NYC Considers Scrubbing the Microbead

“This is not the end of exfoliation as we know it,” New York City Council member Dan Garodnick reassured New Yorkers on Wednesday. But if his latest bill passes, New Yorkers may indeed be seeking a new way to scrub.

At issue are “microbeads,” tiny, spherical pieces of plastic used as abrasives and exfoliants in a wide range of personal care and cosmetic items. Garodnick’s bill, introduced in the New York City council this week, would ban the sale of these products and impose fines on stores that continue to carry them.

The bill is co-sponsored by 12 additional City Council members.

Plastic on Your Plate

Microbeads are small, buoyant pieces of plastic used as exfoliants in personal care products.

Microbeads are found in about a hundred products in the U.S., including toothpaste, body wash, and facial cleansers. Because they are so small (5mm or less by most estimates), they easily pass through wastewater treatment plants and are ultimately discharged into New York’s waterways.

A report published by New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman estimates that “nearly 19 tons of microbeads [are] potentially being discharged into New York’s wastewater stream each year.”

“The effect,” Rachel Abrams wrote in The New York Times, “is similar to grinding up plastic water bottles, other products of concern to environmentalists, and pumping them into oceans and lakes.”

Microbeads found in the sand. Photo credit: VIMS
Microbeads found in the sand. Photo credit: VIMS

Once in the water, the plastic particles persist for decades and have been shown to absorb chemicals out of the water, particularly toxins such as polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) and polyaromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs).

They also become food for fish and other aquatic creatures who mistake the buoyant, colorful particles for fish eggs and insects.

According to Schneiderman’s report, “hundreds of different species have been documented as ingesting plastics, ranging from tiny creatures to small fish to larger species like birds, turtles and mammals.”

Ingested plastic has been shown to cause serious harm to wildlife, including internal abrasions and blockages resulting in reductions in food consumption, stunted growth, and starvation. Studies have also shown that the microplastics can be transferred from prey to predator, meaning the toxin-coated plastic could be making its way up the food chain—and possibly to your dinner plate.

“The fish eat ’em. The fish are then eaten by other animals. They end up in our food chain. They end up on our dinner plates,” Schneiderman told WNYC.

Ban the Bead…One County at a Time

None of this is news to lawmakers in New York. In fact, New York was the first state in the nation to call for a ban on microbeads. However, twice now the bill has failed to pass through the Senate, despite garnering nearly unanimous, bipartisan support in the Assembly (139-1). This summer, Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan neglected to even bring the bill up for a vote.

This map, provided by Environmental Advocates of New York, details the range and status of microbead bans across the state.

In that time, six other states have enacted legislation to ban or restrict the use of microbeads, including Illinois, Maine, New Jersey, Colorado, Indiana, and Maryland. Bills are pending in Michigan, Minnesota, Washington, and Oregon.

While the honor of being first in the nation is now lost, local New York governments are attempting to bypass the Senate stalemate. Seven county-wide bans have been proposed or enacted across the state.

If Garodnick can garner enough support for his bill, New York City would be the eighth.

Consumers looking to avoid microbeads on their own can view a list of products containing the plastics here.

Cuomo must address deteriorating water quality infrastructure, say enviros.

New York needs to invest at least $36 billion in upgrading critical wastewater infrastructure across the state. The problem has been described by the state’s lead environmental agency as “a gathering storm.”

“Sewage and wastewater treatment facilities in New York State are deteriorating. Almost all of New York’s residents rely on these facilities to treat sewage and wastewater from our homes and businesses before they return it to our waterbodies,” says the Department of Environmental Conservation.

“However, one-quarter of the 610 facilities in New York are operating beyond their useful life expectancy and many others are using outmoded, inadequate technology, increasing their likelihood of tainting our waters,” the DEC reports.

Treating wastewater adequately is essential for public health and economic development, maintains the state. Upgrading our water quality infrastructure is “critically needed,” the DEC states plainly on its website.

Yet some of New York’s leading environmental organizations are saying that Governor Cuomo’s proposed 2015 budget does not begin to address the seriousness of the issue. Specifically, they are arguing that the state needs to create an “Infrastructure Bank” to assist local municipalities who have no way of raising the funds necessary to complete large water quality infrastructure projects.

