A Cleaner and Even Swimmable Hudson River

In the early 1980′s a water engineer once described the Hudson River to me as "the biggest and fastest flushing toilet in the world". Until the North River sewage treatment plant opened in 1986 for what was called "advanced preliminary treatment" we dumped all of the west side’s raw sewage straight into the Hudson. No wonder Riverside Drive is about ¼ mile from the river–up on a bluff with railroad tracks and later a park and highway between the fancy apartments and the river. No wonder the most expensive residential avenues in Manhattan, 5th Avenue and Park Avenue, were traditionally those furthest from the East and Hudson Rivers. The goal was to get as far away from the rivers as possible.

Times have changed. New parks bring New Yorkers right next to the river. This all became possible with the construction in the 1980′s of the west side’s North River Sewage Treatment Plant. According to the New York City Department of Environmental Protection:

The North River wastewater treatment plant is located on the Hudson River, west of the West Side Highway from 137th Street to 145th Street. The plant provides wastewater treatment for the hundreds of thousands of people who live and work in or visit the west side of Manhattan, from Bank Street in Greenwich Village to Inwood Hill at the island’s northern tip. North River treats about 125 million gallons of wastewater every day during dry weather, and it is designed to handle up to 340 million gallons a day when the weather is wet…

The North River wastewater treatment plant is built on a 28-acre reinforced concrete platform over the Hudson River. It rests on 2,300 caissons pinned into bedrock up to 230 feet beneath the river. The roof of the building is the home of Riverbank State Park, a popular recreational facility with three swimming pools, an amphitheater, an athletic center, a skating rink, a restaurant and sports fields — and, of the two New York State park facilities in the City, the only one built on top of a water pollution control plant.

The construction of the plant in West Harlem was the subject of great controversy. In 1962, when the plant was first being planned, its proposed location was West 72nd Street. Somehow, the plant miraculously floated upstream from a well-to-do neighborhood to a working class community of color. In fact, WE ACT, West Harlem Environmental Action, one of the city’s most prominent environmental justice groups, was founded by Peggy Shepard and colleagues in 1988 to address problems related to the operation of the plant. According to WE ACT’s web site:

The North River Sewage Treatment Plant’s problem proved to be a rallying point with residents who complained about the foul odors emanating from it and about suffering from respiratory problems since it began operating in April 1986. Using strong community mobilization tactics and a key civil disobedience strategy, "The Sewage Seven" – then West Harlem District Leaders Shepard and Sutton, State Senator David Paterson, former Councilmember Hilton Clark and three others – were arrested for holding up traffic at 7 a.m. on the West Side Highway in front of the North River Sewage Treatment Plant on Martin Luther King Day, January 15, 1988. Gas masked, placard carrying community residents held up traffic across from the plant on Riverside Drive to dramatize the unbearable situation.

Three months later, WE ACT formed with three key objectives: to force the City of New York to fix the North River Sewage Treatment Plant, to gain the ability to participate in determining future siting and planning decisions in West Harlem, and to affect the public policy agenda by positioning environmental justice as a major political issue…WE ACT met with numerous City and State officials through the years in an effort to exact a plan of action for correcting the plant’s operational flaws. However, it took a lawsuit to make the City respond. On December 30, 1993, WE ACT reached a settlement of its lawsuit against the City for operating the North River Sewage Treatment Plant as a public and private nuisance.

The clean up of the Hudson is far from complete, and has come at great cost and struggle, but earlier this week, my colleagues Michael Purdy, Director of Columbia’s Lamont Doherty Earth Observatory (the scientific heart of the Earth Institute), along with Observatory scientists Greg O’Mullan, Andrew Juhl and Raymond N. Sambrotto, announced a river monitoring collaboration with Riverkeeper. Monitoring the river in 2006 and 2007, this research collaboration found the river to be substantially cleaner than it was before clean up began in the 1970′s. However, the quality of the Hudson’s waters is still subject to great variability. Riverkeeper and Columbia plan to conduct monthly monitoring studies in the next several years and make these results available to the public each month.

The Hudson River has always been important to New Yorkers, but its use as a recreational site is growing. As I wrote in my recent posting on Pete Seeger, people are now interested in swimming in the Hudson. A new park on the river is about to open in Harlem, across the street from Fairway Supermarket. It’s not hard to project that on a hot summer day people will want to do more than look at the river. Some of them will want to jump in and cool off. Of course, in addition to the potential toxicity of the water itself, people will want to be mindful of the river’s incredibly strong current. The west side riverfront is now dominated by waterside parks, where once we saw heavy industry, freight receiving piers and floating sewage. The benefit of this resource is obvious to anyone wishing to take a look. We owe our thanks to the people who built the treatment plant, to the community leaders who struggled to make sure it ran well, and to the advocates and scientists who work at Riverkeeper, the Clearwater and the Lamont Doherty Earth Observatory. Together, they have made sure that we are leaving this small part of our planet in better shape than we found it. We really can’t ask for more.

I am grateful for the research assistance of Rachel Dannefer, Masters Student, Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs.