Category Archives: Environment

Federal Plan for Cleanup of the Gowanus Canal May Mean Growing Costs for the City

Posted by Doug Turetsky, January 23, 2013

For decades, the Gowanus Canal has been synonymous with a polluted, and sometimes stinking, body of water. Soon after the Gowanus opened in the 1860s, it was generally treated as an open sewer. Industrial waste from coal yards, refineries, and tanneries as well as raw sewage poured into the canal. This fetid stew contained hazardous substances such as PCBs and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, pesticides, and heavy metals such as mercury, copper, and lead.


Photo Credit: Flikr/Doug Turetsky

Fast forward to March 2010 when the federal Environmental Protection Agency declared the 1.8 mile Gowanus Canal a Superfund site and set about developing a plan to contain the hazardous materials in the canal’s sediment and to prevent recontamination. Part of the Superfund process also includes determining who’s responsible for creating the environmental mess and making those responsible pay the cost of alleviating the conditions.

The EPA is still determining who is responsible and the degree of their culpability. Some of the companies being investigated may not be surprising, such as National Grid and Consolidated Edison. But based on the agency’s review so far and the remedies proposed in a plan released late last month, one of the entities on the hook for footing the cleanup bill may be the city itself.

The federal environmental agency estimates that its preferred plan (there are also some alternatives) would cost in the range of $467 million to $504 million. New York City’s share of that cost could be substantial.

For years, the city has allowed sewage and stormwater to spew into the canal. Looking just at the period from 1952 until the Red Hook Wastewater Pollution Control Plant opened in 1987, the city dumped about 20 million gallons of sewage a day into the Gowanus. The Red Hook plant and the nearby Owl’s Head wastewater plant still send sewage and stormwater into the canal when there’s an appreciable amount of rain and the two plants exceed their capacity for treating the wastewater. In a September 2011 presentation, the city’s Department of Environmental Protection estimated that about 300 million gallons of stormwater and sewage drained into the canal in a typical year, about two-thirds of it untreated sewage.

To reduce the continued contamination of the canal from what are called combined sewer overflows, or CSOs, the EPA wants the city to build holding tanks that will store the wastewater until the two treatment plants have sufficient capacity to handle much of the excess. The EPA estimates the cost of the tanks to be about $78 million.

A general reading of the EPA’s proposed cleanup plan and some other documents gives the impression that the city’s share could include more than the cost of the tanks as the federal agency sorts out who is responsible for various aspects of the canal’s pollution. Much of the heavy industrial uses along the canal ended long ago. National Grid owns the three sites where plants produced manufactured gas from coal, oil, and water to be used for street lights and home heating. These plants appear to be a significant source of the canal’s past pollution and may lead the utility to also bear a heavy share of the remediation costs. But the EPA’s extensive discussion of the role of CSOs in the canal’s past and future may be indicative of the extent to which federal officials believe the city should be underwriting the cleanup.

Any spending due to the Superfund plan comes on top of substantial sums the city has already been investing to improve the water quality of the Gowanus and reduce CSOs. Based on a review of capital budget spending by IBO environmental analyst Justin Bland, over the past 12 years the city has invested nearly $160 million to repair and upgrade a flushing tunnel that helps oxygenate the canal’s relatively stagnate water and an additional $18 million on other Gowanus cleanup-related environmental projects. The city plans to commit an additional $51 million for these projects over the next four years.

The Bloomberg Administration strenuously opposed the federal Superfund designation and developed its own plan for restoring the Gowanus. The Mayor argued that the Superfund designation could cause years of legal battles and delay redevelopment of the surrounding area. But City Hall’s plan relied in part on Congressional appropriations for the canal, funds that the EPA’s regional administrator considered far from certain. Insufficient funding could mean a lag in the cleanup.

The EPA is holding public meetings in Brooklyn on its plan on January 23 at PS 58 and January 24 at the Joseph Miccio Community Center. Written comments until March 28.

Seas Rise, Storms Surge, and NYC Presses Ahead with Waterfront Development Projects

Posted by Doug Turetsky, November 21, 2012

Long before Sandy slammed the city’s coastline, the Bloomberg Administration had been sounding alarms about coming threats to the city due to climate change. In well-known reports such as PlaNYC and through less publicized efforts such as the convening of scientists and risk management experts for the New York City Panel on Climate Change, the Bloomberg Administration signaled that it clearly recognized the significant impact global warming and rising sea levels could have on New York.

Photo credit: flickr/drpavloff

The Mayor’s March 2011 report Vision 2020: New York City Comprehensive Waterfront Plan forecast the coming of storms like Sandy and the potential affects: “The rise in sea level and increased frequency and magnitude of coastal storms will likely cause more frequent coastal flooding and inundation of coastal wetlands as well as erosion of beaches, dunes, and bluffs.” A few weeks later, in an update to PlaNYC, the warnings were reinforced: “As a city with 520 miles of coastline—the most of any city in America—the potential for more frequent and intense coastal storms with increased impacts due to a rise in sea level is a serious threat to New York City.”

Yet even as City Hall grappled with these concerns it continued to put substantial resources into major development projects on the waterfront, rezoning sites as manufacturing declined— including some in prime areas for flooding, the so-called Zone A evacuation areas. Just one month before Sandy struck the city, Mayor Bloomberg announced a plan by private developers to build a $500 million complex on city-owned land on Staten Island’s North Shore that would include the world’s largest Ferris wheel as well as a hotel and outlet mall. Part of the site sits in a floodplain.

An even larger development project is planned on the Coney Island waterfront, one of the neighborhoods hardest hit by Sandy. The city has rezoned the area to allow the development of hotels, housing, and a new amusement park, and has allocated more than $400 million for sewer upgrades, land acquisition, lighting, boardwalk and park improvements, and other projects to foster the redevelopment plan. On the Queens waterfront, the city is investing $147 million in the Hunters Point South project, which also sits in Zone A. Already under construction, Hunters Point South includes 5,000 apartments, a 1,100-seat school, and retail space.

To be fair, the Bloomberg Administration has taken steps to protect the city from the affects of rising sea levels and storm surges, following existing city building codes and Federal Emergency Management Agency guidelines. But these guidelines may not be adequate in the face of storms with the fury of Sandy.

As Yale University’s Environment 360 Web site noted, “The storm easily overwhelmed many of the relatively minor adaptations that New York had already put in place.” For example, Brooklyn Bridge Park, where another large development project is planned, was created with what are called “soft edges.” These are supposed to help reduce the force of waves and accommodate rising tidal levels. While these edges may work in many instances, they were no match for Sandy, which swamped the park and sent water lapping at the structure housing the newly installed carousel.

In Sandy’s wake, Governor Andrew Cuomo, Mayor Bloomberg, and Council Speaker Christine Quinn are promising to ramp up efforts to protect the city and the city’s infrastructure from what many believe is the increasing threat posed by major storms. Speaking to a group of business and civic leaders, Council Speaker Quinn said, “We…must rethink the way we build in neighborhoods that were destroyed by the storm.”

Such rethinking takes time for evaluation and planning, time that some city officials and developers seem disinclined to take. Just last week, as many Staten Island residents and business owners continued to clear the rubble from Sandy—and mourned the loss of family and friends—the city’s Economic Development Corporation held a hearing to advance the Ferris wheel project on the North Shore.

The city can press ahead with waterfront projects like the one on Staten Island’s North Shore, as well as others throughout the five boroughs, before there is a clearer plan for the kinds of steps New York will take to minimize the danger from future Sandys. But doing so increases the risk that the next “superstorm” will exact an even higher price tag.

Water Conservation Program Could Cause a Flood of New Problems for the City’s Housing Authority

Posted by Doug Turetsky, August 16, 2012

With the New York City Housing Authority facing a recent barrage of critical press, it’s not surprising that a seemingly small change in how the housing authority will be billed for water has been overlooked. But what may seem like a small drip of an issue now could open a floodgate later.

In an extension of its effort to encourage water conservation, the city’s Department of Environmental Protection last month put the New York City Housing Authority into a water conservation program that requires water meters to be installed at all of the housing authority’s 334 developments. If the housing authority cannot meet the requirements of the conservation program, it may instead be billed by water meters that track the amount of water used in a building. This could result in higher water and sewer bills for an agency already struggling with budget shortfalls and has trouble with the timely upkeep and repair of its properties.