How would an infrastructure bank be seeded? The state’s “windfall bank settlement” is mentioned as a possible source of funding for sewage and wastewater treatment projects.

The environmental groups spoke out in an op-ed published yesterday in The op-ed was written by Willie Janeway of the Adirondack Council, Peter Iwanowicz of Environmental Advocates of New York, Marcia Bystryn of the New York League of Conservation Voters, Patricia Cerro-Reehil of the New York Water Environment Association and Paul Gallay of Riverkeeper.

We re-publish key sections below:


“In recent statements, Gov. Andrew Cuomo touted the high value of a “clean water supply that is vital to the livelihood of all New Yorkers” and said “New York does more than any other state to finance local wastewater infrastructure projects that protect the environment and support jobs.” It is true that the New York state Environmental Facilities Corp. has played a pivotal role in providing low-cost financing for wastewater projects. Yet with the financial struggles of many municipalities — even with low-cost loan programs in place, an infrastructure bank to support clean water for all is needed in this year’s state budget.

We applauded when the governor said he would propose using bank settlement funds to help seed an infrastructure bank with the ability to make “gap-closing grants.” …………

However, New York state has not yet established a new dedicated wastewater infrastructure bank. The only funding stream proposed by Gov. Cuomo, in his executive budget is an Upstate regional competition, through which dollars would be awarded to three out of seven eligible regions. Long Island, New York City and Buffalo are not eligible and there’s no assurance that clean water infrastructure would be funded as part of any region’s plan……

The deterioration of roads and bridges is clear to see. But the deterioration is more severe below ground, as those who have dealt with sewage backing up in basements and spilling into creeks know all too well. The state Department of Environmental Conservation has documented the need for investment in wastewater statewide is at least $36 billion…………………

Ask local leaders about their challenges, and investing in wastewater infrastructure is at or near the top of the list. These are real local costs that most communities cannot bear — especially with a 2 percent tax cap that inhibits long-term investment…..

It has been 50 years since New York voters approved a $1 billion Pure Waters Bond Act, at a time when the statewide need for sewer infrastructure was estimated at $1.7 billion. The investment paid dividends in clean water and proud communities. We’re overdue for another bold investment or at least a modest but real investment.”



Fecal Map NYC: The Worst Places to Swim in the City

Today’s post comes to us via I Quant NY, a fantastic blog that uses NYC Open Data to tell stories about our city. I Quant NY is authored by Ben Wellington who is a Visiting Assistant Professor in The City & Regional Planning Program at The Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, where he focuses on the cross section of Open Data and City Planning.

Thank you for letting us re-publish your post, Ben!

If you have ever tried to visit a NYC beach shortly after it rains heavily, you may be disappointed to find that beach closed.

The reason is one of every NYC environmentalist’s worst nightmares: Combined Sewer Outflows (CSOs). Put simply, New York City’s sewage goes to the same place as its street drainage. That works fine until we get so much rain that the sewage treatment plants can’t handle both the storm water and the sewage flowing through our sewers. As a result, this combination of stormwater and sewage overflows and that resulting backup is released into our very own New York City waterways. For the curious, check out this great page by the DEP which include descriptions of CSOs and maps of the outflows.

So back to the beach— what causes it to close exactly? Well, the city monitors its waterways for Fecal Coliform, something that is as gross as it sounds. Specifically, its a bacteria that grows in the intestines of warm blooded animals. High level of fecal coliform indicates a high probability of raw sewage in the water. If levels go above 1,000 coliform per 100ml of water, beaches are closed in accordance with state regulations.

To find the dirtiest water in New York City (or at least the most sewage-full water, since there are many different ways to measure water quality), I turned to Harbor Water Sampling Data released as Open Data by the DEP. The dataset includes samples from dozens of sites back to 2008.

I explored the mean, minimum, median and max levels of fecal coliform at each site, but to decide which area was the dirtiest, I calculated the percent of days sampled at the site that registered as too dirty to swim in (i.e. above the safe level of 1000 coliform / 100ml).

