A flood mediation plan that the Southeast Queens community had fought so hard to get implemented is now regressing, Assemblyman Bill Scarborough (D-Jamaica) told Community Board 12 at its Jan. 16 meeting in St. Albans.
In late December the state Department of Environmental Conservation pulled the plug on pumping water at Station 24 in Jamaica, which had been bringing much-needed relief to the surrounding community. The Department of Environmental Protection got the old Jamaica Water Supply well up and running, then turned the daily operations over to the DEC.
Scarborough also said the DEP, which promised to look into what other wells could be brought back online sooner than five years, has now gone back to its original well pumping date of 2018, which is when the city will need the extra supply to offset losses during the repair of the Delaware Aqueduct.
“When we met with DEP in December it seemed like everything had changed,” Scarborough said. “They were extremely resistant to any pumping of the wells.”
A DEP official disputed Scarborough’s contention that the agency ever said it would start pumping before 2018 or that activating the wells would ever be for the purpose of alleviating flooding. The DEP is in the process of assessing the JWS wells and doing any neccessary reconstruction will begin sometime this spring, the official said, with the water to be used for drinking when the aqueduct is being repaired.
In a flier held up by Scarborough at the CB 12 meeting, which the DEP proposed sending to the community, the agency said it will begin testing what other area wells can be activated by 2020, and added that pumping groundwater is useful only when the reservoirs are not able to meet the city’s needs, such as during a drought or during the future shutdown of the aqueduct.
“So pumping is not needed when our community is drowning in water, and people are losing their homes and their businesses through no fault of their own. But when they need the water, it’s needed,” Scarborough said. “I think that’s an outrage.”
Scarborough asked CB 12 to consider passing a resolution which says that the city and state budgets should not be passed until Southeast Queens has received a comprehensive plan to reduce flooding.
“We need to again have a communitywide effort to get a solution because you can talk to people on the city level, state level, the federal level, nobody will tell you this is fair,” Scarborough said. “Nobody will tell you that we should be suffering like this.”
The flooding is caused by an elevated groundwater table and the lack of a fully constructed sewer system. After much discussion the DEP launched two pilot programs, one to install reverse seepage basins, which is still underway, and the other to reactivate Station 24, an old JWS well.
Southeast Queens was the last area in the city that had a private water company, which lasted until 1996. JWS had 69 wells throughout the area and they were pumping 60 million gallons of water per day.
“By the end of their tenure, the water was so terrible that people were demanding they get out of there,” Scarborough said. “I can remember hearings where people would bring jars of black water that came out of their tap and demand that the city find a solution.”
So in 1996, the city purchased JWS and all of its wells and stopped pumping water, so now, like the rest of the city, Southeast Queens gets its water from tunnels to upstate reservoirs. An unintended consequence of not pumping area wells is the groundwater started to rise.
In the early 2000s, the DEP told elected officials the area was going to have a huge flooding problem because the water continues to rise. It suggested activating one of the JWS wells called Station 6 at 108th Avenue and 165th Street, to show that with advanced techniques the city could purify the water better than JWS did and people could drink it again. It was supposed to take seven to 10 million gallons of water out of the ground daily. The program was discontinued because it became too expensive.
Station 24, a JWS well poisoned with chemicals from the West Side Corp., a deactivated dry cleaning plant, started pumping again at the end of the summer. It was to purify the water and have the secondary effect of taking between 800,000 and a million gallons of water per day out of that area, until work was suspended.
“The answer always comes back to some variation of we don’t want to spend the money or we don’t have the money,” Scarborough said. “And we as a community should not have to accept that.”
Lisa King, a spokeswoman for the DEC, said pumping at Station 24 had been suspended because its supply of a sequestering agent needed to separate out iron in the water is almost exhausted and not due to a lack of funding. The lapse in pumping will allow the agency to create a detailed report on the plant’s progress based on the monitoring samples it has collected over three months.
“A draft evaluation report, summarizing the data, has been submitted to DEC and internal review is underway,” King said in an email. “Additional sequestering agent will be ordered based on need after the draft operations plan is reviewed.” Asked when pumping would resume, King said that has not been determined. Scarborough said he is looking into taking legislative action in order to force the DEC to pump area wells.