On December 7th, 2015, the NYS Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) issued an Air Quality Health Advisory for Harlem Air. The notice advised that "active children, adults, and people with respiratory problems, such as asthma, should reduce prolonged or heavy exertion outdoors." This occurred after tests at the North River Sewage Plant under Riverbank State Park reported elevated levels of formaldehyde, a colorless, flammable, strong-smelling chemical that has been linked with cancer and can cause adverse effects, such as watery eyes, burning sensations in the eyes, nose, and throat; coughing, wheezing, and nausea. Air monitors registered levels of formaldehyde at 32 micro-grams (mg) per cubic meter, slightly elevated above the state guidance level of 30 micrograms per cubic meter.
In response to this, WE ACT for Environmental Justice Executive Director, Peggy Shepard released the following observation:
The North River sewage plant has been a recurring challenge to the West Harlem community for over 25 years. In 1992 WE ACT and NRDC sued the NYC DEP which resulted in the city committing $55 Million to retrofit the brand new plant and a five-year consent order between the city and state regarding the retrofit of the plant. The air alert that occurred on December 7th, 2015 was a recurring example of the public health challenge experienced by West Harlem residents from the operations of the North River plant.
The formaldehyde is a byproduct of the bio-gas utilized by the plant instead of diesel, and the inefficient aging engines. And while the NYC Department of Health and Mental Hygiene say’s that the 32 micro-gram level is “well below the irritant threshold,” this is a painful example of a problem that should have been addressed through a 2012 consent order. When the city renewed its Title V permit with the NYS DEC in 2012, it did so with the agreement to construct new engines by 2018. However, the NYC DEP did not prioritize the retrofit of the aging inefficient engines. In fact, NYC DEP has not complied with the consent order because it has not begun the process of design and contracting to begin the retrofit which could take four years.
The city and state agree that to resolve this issue, the DEP must retrofit the engines. Four years is too long a process that increases the risk to vulnerable residents in neighborhoods wracked by disparities in health, medical insurance, and equity. Mayor De Blasio’s OneNYC plan declares that equity for environmental justice communities is an objective and a deeply-held value. To uphold those values, the city must address the clear solution that should have been addressed following the fire in the main engine room at the North River plant in July 2011:
The NYC DEP must immediately prioritize and accelerate the process for the engine retrofit at North River in West Harlem. All communities matter.
West Harlem Environmental Action, Inc. (WE ACT for Environmental Justice) is a Northern Manhattan community-based organization whose mission is to build healthy communities by ensuring that people of color and/or low-income participate meaningfully in the creation of sound and fair environmental health and protection policies and practices. Follow us on Twitter and like us on Facebook