The Top 10 dirtiest water sample locations by that measure are below:


The dirtiest water? Coney Island Creek, which sits between Coney Island and the rest of Brooklyn. Not far behind it is Bergen Basin, near JFK. These two are at the top of the list by the mean measurement as well. The Bronx River is number 3, Alley Creek is 4 and Bergen Basin comes back for number 5. At all five of these spots, samples came in as having too much fecal coliform to swim in more than half the time! So I mapped out these five “fecal hot spots” below:


Spots 6 – 10 go to two sites in the Gowanus Canal, Flushing Creek and another site in both The Bronx River and Coney Island Creek.

To expand beyond the top 10 spots, I created the interactive map below, which includes all of the harbor locations that were measured in the DEP data. Just like the analysis above, I mapped the percentage of time that water levels were unsafe for swimming. Larger circles indicate a higher percentage of unsafe days, and thus dirtier water. Clicking on a circle gives you fuller details for that site.

Note that the larger circles appear more inland. The conclusion? If you are going to swim in NYC, I guess the rule of thumb is to stay away from anything with the word “creek” in its name (and of course “canal”) and head toward the rivers. The one exception seems to be the Bronx River. I suppose its sort of intuitive… interior waterways have much less water to dilute waste matter and they generally move slower than their large river counterparts. (Of course this is more of a theoretical swim. If you are ACTUALLY going to swim, hit up the beaches!) The best part of all of this? I may have just discovered the origin of the old saying “Up sh*t creek without a paddle.”

-Analysis done in Excel (pivot tables)
-Map formed in QGIS and then exported to CartoDB
-All Data used can be found here.

For the latest I Quant NY data analysis of this great city, sign up for the mailing list (about one post a week), like I Quant NY on Facebook or follow I Quant NY on Twitter. I tell stories with data.


Wastewater Crisis Looms as Debate Rages Over Tappan Zee Funding

Environmental advocates are calling foul as the Cuomo administration moves to utilize clean water funds to help fund work on the new Tappan Zee Bridge, even as state wastewater infrastructure crumbles. Yesterday, the Public Authorities Control Board voted to approve a $255 million clean-water loan for the massive transportation project.

The Cuomo administration had originally proposed a much larger amount—$511 million—for the loan.

“Even if the amount is lower, the end result is the same,” said New York League of Conservation Voters President Marcia Bystryn. “The Public Authorities Control Board…wrongly authorized the use of clean-water loans to pay for a project that has nothing to do with drinking water or wastewater systems,” she stated.

The loan comes from the Clean Water State Revolving Fund, which is administered by the state Environmental Facilities Corporation and the Department of Environmental Conservation. The fund is capitalized by both state and federal dollars.

According to the state, the fund “provides low-interest rate financing to municipalities to construct water quality protection projects such as sewers and wastewater treatment facilities…Eligible projects include point source projects such as…treatment facilities and nonpoint source projects such as stormwater management projects and landfill closures, as well as certain habitat restoration and protection projects in national estuary program areas.”

State Agency Takes Contradictory Position on Clean Water Funding

The state Department of Environmental Conservation has publicly supported the loan. But the agency, at the same time, has decried the perilous condition of much of New York’s wastewater treatment infrastructure.

The DEC is an executive agency, meaning that it reports directly to the Governor’s office.

Photo credit: George Bremer via Creative Commons
Photo credit: George Bremer via Creative Commons

“Sewage and wastewater treatment facilities in New York State are deteriorating,” says the agency on its website.

“Almost all of New York’s residents rely on these facilities to treat sewage and wastewater from our homes and businesses before they return it to our waterbodies. However, one-quarter of the 610 facilities in New York are operating beyond their useful life expectancy and many others are using outmoded, inadequate technology, increasing their likelihood of tainting our waters.”

What is the solution, according to the DEC?

“More funding is critically needed. Over the last 20 years, federal funding has been reduced by 70%,” the DEC stated, citing 2008 statistics. But questions are being raised as to whether available funding is really finding its way to the communities that need it most.

Loan Funds Available but Wastewater Crisis Remains

Watchdog groups like Environmental Advocates of New York ask why, given the tremendous need for water infrastructure upgrades, the Clean Water State Revolving Fund had such a large surplus available for use on the Tappan Zee.

