New York City’s
with leaks, erosion, contamination and incompetence threatening drinking
quality and delivery, a report by an environmental group claims.
The report by Riverkeeper Inc., released on July 25, says
and that an antique aqueduct could soon collapse, depriving the city of as much
as 80 percent of its
the city’s Department of Environmental Protection, where, it claims,
“competent, conscientious workers are routinely sidelined in favor of loyal
favorites, without regard to their abilities.”
Several high-level officials have been asked to resign in
the wake of an F.B.I. investigation into an alleged cover-up of mercury leaks,
the report claims. One official, it alleges, left after the F.B.I. caught him
trashing files pertaining to the leaks in a Dumpster outside a D.E.P. field
office. Officials have “implicitly discouraged” employees from cooperating with
the investigation, the report says.
In scathing language, the report calls out several other
D.E.P. employees by name, accusing them of incompetence.
Geoffrey Ryan, a D.E.P. spokesman, dismissed the report as
“fraught with misstatements of fact.”
“It’s a rehash of some of Riverkeeper’s pet themes,” Mr.
Ryan said. “And, typically, it’s characterized by misinformation, inaccuracies,
innuendo, allegations from unidentified sources, and assaults on the character,
competence and performance of dedicated D.E.P. employees.”
Mr. Ryan said that Riverkeeper’s chief prosecuting attorney,
Robert F. Kennedy Jr., had sent the agency a two-page letter containing some of
the most serious allegations in the report, but that the agency had not
responded because of the personal nature of the attacks. In a May 2 letter, the
D.E.P.’s special counsel, Charles G. Sturcken, warned Mr. Kennedy against
publishing the report, writing that the group “does so at its own risk.”
Mr. Kennedy, who is serving a 30-day prison sentence in
Vieques, Puerto Rico, for his role in protesting the U.S. Navy bombing
exercises there, was not available for comment.
Marc Yaggi, a Riverkeeper attorney, acknowledged that many
of the problems listed in the report have been publicly disclosed before, but
said that’s precisely the point.
“I think things have generally remained status quo” since
City Hall signed an agreement intended to protect the New York City watershed
four years ago, Mr. Yaggi said. “It seems like a complete case of covering up
the problems, hoping to avert crisis until there’s a new administration.”
In their defense, D.E.P. officials pointed to a July 23
decision by the United States Environmental Protection Agency that allows the
city to put on hold-for now-plans to build a plant to filter contaminants out
decision, they said, proves the D.E.P. has made great strides in keeping New
Instead, the city will go ahead with a $150 million plan to
build a facility that treats
That’s just one of several projects under way, he added, including a $600
million program to repair many of the very infrastructural problems Riverkeeper
complains about in its report.
Additionally, scientists from the Stroud
Center in Pennsylvania have been conducting tests since last year throughout
the watershed, as part of a three-year, $3.6 million contract to monitor and
trace sources of contamination in the city’s
year of that study have been turned in to the state Department of Environmental
Conservation, but have not been released.
Riverkeeper says the cheerful progress reports mask a dreary
long-term picture. The gurgling streams that run unnoticed beneath upstate New
Yorkers’ feet are in danger because of poor maintenance and bad management at
the D.E.P., the group says.
“Four decades ago, the City of New York was known as the
Mecca of basic civil engineering and
was regarded among American civilization’s proudest engineering achievements,”
the report reads. “The brilliant engineers of DEP’s halcyon days have departed
and the city is left with an ossified, worm-eaten engineering staff, which
presides over the gradual deterioration of the system.”
The report is the third in a series of five that Riverkeeper
plans to prepare assessing the 1997 watershed agreement, which allows the city
to regulate development in the upstate municipalities from which its
supply flows. Mr. Kennedy was one of the designers of the plan and an author of
Since the agreement was signed, Mr. Kennedy has been
unsparing in his criticism of Mayor Rudolph Giuliani’s enforcement of it,
alleging that the Mayor has been too accommodating to builders who want to
develop the watershed lands. Development is a threat to the city’s
because the inevitable byproducts of human habitation can contaminate drinking
When the last report was released, in November 1999, Mr.
Kennedy accused Mr. Giuliani of allowing development in an attempt to “court
political favor” with upstate Republicans as he prepared to run for the United
States Senate. That drew a strong rebuke from Mr. Giuliani’s aides, who said
Mr. Kennedy’s report was colored by political considerations. Mr. Kennedy, a
Democrat, actively supported Mr. Giuliani’s then-opponent, Hillary Rodham
The latest report is drier stuff. It focuses primarily on
problems with the 6,000-mile network of reservoirs, pipes and underground
aqueducts, much of which dates back 50 years or more, and the alleged failures
of the D.E.P. to properly monitor and maintain the system.