Water already comes at no small cost for the housing authority. In 2011, the water bills for the housing authority’s developments totaled $149.9 million, according to IBO analyst Justin Bland. Under the new conservation program, the housing authority will pay about $160 million in 2013. The housing authority’s five-year operating plan shows a General Fund deficit of $61.3 million this year and $63.3 million for 2013 (about 3 percent of the roughly $2 billion budgets for public housing developments in both years).

The housing authority is not the only property owner being compelled to join the conservation program, but it is the largest. All of the city’s buildings were supposed to be metered and billed by water usage more than a decade ago. Launched in 1988 following a severe drought, the metering program aimed to be universal within 10 years. A decade after that deadline, as recounted in an October 2009 IBO Weblog Post, the program was well behind schedule, with nearly 50,000 water accounts still being billed on the frontage system—fees based on building size and the number of sinks, showers, tubs, and toilets.

As of July 1, the Department of Environmental Protection required that most of the remaining unmetered residential buildings in the city take a step towards the Universal Metering Program. The department has automatically enrolled the housing authority and other owners of properties with four or more units that have lagged behind in the city’s water metering efforts into its Multi-Family Conservation Program. The program sets a flat rate of $894.15 per apartment annually for water and sewer fees, about $60 higher than the average under the previous system. But paying the flat rate and staying in the conservation program is contingent upon installing water meters by January 2014 and “high-efficiency water-using filters” in 70 percent of a building’s apartments by June 2015.

Meeting these requirements may be a challenge for the housing authority, which is already awash in a backlog of repairs and delayed renovation projects. A June 2012 City Council Report for a budget hearing on the housing authority cited a 2011 backlog of nearly 300,000 work orders for about 17,900 apartments, 10 percent of the 179,000 units in public housing developments. And recent articles in the New York Daily News have chronicled the ongoing delays in major upgrade and renovation projects at housing authority developments. The need for such upgrades is likely to grow—1,400 of the 2,600 buildings in housing authority developments are at least 50 years old.

Many New Yorkers would no doubt agree that water conservation is an important public policy goal. But as it struggles to provide its 400,000 residents with safe and livable apartments, this may be a particularly difficult time for the housing authority to take on a new challenge.

Less Trash, Less of it Recycled

Posted by Doug Turetsky, November 10, 2011

An October 26th Daily News article reported that New Yorkers put out less trash for curbside pickup in fiscal year 2011 then they did in 2010. But lower trash levels are not a citywide phenomenon. The one exception: the Bronx.

Some sanitation experts say there’s more trash in the Bronx destined for landfills or incinerators because the borough diverts a comparatively small share of its trash to recycling.
In 2011, the Bronx diverted a paltry 10.3 percent of its refuse to recycling, well below the diversion rate of the other boroughs. Manhattan topped the charts at 19.0 percent with Staten Island a close second at 18.6 percent. Seven of the Bronx’s 12 community districts recycled less than 10 percent of their trash. Of the city’s 47 other community districts, only 6 had recycling rates below 10 percent.

Still, the citywide recycling rate declined overall in 2011 to 15.4 percent from 15.7 percent in 2010. Every borough except Staten Island saw the share of its refuse diverted to recycling fall in 2011. Only 25 of the city’s 59 community districts met or exceeded the citywide goal in 2011 of diverting 16 percent of its trash to recycling. In the same Daily News article, Council Member Letitia James, who chairs the City Council’s sanitation committee, blamed low recycling rates on the city’s failure to adequately educate the public.

Although the Mayor’s PlaNYC lists several initiatives to encourage recycling, including the expansion of education programs, funding levels for education efforts have varied over time. Numbers compiled by IBO’s Yevgeniya Bukshpun show the extent of the fiscal ups and downs. Spending on recycling education and outreach tumbled from just under $11 million in 2007 to barely $5 million in 2010. It rebounded to nearly $10 million last year but IBO currently projects it to total about $450,000 less than that this year.

Inconsistent funding of education and outreach may not be the only reason many New Yorkers find it hard to know (or care) what should and shouldn’t be recycled. There have also been some abrupt changes in the program.

In an effort to save money, the city temporarily stopped collecting glass and plastic in 2002—only metal and paper were recycled. In July 2003, plastic recycling resumed, but the city temporarily shifted to alternate week pickups of recyclables. For many New Yorkers, this meant letting recyclables collect in their apartments or basements for a couple of weeks—or simply tossing it with the regular trash. Glass was not recycled again until April 2004. Anecdotal evidence such as a peek at neighbors’ recycling cans give an indication there’s still confusion over what is and isn’t recycled.

While more education and outreach programs could relieve the bewilderment over what’s recycled, it won’t address the “slimming down” of some of what is recycled. Sanitation experts generally talk about how much is recycled in terms of the diversion rate: the share by weight of our curbside trash stream that’s set aside for recycling.

Declines in the city’s diversion rate may in part be because recyclables don’t weigh as much as they used to. Some plastics have gotten lighter and newspapers and magazines are shrinking (along with their readership and advertising pages). Some of the drop in recyclables, as well as regular trash, may also be a side effect of the sluggish economy—people are buying and throwing out less.

Perhaps there’s a lesson to be learned from this fall off in curbside trash. While recycling is the “apple pie” of environmentalism, it might make sense to increase the emphasis placed on those other two “Rs” in the litany of environmentally sound trash management practices: reuse and reduce.

As IBO has well documented, it costs more to collect and dispose of a ton of recycling than the city’s regular rubbish, although the gap has been narrowing as the cost of exporting trash to landfills and incinerators has escalated. But stuff that never winds up at curbside for pickup, whether recycling or regular trash, costs nothing for collection and disposal. Of course, additional efforts to decrease the amount of stuff that winds up in the city’s waste stream may take more investment in public education and outreach.

City’s Capital Plan Grows: More Projects, Some More Spending

Posted by Ana M. Ventura, November 9, 2009

A number of fiscal mavens have voiced concerns in recent months that the city’s capital budget is too big and unaffordable. These concerns have not escaped the notice of Mayor Bloomberg, who has sought to reduce the amount the city spends on debt service—the interest and principal the city pays to borrow money for capital projects such as building schools, fixing roads, and buying fire trucks—by scaling back the city’s 10-year capital plan.

So it may come as a surprise to many observers that the city’s latest Adopted Capital Commitment Plan, which covers four years, has grown by hundreds of projects and millions of dollars. The Adopted Capital Commitment Plan, released in September, presents information on how much the city has appropriated in the current fiscal year and next three years for capital projects and a timeline for committing those project funds. This latest plan adds $708 million (adjusted for capital funds made available in 2009 but now pushed into the new plan) and nearly 700 capital projects, compared to the prior plan released in conjunction with the Mayor’s Executive Budget last spring. As in past years, the largest shares of capital funding go to school and environmental projects.

The city’s four-year capital plan allocates $38.4 billion for projects. Included in the plan total is $1.5 billion allocated at the request of the City Council and $680 million by the Borough Presidents. Roughly 80 percent of the funding comes from the city, with the remaining $7.8 billion coming from federal, state, and private grants.

These funds support nearly 7,400 projects (including school projects that are itemized separately in the city’s financial management system). The Adopted Capital Commitment Plan includes 941 new capital projects and drops 244 projects that were part of the prior plan. The new projects include 390 sponsored by the City Council and 108 sponsored by the Borough Presidents. Out of all the new projects certain types were among those most commonly added: there are 123 new citywide equipment purchases and 101 new parks and recreational facilities projects.

Nearly half of the plan’s total budget—$19.0 billion—is scheduled to be committed in fiscal year 2010. The rest of the funds are expected to be committed over the next three years: $6.9 billion in fiscal year 2011, $5.6 billion in fiscal year 2012, and $6.8 billion in fiscal year 2013. While the total for 2010 appears comparatively large, it is actually bulked up by previously authorized funds. Because some types of capital projects frequently fall behind schedule, the level of funds authorized by the Mayor’s budget office typically exceeds the expected commitments by about 35 percent.

Roughly $7.1 billion in capital funds were transferred, or rolled, from fiscal year 2009 into the new plan. Most capital funds rolled from a prior fiscal year tend to be allocated to the next year, as is the case under the new plan. But some of the funds rolled forward are also allocated to later years of the Capital Commitment Plan. Largely because of the funds rolled forward from 2009, the new plan is roughly 25 percent bigger than the prior $30.6 billion four-year plan.

But if you subtract the rollover funds, the latest plan still provides $708 million more (2.3 percent) than the prior plan. Almost all of this increase comes from additional city funding; about 1 percent of the $708 million comes from other sources.

Despite challenging economic times and recent actions by the Bloomberg Administration to curtail long-term city-funded capital spending, the city’s capital program continues to expand moderately.

Two Decades Later, City’s Water Metering Still Not Universal

Posted by Alexis Arinsburg, October 5, 2009

Even as the city ramps up its initiative to install wireless transmitters for water meters across the city, thousands of city properties still have no meter at all or have a meter that is not being used for billing. Two decades after the city’s Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) first began installing water meters through the Universal Metering Program, 49,595 accounts, or 6 percent overall, are still not part of the system.

That’s a bit better than in 2006, when 8 percent of accounts were still being billed under the old frontage system, which uses a schedule of fees based on building size and the number of sinks, showers, tubs, and toilets to determine the water bill. A small number of building owners still pay on a per apartment basis.

The most recent deadline for getting all water accounts metered was June 30, 2009. The deadline has now been pushed out to June 30, 2012. Why the delay and what is the city doing to make water metering truly universal?

In the wake of a severe drought, the city began installing water meters in 1988 as a way to reduce water usage by charging consumers for the amount of water actually used. It also helped the city comply with state water conservation requirements. The Universal Metering Program was to be completed in 10 years.

At the program’s inception, Department of Environmental Protection officials acknowledged that there would be challenges to metering all its customers immediately. Landlords complained about the expected cost increase due to metered bills, especially if they owned buildings that were home to large families or had plumbing in poor condition. Progress on universal metering also encountered some unexpected hurdles, including a 206-count indictment for fraud and labor law violations against the Kentucky-based company the city contracted with to do a large number of the meter installations. Flawed water bills have also been an on-going problem, likely undermining some customers’ confidence in making the transition to metering.

To address owner concerns about a jump in costs due to metering, the city has created several programs to ease the switch. There are currently 29,962 customers in the Transition Program for buildings with six or more apartments. Under this program a meter is installed but bills are still generated based on the frontage system. The idea was that owners would be in the program for up to a year and prepare for the switch to metered billing. The program was supposed to expire in 1997 but was instead extended annually until this year, when the deadline was pushed to 2012.

A New York State audit from 2008 found “no indication DEP was routinely transferring accounts from the Transition Program to metered billing.” It is reasonable to assume that Transition Program customers who remain on frontage billing do so because it is less costly than switching to metering.

There’s also a Pre-Transition program with 761 customers. While similar to the Transition Program, accounts in Pre-Transition had meters installed between 1988 and July 1, 1992, but owners pay a water bill based on $821 per apartment. Additionally, all accounts in the Pre-Transition program should have undergone an inspection or audit to ensure that there were no major leaks, and if leaks were found, they were promptly repaired.

There are currently about 700 owners who, after leaving the Transition Program, have enrolled in the Conservation Program for Multiple Family Residential Buildings. The program, established in 2001, remains a long-term alternative to metering for some owners of buildings with six or more apartments. To be eligible, owners must take steps such as converting 70 percent of a property’s toilets, faucets, and showerheads to low-flow fixtures. Owners are subject to periodic conservation audits by DEP. To encourage additional participation and to reduce the expense of installing fixtures that comply with the program’s conservation requirements, DEP is considering offering rebates for the installation of low-flush toilets, much as it did in the early 1990s.

About 8,600 customers currently prefer to pay a 100 percent surcharge on their frontage bill rather than have a meter installed. These customers, typically single-family residences, don’t qualify for either the transition or conservation programs. The Department of Environmental Protection is exploring ways to encourage these customers to agree to have meters installed and convert to metered billing. As with the accounts that remain in the Transition Program, presumably most of the customers still pay less than they would under metering, even after paying twice their frontage charge.

That leaves 9,500 customers still billed on a frontage basis who are not paying a surcharge nor are they enrolled in the transition or conservation programs. The Department of Environmental Protection provided no further explanation when IBO asked about these accounts.

When it comes to achieving the goal of universal metering first announced more than two decades ago, the city is still swimming upstream.