Steroid-storm Sandy Dumps Raw Sewage, Diesel Fuel Into Waterways

Contaminants stirred up by storm pose public health risk.

A boat motors down the Gowanus Canal in Brooklyn, New York. (Photo: Spencer Platt/Getty Images)
The director of the Public Trust Project, Alison has written for Grist and Politics Daily, among others.

While thousands of Americans struggle to recover from massive flood damage caused by Superstorm Sandy, another threat is bubbling under the surface: toxic chemicals.

Wastewater treatment plants in the New York and New Jersey area dumped hundreds of millions of gallons of raw sewage into local waterways in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, according to the Waterkeeper groups, an alliance of organizations that patrol waterways in the area.  

The public remains largely unaware of the threats posed by sewage bacteria and other toxins that may have entered their homes and neighborhoods during Sandy.

MORE: 11 Most Polluted Bodies of Water in the World

Although New York treatment plants are back on the grid, New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection (NJDEP) “has not been forthcoming about the status of the spills or testing of the waterways,” according to Riverkeeper. NJDEP has only issued advisories for certain portions of its waterways, and has not provided any information about "which wastewater treatment plants are still down, how much sewage is going into the water, or when we can expect it to stop," Debbie Mans, the NY/NJ Baykeeper, told TakePart. 

Many groups are doing what they can to educate the thousands of people who are still cleaning up in Sandy’s wake. 

“People that were not physically harmed in the storm could be physically harmed from cleaning up after the storm,” said Captain Bill Sheehan, the Hackensack Riverkeeper.

“They have to be aware when they are cleaning up from the disaster that their health is at risk. They need to be using gloves to wash and Clorox bleach on mold. I’m also recommending particle masks and respirators,” he said in an interview with TakePart.

In addition to sewage, other toxins in the storm water likely include contaminants from flooded subways, roads, tunnels, and industrial sites, as well as petroleum and fluids from cars and boats.

Cleanup is a challenge because pollution is coming from hundreds of different sources—some of which are known to be hazardous and filled with toxic waste.  

The Gowanus neighborhood in Brooklyn was inundated with storm water during Sandy—much of it emanating from the Gowanus Canal, a Superfund site that has been classified as one of the most contaminated bodies of water in the United States.

Artist Tony Locane told The New York Times about racing to rescue belongings from his flooded basement apartment in Gowanus, only to return to dry land with a “greasy, oily slick” all over his skin.

To make matters worse, officials are also struggling to contain a diesel fuel spill.

Last week, as waves swept over levees and homes burned, 350,000 gallons of diesel fuel erupted into Arthur Kill, the narrow channel that separates Staten Island, New York, and New Jersey, according to EcoWatch. 

The spill can be pinned on burst storage tanks in Woodbridge, New Jersey, owned by Motiva Enterprises, a joint venture of Shell and Saudi Refining, Inc.

“Anytime you release that many gallons of potentially toxic compounds into the water, it’s not a good thing,” James Shine, an aquatic chemistry lecturer at the Harvard School of Public Health, told the Huffington Post.

There’s no rest for the weary, either. Another storm is threatening to hit the hurricane-stricken region this week.

“With another Nor’easter coming, I’m concerned that we are going to be inundated, and all that material is going to be stirred up and get pushed back into people’s homes and communities,” Sheehan said. “With all of our defenses down after the big storm, even a small storm could cause a lot of damage.”

For those still slogging through Sandy cleanup, see this factsheet for tips on avoiding mold and other toxins. The CDC also has a website dedicated to flood safety.  

Do you live in an area affected by Hurricane Sandy? If so, how worried are you about contaminated water? Tell us in the COMMENTS.

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