“This loan fund has a very dedicated purpose,” Travis Proulx, EA’s Communications Director, told New York Environment Report. “It’s their [the state Environmental Facilities Corporation] job to get it out the door. Why does the EFC exist then?” he added.

Proulx argued that taking out loans for major infrastructure projects was simply not viable for some communities. The state says it is prepared to offer interest rates as low as zero-percent, but Proulx pointed out that some smaller municipalities and towns cannot afford to re-pay a multi-million dollar loan for a new wastewater treatment facility, for example.

Proulx also stated that wealthier communities like Westchester County and Long Island have caps on local taxation, meaning sufficient funds cannot be raised to repay loans or otherwise invest in major water quality projects.

A recent letter from the Westchester Municipal Officials Association refers to the challenge posed by the property tax cap and states, “if the EFC has this level of funding available to remove and partially rebuild a new bridge, then clearly State and/or the EFC should reinstate funding that used to be provided to local jurisdictions for needed infrastructure improvements.”

But the EFC reports that funds are getting out the door. “Since 1990, the program has provided more than $14 billion in low-cost financing” for water quality projects. “This year, EFC expects to approve well over $1 billion in loans for new clean-water projects in more than 100 communities”, the public benefit corporation stated.

The EFC is now authorized to offer zero interest loans to the New York State Thruway Authority.

Will the EPA Stop the Cuomo Administration?

“Now, only [the] EPA or the courts can stop the EFC and the Thruway Authority from paying for a quarter of a billion in bridge construction work with funds they were given to fix sewage treatment plants and implement river restoration plans,” Paul Gallay, president of Hudson Riverkeeper said in a statement.

Gallay said that the Public Authorities Control Board had denied “the public their legally-mandated say about the loan. And, the EFC made it clear they’ll be back for the second half of the larger amount originally sought by the Thruway Authority.”

Riverkeeper says it is prepared to take the State on directly: “we prepare for litigation, which appears more and more unavoidable with every new development in this outrageous affair.”

The Cuomo administration has maintained that the funds will offset environmental impacts of the Tappan Zee project and “protect the Hudson River, its wildlife and wildlife habitats during the construction of the…Bridge”.

That is “simply not true,” responded Marcia Bystryn at NYLCV. “The vast majority of that [$255 million] sum is for bridge construction and related work. Clean-water loans are meant for clean-water projects – not for a bridge – and today’s vote could set a dangerous precedent that will inspire states around the country to start diverting clean-water dollars for whatever projects they like.”




It’s Been Raining in NYC: Where Does All That Water Go?

Wednesday’s heavy rains led to the release of raw sewage into the Gowanus Canal.

Why were Gowanus residents confronted by the smell and appearance of raw sewage? Check out this great video made by NY1 reporter Roger Clark, as part of his “How NYC Works” series.

Clark explains what ultimately happens to all of the rainwater that falls in New York City, along with our wastewater—what goes down our sinks, toilets, etc.

Says Clark, “New Yorkers use a lot of water. An average of 1.2 billion gallons goes down the drain every day. Plus, there’s everything that falls on the city when it rains or snows. All of that water, and everything else that flows down with it, has to go somewhere. So where does it all go? The only place it can. Into the waterways that surround us.”

But, as Clark explains, storm and wastewater usually passes through city treatment facilities before re-entering the environment….unless the system becomes overwhelmed.

“Most of the city runs on what’s known as a combined sewer system, meaning everything we send down the drain or toilet, and all the rain, snowmelt and other runoff that flows into any of our 140,000 street catch basins, all wind up in the same 6,000 miles of pipes.”

Here’s something to keep in mind while watching or reading Clark’s story: The state of New York, along with many environmental groups, has raised alarm bells about the condition of the state’s storm and wastewater infrastructure. As we saw this week, New York City sewers can be inundated by rainwater and release untreated sewage into rivers and creeks nearby.

The state Department of Environmental Conservation notes on its website:

“Every year, old sewers flooded by storm water release more than 27 billion gallons of untreated sewage into the New York Harbor alone.”

The DEC adds:

“Sewage and wastewater treatment facilities in New York State are deteriorating. Almost all of New York’s residents rely on these facilities to treat sewage and wastewater from our homes and businesses before they return it to our waterbodies.

