New York Post: Clean Sweep

(January 1, 2012)

By BRAD PARKS

January 1, 2012

They called their effort the Pipe Watch, because that was essentially what they did: troll the Hudson River, document the vile junk oozing into the river from factory and sewage pipes, and either sue or embarrass the polluter into cleaning it up.

John Cronin was one of them, a young volunteer who had grown up in Yonkers, on the shores of the Hudson. Even though it was the river where his father had learned to swim and his grandfather had been a commercial fisherman, Cronin had been taught to avoid it. And not without reason. For hundreds of years — starting not long after Henry Hudson explored it, convinced by its majesty that he had found the long-sought passage to Asia — humanity had been using it as one big sewer, flushing anything we no longer desired into its currents.

By 1973, when Cronin first started working on the river, the contamination had left a seemingly indelible smear. Wax from a candle company coated the rocks in Newburgh. Adhesive from a tape manufacturer congealed on the beaches in Beacon. Paint from an automotive factory stained the water in Tarrytown. Junkyards and abandoned cars lined the shores and shallows.

On some days, the smell was so bad it made his eyes water.

The thought that someone might kayak on it or wade into it — as happens regularly these days — was a far-off dream.

“It’s hard for people today to understand how troubled and filthy the river was in the early 1970s,” said Cronin, who was hired a few years later by what was then known as the Hudson River Fishermen’s Association to be the first full-time river keeper on the Hudson, a job he held until 2000.

“You would be hard-pressed to find a waterway on the planet that has undergone more of a dramatic transformation than the Hudson River has over the last 40 years.”

What has happened is an important piece of a larger narrative that — while it often gets lost in the daily squabbles that pit developer against environmentalist, Republican against Democrat, special interest against general interest — is worth noting as we flip the calendar from 2011 to 2012.

Viewed from the long lens of decades, the New York area as a whole is in the midst of one of the more remarkable environmental success stories in American history.

Its air is more breathable than it has been during any time that records have been kept — and, at least anecdotally, is better than it has been since the Industrial Revolution began.

Its waterways, here in the year when we mark the 40th anniversary of the Clean Water Act, are cleaner than they have been in generations.

Its efforts to add green spaces, plant new trees and make itself more livable position it as a national model of what can be achieved in urban places.

And while the people who study these issues and advocate for them constantly warn against backsliding — and fret over the challenges that still face the nation’s most densely populated region — there’s no question that the New York of 2012 is a cleaner place than the New York of 1972 or even 1992.

“There are so many ways in which New York has been really proactive and successful when it comes to improving our environment,” said Nevin Cohen, an assistant professor of Environmental Studies at the New School. “In general, we’re a real leader and an innovator, especially for the size and scale of the city. There’s more work to be done, of course, but we’ve accomplished a lot, and it’s something New Yorkers deserve to be proud of.”

Perhaps nothing is more emblematic of the New York region’s recovery than what has happened in the area that used to serve as its dumping ground. By the late 1960s, the New Jersey Meadowlands was a forsaken swamp that was home to more than 50 landfills, a stunning variety of polluting industries, and dumping — legal and illegal — by the ton.

Drivers along the northern stretches of the New Jersey Turnpike were treated to mountains of refuse so tall they obscured views of the nearby Manhattan skyline. The only visible wildlife was the enormous horde of seagulls that came to feast on the trash by the thousand, like something from an Alfred Hitchcock movie.

What was going on beneath the skies was even more horrifying. Don Smith was the longtime chief naturalist for what is now known as the New Jersey Meadowlands Commission, a planning and zoning agency founded in 1969 to oversee a 14-town, 30.4-square mile area along the Hackensack River. He remembers a time when people liked mooring their boats on the Hackensack River because they never got barnacles on them.

“No one made the connection and asked, ‘Wait, how come there aren’t any barnacles anymore?’ ” Smith said. “The truth was, the river had become so polluted not even barnacles could live there. There wasn’t enough oxygen in the water.”

Smith went after the polluters, using the newly created Clean Water Act as a cudgel.

At the same time, the commission started closing down and cleaning up the landfills, digging enormous trenches around them, all the way down to the clay underneath, and installing pipes that drained off the toxicity leaching out and sent it to wastewater treatment plants.

For the first 10 years, the oxygen level in the water didn’t budge. But throughout the ’80s and into the early ’90s, it slowly began recovering.

“Once you get things living in the mud of the river again, then the food chain really starts to expand,” said Jim Wright, a communications officer for the Meadowlands Commission who keeps a blog that tracks some of the wildlife they now see there. “Once you get invertebrates, then you start to get the fish that eat the invertebrates. Once you get fish, you get the cormorants and blue heron and osprey that eat the fish.”

Today there are 280 species of birds that live in or visit the Meadowlands — this, just five miles from Manhattan — and 21 public parks that allow people to enjoy them. In 2010, a pair of bald eagles set up a nest just outside the Meadowlands district.

