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Source: Newsday

Sewage dump in Hudson could threaten Ironman

BY NIK BONOPARTIS AND KEN SCHACHTER

Posted: August 9, 2012
Originally Published: August 9, 2012

The discharge of millions of gallons of chlorinated raw sewage into the Hudson River could scuttle the plans of boaters and anglers and raises questions about an Ironman triathlon Saturday that includes a 2.4-mile river swim about 15 miles south of the main emission point.

The controlled discharge, required to fix a break in a sewer line in Tarrytown, began at 7:15 a.m. Thursday, said Heather McGill, a spokeswoman for the Westchester County Department of Health.

Though the sewage discharge is being chlorinated, county health officials are warning swimmers and boaters to steer clear of the Hudson from Croton Point Park and points south on the river's east bank and Rockland Lake State Park and points south on the west bank.

Officials of the 2012 Ironman U.S. Championship said in an email that they were following developments.

"We are diligently monitoring the situation and are working with local entities to ensure the appropriate testing protocol is followed," they said. "Athlete safety is our first priority. We will be sure of the water quality and that the venue is safe before we allow our athletes to swim on Saturday."

McGill said the earliest the repair is expected to be completed is Friday morning and it typically takes about 24 hours for pollution in the river to dissipate.

"The earliest would be Saturday morning" that swimmers and boaters would be advised the Hudson is safe.

Environmentalists were dismayed by the plan to release the sewage at Sleepy Hollow and Yonkers.

"Unfortunately, this is the worst time of year to have this occur from a public health and recreational perspective," said Adrienne Esposito, executive director of the Citizens Campaign Fund for the Environment. "We have to stop using waterways as a dumping ground for sewage."

Though the discharge is chlorinated, it contains raw human waste and household chemicals, officials said.

Health officials say before crews can repair the damaged sewer line, they need to clear the line of sewage.

"To make the repair in the main pipe, in the sewer main, they have to stop the flow to that pipe," said John Lipscomb, a patrol boat captain who takes samples and monitors water quality for the environmental group Riverkeeper.

Releasing the effluent into the Hudson is the only option, Lipscomb said: "They can't stop the flow of sewage, otherwise people can't use their bathrooms or sinks or washing machines."

A contracting crew was excavating to get to the sewer line late Wednesday night, health department McGill said. The broken section is in the old Croton Aqueduct, which was built in 1837 and has been long abandoned. It runs underneath Westchester's river towns.

"Once they get down there we'll see what we're dealing with, and that's when we'll do this planned discharge," McGill said.

Chlorine is used as a germicide to treat water, primarily to kill dangerous bacteria, according to the U.S. Geological Survey's Water Science school.

Coming into direct contact with wastewater could result in gastrointestinal discomfort, fever, rash, or in extreme cases, diseases such as hepatitis, said Steve Fleischli, acting director of the water program for the Natural Resources Defense Council.

"Any sort of incidental contact with sewage can be harmful to human health," Fleischli said.

The 2012 Ironman U.S. Championship will be the first Ironman competition to be held in the New York City area. The race includes the Hudson River swim, a 112-mile bike ride on the Palisades Parkway in Bergen and Rockland counties and a 26.2-mile run beginning in Fort Lee, N.J., and finishing in Riverside Park in Manhattan.

A Twitter post from Jeff Hunter, who describes himself as a three-time Ironman finisher, said he was relieved not to be in the race.

"Just heard raw sewage was dumped into the Hudson last night," he said. "Glad I am not in the Ironman this Saturday."

Most of the sewage will leak into the river from the site of the break in Sleepy Hollow, but the health department said there could be a much smaller discharge in Yonkers. That's because the sewer line runs south, connecting the Tarrytown and Yonkers sites. The latter spills into the mouth of the Saw Mill River.

Lipscomb compared the release with a similar event in October 2010, when an estimated 4.4 million gallons of sewage spilled into the river. That incident also originated with a county-owned pipe in Tarrytown.

Chlorine won't eliminate harmful microbes, Lipscomb said.

"We sampled in the Tarrytown marina during the release in October 2010, and it was sky-high with microbial contamination," he said. "I mean, just off the charts. So it's great that they're trying to chlorinate, but the public shouldn't think that chlorination of the bypass is going to be sufficient to make the water safe for swimming."

Lipscomb gave county health officials credit for what he said was "a very proactive" response. Earlier in the afternoon, he said, county engineers noticed a pressure drop in the main sewer line and were trying to find the source of the problem. The health department warned swimmers and boaters early Wednesday evening, before the anticipated controlled discharge.

Legislation that requires officials to alert the public when raw or partly treated sewage is discharged into New York waters was passed in June on the final day of the state Legislature's session. Gov. Andrew Cuomo must sign the bill, the Sewage Pollution Right to Know Act, before it becomes law.