Sunday, September 06, 2009

Harlem's Sewer Problem - Did It Get Any Better?

 Photos Taken In 1998 
Open Sewer Windows Under Riverbank State Park.

Rev. Ike said the best thing one can do for the poor is not be one of them.  When I realized in 1998 that Harlem's poverty pimps were not going to do anything to help Harlem's environmental problems, were committed to keeping computers out of Harlem, and satisfied with the status quo regarding AIDS and crack and other empowerment issues, I left.  It is an unnecessary health risk to be surrounded by 5 open sewers.  Anything could be in that............

Common sense says if you are smelling the sewer, you're breathing it. Airborne particles find their way into people's bodies.  The illusion that hospital waste is treated differently is a dangerous flaw.  Sick people from all over the world come to New York and use the sewers before they check into the hospital.

The 5 Open Sewers Surrounding Harlem do more than stink in the summer time. North River, Wards Island, Tallmans, Hunts Point and Bowery Bay Water Pollution Control Plants are releasing toxins into the already polluted environment. Over the last century NYC is the recipient of transportation, pest control, heating/cooling, etc. toxins, settled into walls, fabrics and streets.  Ooops, I forgot to add the dust from the World Trade Center.  Asbestos does not wash out.

The two most obvious sewers, North River (135th and Hudson River, 10027) and Wards Island (Wards Island, NYC 10035) Water Pollution Control Plants (Sewage Treatment Plants) are on the west side of Harlem and in the river off of the east side respectively.

Across the bay are the other three.

The year after North River was built there was a radical rise in the infant mortality rate. Yet when I was there in the 80's and 90's the discussion was limited to odor and flow, which haven’t killed anybody.  It's the accompanying toxins that kill, not the smell.

When you connect the dots on the chart below you'll see when the North River plant was open and rises and falls in Harlem's infant mortality rates over the years and plant actions.

North River Plant and Infant Mortality Rates
in NYC and Harlem 1984-1993
1984 -
Plant Construction
1985 - Plant built
1991 -
Primary Tanks Covered
1993 - Crack in tank

In great part due to the open windows at all ends of the North River, and open outdoor tanks at Wards Island, Harlem in particular and the metro NY area in general were breathing, daily, volatile organic compounds (VOC's -airborne living organisms) from these sewage tanks. If the tanks are not covered, folks still are.

Politics and common sense need to merge in Harlem.  Start with cleaning out the corruption. Put people over politics, like the real estate investors who want to make money at the expense of raising the infant mortality rate in Harlem.

Harlem's best park, Riverbank State Park, is located over the North River sewer plant and has people, among them children and seniors, exercising over an open sewer…not healthy.

The NYC EPA says “The roof of the building is the home of Riverbank State Park, a popular recreational facility with three swimming pools, an amphitheater, an athletic center, a skating rink, a restaurant and sports fields - and, of the two New York State park facilities in the City, the only one built on top of a water pollution control plant.”

The park's won many awards while placing Harlem residents in danger of toxic chemicals, methane gas and mutating germs.

1998 Carousel Shot In Riverbank State Park

There are germs in the sewer air. Environmentalists are being honored in Harlem who keep the conversation about odor and flow rather than toxins and germs and toxic chemicals coming off the sewers. 

Sewer System As A Source of Germ Disbursement: “The greatest danger…in breathing of sewer air is that of inhaling with it the living particles (bacilli, etc.) contained or developed in the excrement of diseased persons.” {Roger S. Tracy, Handbook Of Sanitary Information For Households, NY Appleton, 1895}

Sick people from all over the world come to New York City to benefit from her extraordinary medical system. Though hospital waste is handled separately from the general sewer system, during the time before sick people check into the hospital, and, if they remain in the city, after they leave, are using the general sewer facilities.

In this time of terrorism, toxic materials (both medical and chemical that could cause illness and death) can be dropped into the sewer system and a large portion of the population could be impacted days after the event.  Unnecessary risk.

Floating material could contain harmful elements and the results, devastating. This is because many, if not all of the NYC sewer plants, are not covered and in some cases could be easily contaminated from street or building levels without the culprit being noticed.

At North River, the large windows by the tanks are open. At Ward’s Island, the tanks are outside. Though we are encouraged to take comfort in the fact that chlorine kills 85-95% of the germs in the sewer, the more relevant question is what is in the other 5-15% that is strong enough to survive chlorine, food additives, genetically altered foods, human growth hormone, antibiotics, etc.

Secondary Tanks With No Covers Next To Open Windows Under Riverbank, 1998

Sludge Tank Below Riverbank State Park
Consider what happens when those strong germs and toxic chemicals get together in North River’s secondary and sludge tanks, with their steam wafting off to open windows. Also, the additional chlorine put into the environment via tap water and flushed into the river can have a seepage effect on the land it comes in contact with, further empowering mutating bacteria.

The water in North River’s secondary tanks frequently has steam coming off them, which lifts some germs and they become air borne. As you saw in the chart Harlem's infant morality rate in the year after the North River Plant went into operation was raised and by 1993 was 2.5 times higher than the rest of the City.

What needs to happen to correct the problem?

First, the sewer windows need to be covered or, like at Ward's Island where the open sewer tanks are outside, at least the tanks sealed, like what was in the original plans.

“The problem with covering and air treating the secondary tanks is one of expense … NYCDEP’s rough estimate for subjecting the secondary tanks in a similar odor control system as that for the primary tank is in excess of $100 million.” From “The Smell of Success? An assessment of Odor Control Measures at the North River Water Pollution Control Plant” (June, 1994)

Where are they shopping? Tiffany’s?  What about hemp plastic to cover the sewers?  What about growing hemp to aerate the soil and pull the excess CO2 out of the atmosphere? What about medical hemp to help with the areas intense asthma and other health problems? What about hemp to heal New York's economy to create a modern infrastructure system. (Read the HEMP FOR VICTORY series by Richard M. Davis to learn how -

We need to honestly evaluate the situation at hand and bring forward better ideas on waste treatment. Johan Cruijff said "Every disadvantage carries with it an advantage." One of the things that Harlem taught me is the disadvantage is always of equal or greater value.

A project of fixing the environmental problems can use a NYC labor pool, featuring Harlem residents trained for the job. Community residents will be motivated to do a good job because they and their families are breathing the air.

Harlem has a master level engineer in her hero and former owner of the Langston Hughes House, Albert Davis.  I still think he won the election when he ran against Congressman Rangel in the 90's.  With President Obama getting zero votes in Harlem in the 2008 primary, I believe now more than ever that Albert won.

Second, regular testing of the sewer's contents and airborne materials need to be done and the results published. That sewer readings were not useable in determining the toxic levels in the air on 9/11 proves the worthlessness of the system at that time.  I'm open to news of improvements that are not published.

The people have a right to know what's in the air, water and land more than they need a say over "is Coke or Pepsi going to get the vending contract for the park on top of the sewer."

Please, tell New York's elected and appointed officials to stop leaving New Yorkers in danger of environmental hazards like when the WTC fell, and cover all the open sewers, and not just the ones around Harlem.

Any additional insight you post here is appreciated.


AJ Weberman said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
AJ Weberman said...

This is brilliant reportage and should be in the NYT