BY JAMES FARRELL
A scientist and civic leader from College Point is continuing his push against the city Department of Environmental Protection’s proposal to install an outfall pipe by the northern waterfront of MacNeil Park, pointing to new findings that suggest the pipe could be detrimental to the area’s wetlands.
James Cervino, a marine biologist and president of the College Point-based environmental group, Coastal Preservation Network (CPN), says that his latest tests of water that could flow into the East River through the proposed outfall pipe showed above-regulatory levels of lead and zinc as well as other potential contaminants. Cervino is also the chairperson of the environmental committee at Community Board 7.
The pipe would empty out near protected wetlands that Cervino and CPN have been maintaining and preserving for nearly a decade. Its installation is part of a $130 million infrastructure project funded by DEP and constructed by the Department of Design and Construction. The new pipe would reduce sewer drainage into Flushing Bay and the upper East River by allowing for the decommissioning of three existing combined sewer outfalls. Currently, these three outfalls overflow into Flushing Bay during heavy rainfall, flooding the area with untreated sewage mixed with rainwater. The new outfall would contain only storm water, and DEP has argued that the pipe will improve the overall health of the area’s ecosystem.
But CPN contests that the storm water, even when not mixed with sewage, can be detrimental to protected ecosystems like the MacNeil Park wetlands. Water that flows from city streets often has contaminants, such as asphalt debris and oil from vehicles, the group says. CPN has advocated that the pipe be extended further out into the bay, so that outflow is distanced from the wetlands.
Cervino tested water near clogged storm sewers in College Point and found levels of lead at two different locations of 4.29 and 5.34 micrograms per liter, compared to a two micrograms per liter daily limit as outlined by the DEP. The analysis also found zinc levels at 8.75 micrograms per liter and 10.8 micrograms per liter compared to the limit of five micrograms per liter. He also reported finding fecal coliform from animal feces.
“It could be harmful to marine life, it could be harmful to aquatic plants, oysters, all of the species that I have under the New York State DEC protected permit,” said Cervino. “It’s not rain water from gutters, it’s called street effluent. I used the discharge numbers that the city uses and enforces.”
DEP had previously paused the project after the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) opened a public comment period, which closed in December. DEC disagreed with the characterization of the project as environmentally hazardous. Erica Ringewald, a spokeswoman, said that DEC’s own analysis of the application and comment responses finds no potential for significant adverse impact to the wetland habitat and no technical basis on which to deny the permit. She argued that the project included mitigation plantings of Spartina alterniflora, a type of grass, that would help mitigate impact and build on restoration efforts. The DEC is still working with the city to respond to 222 public comments on the application, and the project remains paused.
The DEP did not respond to a request for comment.
During the public comment period, Cervino and others have submitted testimony to the DEC. Among them was Thomas Goreau, a marine biologist who heads the Global Coral Reef Alliance and who previously worked for the United Nations. In September, Goreau wrote a testimony to DEC asking for the project to be stopped and touted the wetlands’ importance in creating new methods to prevent shoreline erosion, which can be mitigated by shoreline vegetation and marine animals such as oysters. Goreau has worked with Cervino on the College Point habitat.
“All salt marshes are severely eroding, with Jamaica Bay being among the worst on the East Coast, yet the new methods developed at College Point, which are threatened with destruction by this ill-advised drain project, could allow their restoration,” wrote Goreau.
Cervino also doubted that the city is taking biologists’ concerns seriously.
“They have not one biological expert [who] can say that this is fine,” said Cervino. “They’re going to put a bunch of engineers that study chemical engineering and they’re going to say, ‘oh it’s fine.’”
Further, he expressed frustration over the fact that he felt there could be a compromise in building the pipe out a couple hundred feet so it doesn’t empty directly on the wetlands.
“Just move the pipe out,” he said. “It’s still not a great thing, but at least it’s not on the lower, shallower wetland species like the oysters, the bivalves, the keystone species that we’re trying to protect and grow down there. These are species that we’re growing under a permit to protect against shoreline erosion, to enhance biodiversity, to enhance and do scientific experiments.”
The site also operates as a kayak launch point, and is a common water front access point for College Point residents.
Reach James Farrell at (718) 357-7400 x 127, firstname.lastname@example.org or @farrellj329.