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Queens Chronicle

Guardians of Flushing Bay hold court

Pols, community leaders invited for up-close look at pollution situation

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Posted: Thursday, August 29, 2019 10:30 am

Flushing Bay was tranquil and picturesque on the evening of Aug. 22; and the bobbing of pleasure boats moored off Pier 1 at the World’s Fair Marina was hardly noticeable under a graying sky with clouds rolling in as sunset approached.

Only the steady stream of planes heading for Runway 31 at LaGuardia Airport across the bay disturbed the scene; that and the dirty secret that a visitor might not know about the water just off the Flushing Bay Promenade.

“Every year, Flushing Bay and Flushing Creek get more than two billion gallons of raw sewage released into them,” said Rebecca Pryor of Guardians of Flushing Bay.

“In 2018 it was five billion gallons,” she added.

Many steps are underway and under consideration to help restore the bay and the creek. But the Guardians, consisting of area dragon boaters, residents and environmentalists, hosted a Community Leaders Paddle on Aug. 22, inviting numerous city and state officials from the communities surrounding the bay on a dragon boat trip where they would have to do their own rowing — and could see close up both the bay and several sources of its pollution.

When the right combination of rain running into storm sewers and Queens residents flushing their toilets occurs, facilities for storing sewage can be overwhelmed. When that happens, outlets called combined sewer overflows release raw, untreated sewage into Flushing Bay and Flushing Creek.

Pryor said all it takes is one-tenth of an inch of rain in one hour to trigger a release.

“We want our officials to be able to experience Flushing Bay, the sight, the feel, the sounds and the smell of it,” she said.

The guest list included state Sen. John Liu (D-Bayside) and Councilman Costa Constantinides (D-Astoria), who is chairman of the Council’s Committee on Environmental Protection and serves on the Committee for Resiliency and Waterfronts.

Also among the nearly 40 guests grabbing paddles were Queens Parks Commissioner Michael Dockett, Janice Melnick, director of Flushing Meadows Corona Park, representatives from the Queens Botanical Garden and multiple representatives of the city’s Department of Environmental Protection and the Ditmars Boulevard Block Association.

Pryor said the two major causes of pollution are the CSO releases and the so-called legacy pollution that is particularly prevalent in Flushing Creek, which runs through what was once a massive ash dump for the city.

“Remember the coal ash dump that Fitzgerald wrote about in ‘The Great Gatsby’?” Pryor asked. “It was here.”

Three CSOs empty into the creek, within less than one mile.

Constantinides said while New York City’s waterways as a whole now are cleaner than they have been for generations, officials are very aware that more needs to be done.

The councilman hopes that any plans to reuse a post-jail complex Rikers Island can include a reconfiguration of the area’s sewage collection, treatment and release. He and Liu acknowledged that reducing the number and volume of overflow discharges is the largest and potentially most solvable problem.

“If we can reduce the sewage, or raise the level of rain required for a release, Flushing Bay will eventually clean itself, because there’s great natural circulation here,” Liu said.

Volunteer instructors gave the first-timers basic lessons in paddling, and all were warned beforehand they would be getting wet. The basics out of the way, both boats paddled into the eastern portion of the bay, stopping just short of where the Whitestone Expressway crosses over the mouth of Flushing Creek without entering.

“This area is very industrial,” Pryor said of the southeastern end of the bay. “When you don’t have access [to Flushing Creek] you don’t have to clean it up. We don’t mind industry — we like industry and we like jobs. But we want them to be clean. And we want access.”

She also asked people to look back at the promenade, the park that looks as nice from the water as it does strolling along its paths.

“Now imagine an AirTrain there,” she said, referring to the elevated line Gov. Cuomo and the Port Authority want to build between the No. 7 subway at Mets-Willets Point and LaGuardia, which the Guardians oppose.

The way back to Pier 1 included a race between the two boats — and a detour to the largest CSO in the city, which empties from directly below the promenade’s paved, landscaped walking path.

“BB006,” Pryor said as the boats stood off perhaps 100 yards from the pipe, which is surrounded by booms. She also reminded all that they and their clothing were anywhere from damp to saturated with water from the bay, and that the paddling got everyone’s hands and arms submerged up to the elbows.

“And you’re lucky, because it hasn’t rained today,” she said. “But you should all really wash your hands.” A major thunderstorm did run through Queens about an hour after the boats were back in their berths at Pier 1.

It also is advisable not to get any water from the bay in one’s eyes, as the sensation is somewhere between stinging and burning.

The city’s DEP has longterm control plans for both Flushing Bay and Flushing Creek that were approved by the state Department of Environmental Conservation on March 7, 2017. Information provided by the DEP says the plan for the creek includes, by December 2025, green infrastructure, construction to reduce sewage volume and chemical treatment of sewage that is discharged, at an estimated cost of $92 million.

Plans for Flushing Bay include all that plus dredging, restoration of grass areas near the shore, a tunnel to store sewage outflows headed for BB006 and another discharge site. Completion is estimated by June 2035 at a cost of more than $1.6 billion. Summaries and details are available online at nyc.gov/site/dep/water/flushing-bay.page, and nyc.gov/site/dep/water/flushing-creek.page.

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