The NYC Dept. of Environmental Protection (DEP), under a consent order from the NY State Dept. of Environmental Conservation (DEC) have installed an aeration system in Newtown Creek to raise dissolved oxygen levels in the water above a required level of 3 mg/L to allow for fish survival. The system consists of blower buildings which pump air through long plastic pipes that sit on the Creek floor. There are two aeration systems in place on the Creek: the English Kills system (fully completed in 2014) and the East Branch system (fully completed in 2018).
Since 2011, Newtown Creek Alliance and various partner organizations, including Riverkeeper, have sought to challenge the aeration project in Newtown Creek. To date, we have raised a number of concerns about the project including.
The potential health impacts caused by aerosolizing bacteria and chemical contaminants that lie within the sediments and water column of Newtown Creek, a federally designated superfund site. DEP, DEC and Dept. of Health have all acknowledged the possibility of releasing pollutants into the air column but not taken action to properly assess its impact. In a public Queens Community Board 2 meeting, DEP did state that the Turning Basin area of the Creek was removed from original plans of aeration because of concern over highly contaminated sediments (a statement that was verbally redacted years later). Areas in and near English Kills have hazardous levels of surface sediment contamination (PCBs, PAHs, etc) and the aeration system is clearly a transport mechanism that needs to be properly studied.
Unclear evidence on the need for aeration and effectiveness of the system in place. In examining recent DO levels from areas of the main channel of the Creek, we found that water is above the 3 mg/L threshold most of the time already, and at higher levels than other areas of NY Harbor (see 2016 data, 2015 data and 2014 data). Additionally, we do not believe that aeration reflects current water quality realities within Newtown Creek. To illustrate we have created a chart showing data used as basis for requiring aeration (1984 to 2003) versus recent data findings (2014 to 2016) – see chart here. Additionally, it is unclear when the currently installed aeration is actually needed to reach the 3 mg/L threshold. The current aeration runs continuously from May through September without reflecting actual DO levels. Recent DEP data shows that low oxygen levels tend to follow CSO discharges, which is both a justification for investing in reduction of CSO and revising operation procedures of the aeration system.
Lack of long-term plan for use of the aeration system. While the removal of the final phase of planned aeration, NC-4, was approved by DEC as part of the Long Term Control Plan for Newtown Creek (2017), the existing aeration systems have no mechanism in place for regular evaluations by the regulatory agency (see original aeration plan here). NYS DEC needs a clear system in place for evaluating current water quality conditions, and the necessity, as well as cost/benefit analysis for running aeration.
Lack of engagement with communities that live near to and use the Creek for various purposes. To date, there has been no public meeting focussed solely on aeration. While the EPA and DEP have responded to questions and concerns about the project at Superfund CAG and Community Board meetings, the DEC, who has ultimate oversight and regulation of the project, has failed to discuss the project in a public forum.
Reliance on a mechanical solution that consumes large amounts of electricity contributes to further release of greenhouse gases (approximately 25,356 Kg CO2 per year according to a 2021 DEP evaluation) and works against city and state climate goals. Additionally, NYC is spending hundreds of thousands of dollars per year in maintenance to address a system that is prone to failure and damage. Recent presentations from the DEP have also highlighted that the current systems are failing to meet their anticipated lifespans, required substantial upgrades in the near future.
To effectively address the above concerns, NCA is asking for DEC to amend their current consent order with DEP and allow for the following:
Shutdown of the Entire East Branch System
In 2022, the DEP, in coordination with DEC, sought to only run the Upper Leg of the East Branch, due to the fact that DO levels along the Lower Leg have improved significantly since the consent order was put in place. However, due to engineering configurations, DEP is unable to only operate one of the lines from the blower building. Given the significant impacts that running the Upper Leg poses (transport and aerosolization of coal tar and sediment contamination in the Turning Basin, proneness to damage from barge traffic, and proximity to public access at the Plank Road site) and minimal benefit that running the Lower Leg provides (the section only runs 500 feet) we request that the entire East Branch system be shut down.
Replacing the Current English Kills Upper Leg with a Non-Aersolizing System
With Dissolved Oxygen levels being most impaired beyond the Metropolitan Avenue Bridge, we believe this should be the main area of focus for pursuing mechanical means to improve conditions. There are other systems that can increase DO levels without aerating the surface waters and creating the environmental hazards present with the current aeration project. Such a system was deployed by DEP in Gowanus Canal where Canal water was withdrawn, oxygenated, and returned via a diffuser system. Given the long term need for DO improvements here, and the fact that DEP’S current motors are nearing the end of their life cycle, we request that a new, non aerosolizing, system be installed in the upper section of English Kills.
Formal Letters to and from Agencies: