The Sewage Still Spills

July 26, 2016

The Park South neighborhood still dumps raw sewage into the Hudson River via my neighborhood

*UPDATE* Albanyweblog visits the new spectacular Beaverkill sinkhole at the west end of Washington Park Lake that swallowed a car, and also talks to Water Commissioner Joe Coffey

You know, I hate to complain about the same things over and over, but when the problem is huge and I’m the only one complaining, I feel that I have an obligation to keep complaining. Perhaps eventually somebody who can do something about the problem will hear. And eventually if I can get a few more people complaining alongside me, then several somebodies who can do something will do something about the huge problem just to shut up the constant noise.

Every year I like to make a survey of Albany’s Hudson River waterfront. That’s a fancy way of saying that The Wife and I like to throw our boats in the Hudson on a summer morning and paddle around for the hell of it. While we’re at it, I like to look at the changes to the river and the waterfront, see if things have improved or gotten worse, take photos and maybe report on this blog.

The Big C Pipe, The Mouth Of The Beaverkill Where Washington Park Lake Empties Into The Hudson The Big C Pipe, The Mouth Of The Beaverkill Where Washington Park Lake Empties Into The Hudson

The good news is that because of planning initiatives by the Albany City government and by the Albany Port District Commission we could see improvements all along the river. After decades of neglect of the waterfront, the reason that Albany exists, we are seeing a serious interest in considering the river an asset to our community rather than an embarrassment that needs to be walled off. Viewed from the river these plans are moving slowly and haphazardly, but they are real steps.

The bad news is that certain serious problems have remained unchecked and unabated because they continue to be ignored or shunted aside. These problems can be summed up in two words, decay and filth. While much of the decay seems to be being addressed, much of the filth continues to be pointedly ignored by the authorities.

One problem in particular, a very serious but fixable health hazard, I’ve been hollering about for years. This nasty little illegality being committed by the City and by the State of New York has been successfully ignored because you probably will never see it unless you get into a small boat and paddle up close enough to see it and smell it. No matter how hard the authorities ignore this problem it will continue not only to be a dangerous nuisance to humans and to wildlife but will also sidetrack and ultimately destroy the ambitious plans for transforming the South End waterfront.

Partially Decayed Human Shit Floating Lazily Out Of The Big C Pipe Partially Decayed Human Shit
Floating Lazily Out Of The Big C Pipe

Underneath the parking lot of the U-Haul building, which sits on the banks of the Hudson River, is the double-barreled Big C Pipe, which is New York State Department Of Environmental Conservation (DEC) shorthand for “combined overflow.” They use this misleading term to describe the pipe because two other short street drains join it before it empties into the Hudson. It is the mouth of the Beaverkill, a river that was buried in the 1800s, and it is where Washington Park Lake empties into the Hudson River.

We’d had some thunderstorms the night before, so once again we spotted partially decayed raw sewage floating out of the Big C into the Hudson. Okay, I won’t mince words, it was partially decayed human shit. The smell was unmistakable. The Wife, whose sense of smell is not particularly good, was choking and gagging. (My smeller is even worse than hers, that’s how I can stand to take photos.)

Now, just downstream from this spot where raw sewage empties into the water is the first of the new waterfront amenities, a brand new 50 slip marina for small boats and pleasure craft, including a big beautiful concrete boat launch. This was added to the waterfront by the existing business located there, Springer Welding Works. There are bathrooms and showers, some food for sale with plans for more retail, but no gasoline sales because there are two other marine gas stations close by.

The New Marina At Springer Welding, Just Downstream From The Big C Pipe The New Marina At Springer Welding, Just Downstream From The Big C Pipe

I’ve noticed that the sewage emanating from the Big C tends to cling along the South End shore as it moves downriver. Water analysis by Riverkeeper and, reluctantly, by the State confirm that this is where the bacteria concentrates. The earliest admission by the State that there may be a dangerous sewage problem was when they noted the exponentially large spike in deadly e coli during hot summer months at their monitoring device located a good half mile downriver at the Port of Albany.

So the Springer Marina gets the full brunt of the e coli and bacteria from dissolved fecal matter dumped into the water by the Big C. Like most other people concerned with the South End waterfront I’m glad to see this new marina, so when the marina was proposed I didn’t go before the planning boards and make a fuss about the raw sewage. But I still find it amazing that the State had no problem ignoring the e coli and dissolved shit from the Big C washing over the new marina when it issued water quality permits. Is this institutional corruption, or what?

The Fishing Deck At Island Creek Park The Fishing Deck At Island Creek Park

And if you go past the marina you come to the fishing deck at Island Creek Park. We all know that we aren’t supposed to eat fish caught in the Hudson because of the GE PCBs and because of the layer of oil on the surface of the river and because of e coli from the decaying human waste dumped into the river. But many of the poor folks who fish off that deck can’t afford the high price of fish in the supermarket, so they ignore these somewhat abstract prohibitions issued by bland authorities and consume the fish.

In past years I’ve seen so much raw sewage discharge from the Big C that large mats of shit would slowly float past Springer Welding and settle around the fishing deck. The stink rising off the water would be so terrific that the people fishing would be forced to leave. Maybe I’m being picky, but I really don’t know how you can construct a restaurant row along here without dealing with the raw sewage problem first.

Raw Sewage From The Big C Also Affects Wildlife: A Young Blue Heron Hanging Out A Short Ways Downstream From The Big C Raw Sewage From The Big C Also Affects Wildlife: A Young Blue Heron Hanging Out A Short Ways Downstream From The Big C

So why do we have this raw sewage problem, why are the authorities desperate to ignore it? Why in the year 2016 is the City of Albany continuing to discharge raw sewage directly into the Hudson and not be held accountable for it? Why does New York State, which has finally acknowledged the problem, knowingly continue to put people at risk?

The Beaverkill is supposed to be a storm drain, but it is also part of a system that the planners call a Combined Sewer Overflow (CSO.) This means that the storm drains and the sewer lines are connected to each other at several points by underground basins, through these basins the water from both lines run past each other separated by a low wall. The idea is that when there is a flood or massive downpour and the storm drains are overwhelmed, the extra water slops over the low wall into the sewer lines so as to minimize damage from excess water on the street.

A fine thought all around, except in certain cases, such as here with the Beaverkill, the CSO is deliberately misused. When a sewer line is overloaded because of newly constructed buildings hooking up to it, the municipal governments all too often just let the street drain line become the overflow for the sewer instead of the other way around. That way municipal governments don’t have to pay for installing an expensive new sewer line to carry the extra load, which besides the cost to taxpayers can also be politically unpopular because of the time spent digging up the streets.

Some Of The Park South Residential Construction, Each New Apartment Features Flushable Toilets Some Of The Park South Residential Construction, Each New Apartment Features Flushable Toilets

The sewage that flushes into the Beaverkill, by the way, comes from the Park South neighborhood and Albany Medical Center. As the massive redevelopment of Park South continues, which is admirable and impressive, there are more and more toilets being flushed and more of a need to deal with the waste. But although there have been mitigation efforts, such as installing a bigger slop basin on the combined sewer overflow or diverting some of the sewage to other lines, the Beaverkill is still expected to carry raw sewage directly into the Hudson.

Consider the Big C Pipe the point where Washington Park Lake drains into the Hudson. The lake is itself a place where the buried Beaverkill river emerges from underground before plunging beneath Madison Avenue at New Scotland Avenue and through the South End, acting as a storm drain line for street grates. The only other place where the Beaverkill storm drain line emerges from underground is a small aeration grate in Lincoln Park along the edge of my neighborhood, out of which raw sewage stink wafts almost constantly. This stink from that vent imposed on our neighborhood by the City government and from manhole covers, by the way, is the reason I initially became concerned with this problem.

The Cave-In At Madson Avenue, Looking Up New Scotland Avenue At Park South The Cave-In At Madson Avenue, Looking Up New Scotland Avenue At Park South

This past spring there was a giant cave-in right in the middle of the intersection of Madison and New Scotland. Details about what exactly was down that big hole were pretty much concealed from the public by the City government, and the local media was not interested enough to demand information about what was down there. All anyone seemed to want to know is when will the hole be fixed so we can drive our cars through that vital intersection without inconvenience.

A couple of days after the cave-in I went down there to find out what I could. Quite a number of official looking guys wearing hardhats stood around staring into the hole with grim faces. Meanwhile several other guys who do the actual work snapped instructions back and forth at each other and generally tried to look busy setting up equipment.

A hardhatted guy who appeared to be in charge of some of the actual workers reluctantly answered my brief questions. (The first few I tried to talk to snarled at me, the tension around that hole was intense.) He told me the cave-in was caused by an old brick sewer line, five feet across and topped with a big slab of slate that had, from what I could gather from him, disintegrated.

These brick and slate sewer lines run under some of the oldest streets in the City, they go back about 150 years. There is one running the length of Morton Avenue in my neighborhood, it is lightly used for municipal fixtures such as the kiddie spray pool in Lincoln Park. A few years back we had a rash of cave-ins along Morton caused by the slates sliding off the top of the brick, apparently these enormous stones moved because of the vibrations of heavy trucks and because of street digging.

