After news broke last month that Astoria’s Hallets Cove may have the dirtiest water in the city, the city Department of Environmental Protection and the people behind the data disagree about whether it’s true.
The Citizens Water Quality Testing Project, run by the nonprofit Water Trail Association, shows that Hallets Cove has the most consistently high level of Enterococcus bacteria — which indicates the presence of human feces — out of 25 waterfront sites tested over the summer.
But when the DEP went to Hallets Cove to investigate, the results came back much lower: between two and five Enterococci colonies per 100 milliliters, according to a department official.
“The results we’ve had thus far don’t indicate that there’s anything wrong,” the DEP official said.
The DEP says it tests the water at Hallets Cove every three months, but the department went back on Oct. 12 in response to the alarming Water Trail data, which showed dangerous levels of the bacteria. The department tested the water at its Newtown Creek microbiology lab using the membrane filter method, which has been used by the EPA.
Sarah Durand, an associate professor of biology at LaGuardia Community College, examined the Hallets Cove water samples in her lab for the Citizens Water Quality Testing Project. She described the DEP’s numbers as “incredibly low” and said she tested the water using the Enterolert method, which is also EPA-approved and has been used by Riverkeeper, a nonprofit dedicated to protecting New York area rivers.
“Both techniques should yield the same results, and it’s peculiar why they wouldn’t,” Durand said, though she also noted that for a fair comparison between the data, both groups should use the same method.
The DEP needs to take more samples before it can come to a conclusion, Durand added, because of fluctuations in tides, currents, weather conditions and other factors.
“Until you have a sufficient sample size, there’s no way to make any claim,” she said.
Rob Buchanan, co-founder of the Water Trail Association, agrees. He said he’d be “very leery” of comparing the Citizens Water Quality Testing Project data with the DEP’s until more information comes forth.
“It would be very important to know how many samples the DEP has taken at Hallets Cove, when they took them, exactly where they took them and how and to whom they have distributed that information … We tested for 20 weeks at the beach, often more than once a day, and all of our information is freely available via our website,” Buchanan said in an email. “If the DEP did significantly fewer tests … I don’t know how much weight they ought to be accorded.”
The city prohibits swimming at Socrates Sculpture Park Beach at Hallets Cove, but people are occasionally seen swimming there anyway, and organizations such as the Long Island City Community Boathouse run free kayaking programs there over the summer. Some have questioned whether the group should send people, including children, into water that could be so dangerous.
“We are not yet at the point of having enough data to make recommendations or form policy,” Buchanan said. “It is alarming that so many of the readings are ‘unacceptable,’ but keep in mind that those standards are for swimming. Standards for boating really don’t exist yet — that’s one discussion we are hoping to pursue…I’d say the best policy is the full-disclosure policy that [the Boathouse] has adopted — just tell the public what we know and what we don’t.”