The NAACP announced Tuesday that it has launched a civil rights and environmental justice investigation into the persistent flooding problem that has plagued the Southeast Queens community for more than a decade, believing the city has not aggressively worked to correct the situation.
Leroy Gadsden, the president of the Jamaica branch of the civil rights group, joined by several elected officials and civic leaders at a press conference outside the organization’s office on Linden Boulevard, called the conditions flood victims have had to live in “deplorable” and “inhumane.”
The “thorough” investigation will include speaking with residents, visiting their homes to document damage and filing reports with the city in an attempt to determine the extent of its liability, since the problems worsened when the Department of Environmental Protection stopped reducing the groundwater table by pumping area wells, Gadsden said.
“Our investigation will also explore the issue of whether or not the City of New York has engaged in the fair treatment of all citizens regardless of race, color, or national origin with respect to community development and deployment of resources,” Gadsden said. And whether the city’s “neglect,” of the environmental needs of Southeast Queens residents is in violation of the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment of the Constitution. Gadsden said the group is prepared to take legal action, if necessary.
In 1996, when the DEP took over Jamaica Water Supply, which pumped millions of gallons of water out of the ground daily, it shut down the operation and began transporting water only through tunnels from upstate New York, even through the city was well aware of the consequences, Gadsden said.
The agency will attempt to extract 60 million gallons of water from the borough’s wells to offset losses while repairing the Delaware Aqueduct, which will lower the groundwater table, but the project isn’t set to begin until 2018 and when it’s completed, the city will cease pumping area water.
“This is a community problem, a community indignity and it requires a community response,” said Assemblyman Bill Scarborough (D-Jamaica), who has been leading the fight for a solution, adding, “We have flooding where people have mold in their basements as big as golf balls.”
Scarborough cited the 2007 City Council testimony of former DEP Commissioner Emily Lloyd, which he said states that the city knew shutting down the wells would raise the groundwater table by 30 feet and negatively impact the effectiveness of the sewer system.
“I do not think their motives were racist,” Scarborough later said of the city. “I think fiscal decisions were made not to spend the money. I think it was unconscionable given the impact on Southeast Queens.”
York College is pumping a million gallons of water a day out of its basement and the MTA is pumping two million gallons of water out of the subway station at Parsons Boulevard and Archer Avenue daily, Scarborough stated.
The lawmaker added that new information he has received suggests that the flooding is leading to an increase in the number of rats in the borough’s subways because the elevated water level is driving them out of their burrows.
“DEP has to work and they must work now,” said the Rev. Charles Norris, pastor of the Bethesda Missionary Baptist Church in Jamaica. “We’re not going to wait any longer. And if they don’t, well then Lord please help us.”
Gadsden said that the alleviation of flooding should be a top priority for the city and be put ahead of building sidewalk cafes, planting trees, adding waterfalls under bridges or more parks.
“I don’t know of any other community in these five boroughs that’s subjected to the type of abuse and the flood damage as here in Southeast Queens. And who comprises this community? It’s predominately minorities and people of color,” Gadsden said.