New Scotland Avenue Just Above Madison Avenue, August 2014 New Scotland Avenue Just Above Madison Avenue, August 2014

There is another thing to note about these cave-ins: they happen because of water damage to the fill around the sewer line. Normally the bricks and the slate stay in place until water seepage washes away the surrounding dirt, which gives the bricks and the slate someplace to travel to. You might recall that in August of 2014 this intersection, indeed the entire area along with much of downtown Albany, flooded severely after the Beaverkill backed up during a big thunderstorm.

I was told that the brick and slate sewer under Madison and New Scotland runs about six feet from the drain line for Washington Park Lake, that is, the buried Beaverkill. The fellow I talked to implied… not said… that there was no damage to the Beaverkill pipe. At the time I let that pass because I figured that if the Beaverkill pipe had serious damage then a spectacular geyser of lake water would be shooting out of the hole.

Frowning Guys In Hardhats Inspect The Hole At Madison And New Scotland Avenues Frowning Guys In Hardhats Inspect The Hole At Madison And New Scotland Avenues

But looking at all those frowning guys in hardhats, plus considering the length of time it took to fix the hole, about a month, clearly something more complicated was going on inside that hole. Each of those cave-ins on Morton Avenue were repaired and passable after two days at most. I watched a few, they dig around the hole, they repair the brick, fill in the sides, push the slate back in place or use another cover, fill on top of the cover usually with concrete and pave the street as soon as possible. No big deal like nothing ever happened.

But the Madison and New Scotland hole was a more difficult problem, I’m guessing because of the close proximity of the Beaverkill line. A screw up repairing the old sewer could cause a breach in the Beaverkill that could turn into the kind of ridiculous spectacular disaster that makes national headlines. I’m also guessing that there was indeed damage to the Beaverkill line caused by recent flooding that was revealed by the cave-in, which certainly would have compounded the problems of repair.

Like I said, with this cave-in we were dealing with an official information blackout so we can’t really be sure what happened to the Beaverkill drain line down that hole. But another bit of indirect evidence that the Beaverkill pipe was damaged in that intersection was reports at the same time of a sewage smell emanating from Washington Park Lake. I learned this from talking to several people, as far as I know there was no testing of the lake and no cleanup, at least nothing was made public so there probably wasn’t any.

The 22 Year Old Unrepaired Beaverkill Cave-In In Lincoln Park, Note The Reforestation The 22 Year Old Unrepaired Beaverkill Cave-In In Lincoln Park, Note The Reforestation

This is not the first time that damage to the Beaverkill line caused a whole lot of sewage to back up into Washington Park Lake. Way back in 1994 during the administration of Mayor Whalen, part of the line caved-in on the lawn of Lincoln Park across from Hackett Middle School. I know the fellow who discovered the cave-in, he was walking across the grass and suddenly the ground collapsed beneath his feet and he was buried up to his chest, he frantically managed to pull himself out before dropping further. He still sounds frightened every time I’ve heard him repeat the story.

At the same exact time it was reported in the Hearst Times Union that Washington Park Lake was stinking of sewage, done in their standard “Isn’t Albany Awful” style. Back here in the real world I heard a lot of people complain about it, the stink was quite severe. Coincidence? No. The Beaverkill has been carrying raw sewage into the Hudson for a long, long time.

So the City crews quickly made a temporary repair to the cave-in in Lincoln Park and almost immediately the sewage smell in Washington Park Lake cleared up. But the City never finished the job, that temporary repair has been temporary for 22 years now. Instead the City put a fence around it and today you can peer through that fence and see that the ground is starting to cave again, which will fill the lake with sewage once again.

Inside The Beaverkill Cave-In Fence: The Ground Is Starting To Collapse Again Inside The Beaverkill Cave-In Fence: The Ground Is Starting To Collapse Again

When will the City finish the job? In the Autumn of 2014 I attended an informational meeting about the Beaverkill flood that happened a few months earlier, and listened with jaw dropping as long-time City Water Commissioner Joe Coffey said, in answer to my question, that he’d just found out about the fenced caved-in part of the Beaverkill line some two weeks earlier! Whether Coffey was telling the truth or just making a lame excuse for inaction, you can’t get any better illustration of the City’s longstanding policy of pointedly neglecting the South End than that. [UPDATE: Joe Coffey was appointed to the job of Commissioner in January 2014, in August 2014 he really was still learning where the long neglected problems are. My error and my apologies to Mr. Coffey]

Since I first started complaining about all this nearly ten years ago the official reactions to my nagging have cycled through the following, in order: 1) Silence 2) Telling me I didn’t know what I was talking about 3) Denial that there is a problem (which was a major step forward) and finally 4) Claiming that the problem is not really a problem but it is being addressed. My current goal is to get the authorities, starting with Mayor Kathy Sheehan, to admit that this is a serious and potentially deadly problem and that we need a new sewer line to carry the sewage.