Riverkeeper recommends that the city immediately fix several
damaged or deteriorating aqueducts using a long-promised (but never-delivered)
submarine to explore leaks, and that it begin planning to build a third tunnel
project that would cost untold billions. The report further calls on the city
to “stop concealing critical information from elected officials and the
“The city’s spent millions and millions of dollars to try
and protect the quality of the
Mr. Yaggi said.
Chief among Riverkeeper’s concerns, Mr. Yaggi said, were
leaks in the Delaware Aqueduct, which runs for 83.8 miles from the Rondout
Reservoir in Ulster County to the Hillview Reservoir in Yonkers. Constructed
between 1937 and 1945, it is the longest continuous tunnel in the world. It is
also leaking like crazy-somewhere between 10 million and 38 million gallons a
day, according to official estimates from the D.E.P. (New York consumes about
1.2 billion gallons of
engineers, speaking on the condition of anonymity, estimate that the leak could
be much larger-perhaps as much as 100 million gallons a day.
“According to DEP engineers, the worst-case scenario, a
catastrophic aqueduct collapse, is a real possibility,” the report says. If
that happened, the city would be cut off from 80 percent of its
and might run out of
Ryan disputed both figures.)
While acknowledging the leak, the D.E.P. has sought to
stifle such doomsaying. “There is nothing to indicate that we have an emergency
situation,” D.E.P. Commissioner Joel A. Miele Sr. said at a December City
Council hearing. “The sky is not falling.”
Riverkeeper alleges that the city has dragged its feet in
buying a specially adapted $2 million submarine from the Woods Hole
Oceanographic Institute to explore the leaks, and that it has otherwise
conducted “an indefensibly minimalist response” to the problem. Mr. Ryan said
the sub was now under construction in Woods Hole.
Even worse, plugging the holes may now be impossible,
Riverkeeper says. According to the report, some D.E.P. engineers “fret that
this section of the aqueduct may now be held together only by the internal
pressure of the
But Mr. Ryan said the D.E.P. recently drained the tunnel without incident.
The aqueduct isn’t the only problem. According to the
report, the Croton Falls Dam is cracked and could fail, and a lack of security
allows cars, trucks and all-terrain vehicles to drive over the Catskill
Aqueduct, which is vulnerable to collapse. Mr. Ryan said the Croton Falls Dam
is one of several slated for repairs under the D.E.P.’s $600 million repair
The Riverkeeper report places much of the blame for the
infrastructural problems at the feet of the D.E.P. engineers, who operate with
broad autonomy in overseeing the system within their designated regions. Many,
it claims, “are counting their days to retirement, hoping they make it before
the dike bursts.” The engineers are often the only ones who know how the system
really works, the report says, adding that “there are no manuals showing the
operation of the system.”
While some administrators are lauded, others are singled out
by name for abuse. One top engineer is the son of a golf partner of former
Deputy Commissioner William Stasiuk. Another is called “the most dangerous
person in the entire system” by an anonymous informant.
“What difference does it make who Stasiuk played golf with?”
asked Mr. Ryan.
The most serious allegations surround Carl Picha, the
agency’s East of Hudson district engineer until he resigned in January.
“According to several sources,” the report says, “during the summer of 1999,
Picha was caught by the FBI sneaking out of the DEP’s Katonah office at night
to dump files and reports into a Dumpster.”
Some of those files, Riverkeeper alleges, had to do with the
criminal investigation into allegations of a cover-up of mercury contamination
in the city’s
Mr. Picha could not be reached for comment about the
allegations. “Carl Picha was not fired. He retired after 35, 36 years of
service,” Mr. Ryan said. Asked about the allegations regarding the trashed
files, Mr. Ryan repeatedly replied: “I can’t talk about the F.B.I.
Riverkeeper says the mercury contamination has been going on
for years. According to the report, outdated gauges, called manometers, are
used to measure the flow of
contains enough mercury to contaminate the city’s entire
report alleges. The gauges frequently break, and there have been numerous
reports of mercury leaks from them into the
Mr. Ryan said there has been “zero” mercury contamination of
Other pieces of equipment used in the system give off
smaller amounts of other dangerous contaminants, including lead, the report
Riverkeeper claims the D.E.P. tried to cover up evidence of
serious contamination. In June 1999, the F.B.I. searched the agency’s offices,
seizing documents. A grand jury is investigating, but no arrests have ever been
made. Riverkeeper has obtained a copy of a June 2000 D.E.P. memo advising
employees that they have “no obligation” to cooperate with investigators.
“To my knowledge, all employees have indeed been
cooperative,” Mr. Ryan said.