“I always said we’ll know we did a successful job when the bald eagles come back,” Smith said. “They were the final stamp of approval we were waiting for.”

But more than just the return of the eagles — or the falcons that have been building nests on New York’s taller buildings, or the grey seal that swam up the East River and could be seen sunning itself on the rocks near Gracie Mansion a few months back — the New York area has been getting more hospitable for the most important species of all: human beings.

New York’s streets are inarguably cleaner than they were a generation ago, or even a decade ago. According to the fiscal year 2001 Mayor’s Management Report, 85% of the city’s streets were rated “acceptably clean.” In 2011, that is up to 95%. They’re also safer: Pedestrian deaths are now routinely below 200 a year — 155 in 2009 — which is well less than half what they were in the 1960s and ’70s, when annual total sometimes topped 500.

They might even be quieter. The City’s Department of Environmental Protection logged just 31,778 noise complaints last year, down from 49,221 in 2008 — a 36% drop.

That’s not the only thing that has New Yorkers breathing easier. The American Lung Association has been tracking the number of days of unhealthy air since 1996. The New York area has an average of 21.8 fewer days of unhealthy ozone levels than it did 15 years ago — down to an average of 12 per summer.

“Air quality in New York is drastically cleaner, certainly cleaner than 30 years ago but even cleaner than five to 10 years ago,” said Michael Seilback, vice president of public policy for the American Lung Association in New York.

“There were various times when New York had some of the dirtiest air in the country, and now we are falling out of the top 25 — and that’s at a time when air everywhere is getting cleaner.”

The improvement has been triggered by a combination of factors, near and far. The near is mostly in improved vehicle emissions — particularly new trucks, which are now required to have diesel particulate filters — though Seilback expects moves by New York City and state to shift to cleaner home heating oil will help, too. The far is mostly from Midwestern and Canadian power plants: Every time a coal power plant is retrofit with better technology, New York’s air benefits.

Then there’s the water that surrounds it all. While not often thought of as a beach mecca, New York City has some 600 miles of coastline — even if, for much of its history, New Yorkers mostly tried to stay away from it. Historically, the most expensive land on the island of Manhattan was found in the middle, because it was as far away from the polluted water as possible.

After all, up until the mid-’80s, the city was still quite literally using the Hudson as a toilet, dumping all of the raw sewage generated by the West Side of Manhattan directly into the river. Even after the Clean Water Act in 1972, it took 14 years and several lawsuits before the North River wastewater treatment plant went on line in Harlem and put a halt to the daily pollution of the river.

The results since then have been dramatic, whether you measure it in the number of kayakers who dot the river on a nice day or by more scientific standards.

The New York City Department of Environmental Protection has been doing water sampling in New York Harbor since 1909. For the first half of the 20th century, the average summertime dissolved oxygen level hovered just above 3.0 milligrams per liter, the minimum amount needed to sustain aquatic life. Now the average is routinely above 6.0.

“We have an incredibly environmental success story in the making on the Hudson River, but you have to be careful how you tell that story,” said Greg O’Mullan, an environmental microbiologist at Queens College who studies water quality. “It’s important not to get carried away, because while the average conditions are getting better, there are times and places where the water quality is still unacceptable.”

Once the cleanup of PCB’s by General Electric is complete — and it’s scheduled to continue until 2015 — the most significant remaining environmental threat to the Hudson will be what happens every time it rains heavily. Like many cities, New York has a combined sewer system, meaning street runoff and sanitary sewer lines all drain to the same place. On dry days, the city’s 14 sewage treatment plants have enough capacity to handle the flows. But about 50 days a year, it rains too hard for the treatment plants to keep up. The overflow goes into the river.

A few years back, the city estimated that fixing the problem with conventional infrastructure — holding tanks, larger pipes and increased treatment capacity — would cost close to $60 billion. The Bloomberg administration has instead rolled out a plan for a $1.5 billion green infrastructure program that, by promoting everything from green roofs to porous pavement, aims to reduce runoff to the point where the system can handle all but the most significant rain events without overflow.

If that can happen, it would put the Hudson one step closer to the most audacious goal Cronin, its longtime river keeper, has for it: to become the first well-populated river in the United States to have zero pollution discharge.

“The Hudson should be a river where any kid can go down to the shore and catch a fish for the family dinner table,” said Cronin, who now serves a dual role as a fellow at Clarkson University’s Beacon Institute and at Pace University. “That’s a dream with a lot of pieces, because it requires knowing the fish are there, knowing the fish are fit to eat and having access to the river. But given how far we’ve come in the last 30 years, there’s no reason at all we can’t make that happen in the next 30.”

Brad Parks is a Shamus and Nero Award-winning author. His next book, “The Girl Next Door” (St. Martin’s Press), is out in March.


Read more: http://www.nypost.com/p/news/opinion/opedcolumnists/clean_sweep_xLiF42mNBPBKjKx6NSj6BI#ixzz1iPB3QUiJ