formal meetings on the proposal to collect comments.

Once the public comment period ends, the EPA will take all of those comments and form a “responsiveness summary.”

“That responsiveness summary becomes a key part of our Record of Decision,” Vaughn said, referring to the legal document where the EPA formally picks a remedy.

The EPA expects the Record of Decision to be out by this spring.

In the meantime, Elkins is urging people who care about the creek to comment on the plan.

“This is going to be ongoing pollution for decades to come,” he said. “We really want people to speak out.”
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