Almost 2,000 gallons of transformer oil, which recently leaked from an underground Con-Edison cable pipe in Yonkers, may have ended up in the Bronx River. 

The oil leak was discovered a week ago, and originated at the intersection of Mile Square Road and Lincoln Avenue in Yonkers, roughly three blocks west of the Bronx River. According to the Bronx River Alliance, the contents of the ruptured cable pipe flowed into the river through an outfall pipe.

Con-Edison says it is still quantifying how much oil was actually released into the river.

It is also unclear whether the cable pipe contained other contaminants in addition to oil. News reports have referred to both oil and dielectric fluid. Con-Edison told NYER that the pipe only contained mineral oil, a type of dielectric fluid, which served as a coolant for its underground cable network.

The 23-mile Bronx River, which originates in Westchester, is the only river within New York City that is both freshwater and tidal. The river’s ongoing recovery from decades of industrial contamination, particularly in the South Bronx, is the subject of a really interesting short video produced by the American Museum of Natural History.

On Sunday, at least one oil sheen was clearly visible in the North Bronx section of the river, several miles downstream from Yonkers. I was not even aware the spill had taken place but saw the sheen while walking alongside the river in Bronx River Park. By coincidence, a New York City Parks Department employee called out to me soon after that, asking if I had seen any oil in the river.

Unanswered Questions

The amount of oil released into the river has not yet been confirmed, Con-Ed spokesman Sidney Alvarez told NYER. The size of the leak from the pipe itself was approximately 1900 gallons, he said. The Bronx River Alliance asserts a higher number, 2,200 gallons.

The oil “does not pose a risk to the river” and does not contain PCB’s, Alvarez stated.

I contacted the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation to confirm this information, and am awaiting their response. The City’s Parks Department, which manages Bronx River Park, is referring all media questions about the spill to the state DEC.

bronx river oil
Oil sheen in the Bronx River, visible at roughly 210th Street this past Sunday. Photo: Sarah Crean

Con-Edison was also unable to confirm to what extent the spill has been cleaned up. But booming locations in most areas of the Bronx River have been removed based on approval from the DEC, Alvarez said.

Booms are temporary floating barriers which contain a spill and help to concentrate oil in thicker surface layers so that skimmers or other collection methods can be used more effectively.

Booming and skimming locations are still being maintained at the oil’s entry point into the Bronx River in Yonkers, and at the southern-most point of the New York Botanical Garden at East Fordham Road, Alvarez noted.

A recovering river- with many challenges ahead

One thing that struck me as I walked along the river this past Sunday was how low it is. I walked much of the length of Bronx River Park, between 210th and 231st streets.

Because the North Bronx section of the river is so low -as many freshwater rivers in the Northeast currently are- it was easier to see the trash and debris that have been dumped there over the years.

bronx river- low
Section of the Bronx River -in the North Bronx- showing low water levels this past Sunday. Photo: Sarah Crean

While the Bronx River no longer experiences large-scale industrial dumping as it did in the past, there are other pollution sources. Four combined sewer “outflow points” release untreated sewage and stormwater directly into the river when rainfall overwhelms area sewer mains and sewage treatment plants.

New York State has required the City to develop a long-term plan to reduce CSO releases into the Bronx River and other local waterbodies. The City reported last year that it had invested $26 million in order to reduce CSO releases into the Bronx River from over a billion gallons a year to a still daunting 592 million gallons annually.

Community organizations, local elected officials, scientific institutions and city agencies have collaborated on a wide variety of projects to bring the river back to good health, such as salt marsh restoration and the re-introduction of oysters.

Michael Abegg, with the New York Harbor School, and a student, Luis Negron, in background, putting oysters into a reef in the Bronx River. Photo: Nicole Bengiveno/The New York Times

The river remains home to a remarkable array of species, from ducks and turtles to great blue herons and tree frogs.

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Great Heron at the Bronx River. Photo: American Museum of Natural History

And as the Bronx River Alliance notes, “people are returning to the Bronx River, drawn back to a place that has remained true to itself in a region where much else has changed.”

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Canoeing on the Bronx River. Photo: Bronx River Alliance

Hopefully, events such as the recent accidental release of hundreds of gallons of oil into the river will not prove to be a setback for the ecological recovery that is taking place there.