However, one-quarter of the 610 facilities in New York are operating beyond their useful life expectancy and many others are using outmoded, inadequate technology, increasing their likelihood of tainting our waters.

Moreover, NYSDEC’s report on 30-year water quality trends found evidence that New York is retreating from the significant gains achieved when the current system was originally constructed and there is still more to do.”

In response, the City of New York has been investing in both grey and green stormwater management infrastructure which can absorb rainwater— and help to protect local waterways.

Want to learn more? New York Environment Report is about to launch a new website, with expanded coverage of environmental issues just like this.

We hope you’ll stay tuned!!

Queens Residents Hope Sewer Upgrades Will Reduce Flooding

A flood-plagued section of Far Rockaway, Queens will finally dry out this summer thanks to a $22 million sewer and water main upgrade conducted by the NYC Department of Environmental Protection.

The infrastructure project will add storm sewers and catch basins to select streets, and replace more than a mile of existing sanitary sewers—a slew of improvements that residents feel are long overdue.

Frequent Flooding

Streets that will be upgraded. Image via NYC DEP.

The network of streets, situated in the northwest corner of Far Rockaway at the end of Mott Basin, has been experiencing severe flooding for at least a year.

The floodwaters are believed to be overflow from the sewer and nearby Jamaica Bay. Some residents claim the issue has been an ongoing one since Hurricane Sandy in 2012, and exacerbated by alterations to Battery Road.

Charles Burkhead, who has lived on Pinson Street in Far Rockaway for 10 years, said that previous DEP solutions, including pumping, have not been successful. “My yard is full of water. The sidewalk is full of water which freezes up and turns to ice [during the winter months]. The street has large pot holes under the water which causes cars to get stuck,” he told The Wave.

Other residents have begun referring to the floodwaters in jest as “Lake Pinson.” But what was at first a nuisance is now a full-fledged safety hazard: ambulances and school buses struggle to cross flooded streets, and the standing water has become a breeding ground for mosquitoes.

Inadequate Infrastructure

Photo credit: NYC DEP
Photo credit: NYC DEP

According to the DEP, most of the streets in Far Rockaway are not currently equipped with the proper drainage infrastructure to handle the amount of water and runoff they currently receive.

“Many of the streets in this neighborhood were privately built, and either have inadequate drainage or no storm sewers at all,” said DDC Commissioner Dr. Feniosky Peña-Mora in a press release.

The upgrades slated for this summer will include the installation of side-by-side 9-foot by 4-foot storm water sewers. While the roadway is opened, the City will also replace more than a mile of distribution water mains. DEP Spokesperson Edward Timbers told NYER, “The new storm sewers, including the side-by-side barrel lines, will help to reduce flooding. And the new sanitary lines will reduce backups.”

Part of a Larger Plan

Photo credit: NYC DEP
Photo credit: NYC DEP

According to Timbers, the work in Far Rockaway this summer, slated to be finished in 2016, is just one of many projects that were drawn up as part of an area-wide drainage plan for the Rockaways.

Indeed, sewer and storm water improvements in southeast Queens are one of the goals are outlined in the DEP’s Strategy 2011-2014 document, which states that the City will:

Build out and upgrade the sewer network in southeast Queens, Staten Island, and other neighborhoods that need additional capacity. A robust sewer expansion and replacement program is essential to protecting public health and improving the ecology of New York Harbor.

DEP Commissioner Emily Lloyd noted in a statement: “We are committed to building out and upgrading the City’s sewer and water infrastructure and over the next 10 years we are planning for more than $700 million worth of similar projects throughout Queens.”

Chairman of the City Council’s Committee on Environmental Protection Donovan Richards praised the current project. “This $22 million sewer and water main upgrade means residents will no longer spend days marooned by dirty water after it rains,” he said. “This is just one of the many projects slated for our district, and I am proud to continue our partnership as we make New York City more resilient.”

The Zero Waste Future is Now, and it’s in Brooklyn

New York City has entered a new frontier of sustainability: turning food and human waste into energy that will heat our homes and businesses.

And it is all going to happen in eight, enormous space-age eggs in Brooklyn.