About three years ago the State of New York finally admitted the existence of the Big C Pipe. Every water discharge pipe along the banks of the Hudson, form Lake Tear-In-The-Clouds to Verrazano Narrows is supposed to be registered with and monitored by the DEC. Above each pipe must be affixed a green “SPEDES” (pronounced “speedies”) permit sign that shows one and all that the State is only allowing clean water to be discharged from that pipe.

Sunday Morning Discharge Of Greenish Toxic Waste Into The Hudson North Of Waterford By MPM Silicones Sunday Morning Discharge Of Greenish Toxic Waste Into The Hudson North Of Waterford By MPM Silicones

Of course the truth is something different. Many times going to various spots on the Hudson in my kayak, I’ve observed surreptitious discharges of vile chemical waste, particularly upriver from Albany by subsidiaries of General Electric. Sunday morning is a favorite time for these corporations to poison the river. This is also done on Sunday to avoid the overworked and politically hobbled State inspectors, who don’t work on the weekends and would be promptly fired if they inspected during their off hours and made a complaint. Each of these pipes discharging poison, I’ve observed, sports a green SPEDES.

As for the State SPEDES permit that quietly and mysteriously appeared above the Big C Pipe a few years ago, it legally proclaims that the State is aware of the sewage coming out of the pipe. So the State is sorta kinda admitting that something ought to be done about any violation to the Clean Water Act. (As the only person who has been complaining I think I can plausibly take credit for this small but significant development.)

But so far this grudging acknowledgement has only resulted in one ineffective and really stupid proposal to deal with the problem. The State drew up plans to build a sewage treatment plant in the parking lot of the U-Haul building to treat the sewage before it pours into the river. Seriously, an entire sewage plant for one line to treat sewage that isn’t supposed to be in that one line in the first place. In effect, the State is saying that it is okay for sewage to run through the street drains of Albany and occasionally bubble up to the surface as long as none of it spills into the Hudson and hurts more important people downstream.

The Livingston Avenue Railroad Bridge, Note The Oil On The Water The Livingston Avenue Railroad Bridge, Note The Oil On The Water

That Sunday morning paddling along the Albany waterfront, The Wife and I saw lots of other things. We saw that the north Albany boat launch that we used to put in our boats was being kept clean by the City, for which we were grateful. We saw the wooden sheaths that protect the piers holding up the Livingston Avenue railroad drawbridge had been repaired. Replacement of that bridge is on hold, by the way, because CSX railroad, which “owns” the bridge, refuses to allow a bike and pedestrian walkway on the new bridge.

As I’ve reported in the past, when you paddle down the river you get a stark sense of just how unfriendly is Albany’s waterfront. Much of the waterfront is a concrete wall that was constructed mainly to accommodate the high in the sky ramps of highway 787 at the expense of the river. The only public boat dock along that wall is almost unusable, and as The Wife pointed out as we passed the dock, the City has actually hung up signs meant to discourage use.

Inside The Corning Preserve Ponds, Soon To Be Gone

Inside The Corning Preserve Ponds, Soon To Be Gone

One of the few nice amenities for a paddler along the waterfront is the inland ponds at the Corning Preserve, which can only be easily accessed from the river during low tide. Well, we were in luck, for once we put in when the tide was almost finished going out. More than once we’ve entered the ponds through the big pipes by laying flat in our boats, this day the top of the pipe that we went through was well over my head.

I realized this might be the last time we could visit these ponds, I don’t think the plan to reconfigure the waterfront park includes keeping them. We could see the heavy equipment sitting high on the banks on one side, I believe the work is supposed to be mostly done this season. The ponds were a poor bit of planning in the first place, and many decades of pointed almost contemptuous neglect of the ponds by the City government is quite evident, but I will miss them when they’re gone.

No Oil Barges: Strange To See No Activity At The Port Of Albany On A Saturday In July

No Oil Barges: Strange To See No Activity At The Port Of Albany On A Saturday In July

And there are big plans afoot to extend the Port of Albany docks all the way to the southern end of the port, build more grain elevators there, and to build a giant warehouse mostly to accommodate anticipated shipments by General Electric. But we were astonished that Saturday in July to see no cargo ships docked anywhere along the port, no oil barges, no container ships, no grain ships, nothing. Just the venerable tug Kathleen Turecamo sitting idle. But we were glad to see the giant pile of salt that sits on the other side of the grain elevators is finally covered up, just like every other salt pile in every little town in New York State is required to do.

These improvements are all good, but we have to have a new sewer line to carry the increased sewage from Park South that ends in a treatment plant and not in the Hudson River. This is the City of Albany’s responsibility, and it is the State’s responsibility to pay for the new line. And I sure wish we could do something about those Sunday morning illegal poisonous discharges upstream that float on the river and make using the river at Albany quite unpleasant. I guess I can always dream that the governments will start obeying their own laws.