The city announced yesterday that it has partnered with Waste Management, Inc. and National Grid to harness the methane that is generated at its Newtown Creek Wastewater Treatment Plant and convert it into “pipeline ready” fuel. The three-year pilot project has the potential to reduce New York City’s carbon emissions by more than 90,000 metric tons annually, comparable to taking 19,000 cars off the road, city officials said.

Making Gas

At a tour of the facility yesterday with the city and its private sector partners, Newtown Creek plant manager Jim Pynn explained that bio-gas, which is mainly methane, is a standard by-product of the wastewater treatment process. How is bio-gas generated? By cooking the waste, essentially.

At the Newtown Creek plant in North Brooklyn, the city’s largest wastewater treatment facility, human and other types of organic waste undergo a series of processes which produce a sludge.

The sludge is then heated to at least 95 degrees Fahrenheit for 15 to 20 days in the plant’s immediately recognizable “digester eggs.” The heating of the sludge generates the growth of anaerobic bacteria, which consume much of the organic material. That “digestion” process produces water, carbon dioxide and bio-gas.

How much gas can New York City residents generate?

Quite a bit apparently. The Newtown Creek plant accepts wastewater from more than 1 million New Yorkers across sections of Manhattan, western Queens and North Brooklyn. Every year, the plant produces more than 500 million cubic feet of bio-gas. The city is able to use about 40 percent of that gas on-site. The rest is lost to the atmosphere by flaring.

But no more—the remaining 60 percent of the bio-gas produced at the Newtown plant will be purified at a facility to be built there by National Grid, rendering it “pipeline quality renewable natural gas.”

And the city plans to increase bio-gas production at Newtown by adding pre-processed organic food waste to the wastewater sludge. The food waste will come from public schools and farmers’ markets that are currently participating in the city’s pilot organics recycling program.

In addition to the 100,000 households in neighborhoods across the city who have been incorporated into the city’s organics recycling initiative, private businesses will also start to recycle food waste. The City Council passed legislation yesterday requiring food establishments beyond a certain size, like catering companies and chain restaurants, to recycle their organic waste beginning July, 2015.

Waste Management, Inc. has established what they describe as “one of New York City’s first non-composting organics recycling facilities,” which will process some of the city’s organic food waste for use at the Newtown Creek plant.

The gas produced at Newtown –enough to heat 5,200 homes- will be injected into National Grid’s distribution network. “There is no other project like this in the country,” said National Grid New York president Ken Daly. “[It’s] the same energy that our customers are using right now, the difference is that it’s renewable,” he added.

National Grid will finance construction of the purification system, and the Department of Environmental Protection will supply the bio-gas free-of-charge, at least initially. Once project costs have been covered, profits from the sale of the gas will be split between the DEP and National Grid customers, the city said.

Construction of the purification system should be finished by 2015.

Environmental Impact

The environmental impact of one pilot project at one waste treatment center is striking. For one thing, reducing the city’s waste stream means reducing New York City’s impact on the climate.

If the pilot proves successful, up to 153,000 tons of organic food waste could be processed annually at Newtown.

The city says diverting that quantity of food waste from landfills will reduce New York City’s annual greenhouse gas emissions by over 50,000 metric tons. Thirty-five percent of the city’s total residential waste stream is organic waste.

A reduction of another 32,000 tons of emissions will come from using the bio-gas, which is completely renewable, as opposed to natural gas that is extracted. Additional emissions reductions will occur because hundreds of thousands of miles of truck trips to landfills will be eliminated.

The city says that it is currently more than half-way toward its goal of a 30 percent reduction in greenhouse gases citywide by 2030.

Could New York City eventually turn all of its organic food waste into fuel? Ron Gonen, the city’ deputy commissioner for recycling, said yesterday that “multiple solutions will be required” to divert the enormous volume of food waste produced daily in homes and businesses from landfills. What is happening at Newtown Creek is the “top of the pyramid,” Gonen added.

Turning waste into energy is a revolutionary step in New York City’s evolution as a city, noted Sanitation Commissioner John Doherty. “[The] old approach [was] to take something and bury it. This is truly a complete loop.”

“If this works, [it] would be a massive financial and environmental opportunity for New York City,” said Gonen.