Cuomo fights order to close sewage cesspools, endangering public health

BY JAMES HUFNAGEL

Finally, something is being done about the stench coming from Albany, and we’re not talking about the recent indictments of Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s top aides.

Six years after Cuomo and his NYS Parks commissioner Rose Harvey came into office, 54 large capacity cesspools (LCCs) containing human filth, among 16 New York state parks, with the potential to leach into the water table in violation of the federal Safe Drinking Water Act (SWDA), are finally slated to be closed, pursuant to a consent judgment rendered in federal court last month.

The cesspools are associated with public restrooms located within the parks, and are defined by statute as pits that “receive untreated sanitary waste containing human excreta, and which sometimes have an open bottom and/or perforated sides.”

Regulations promulgated by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, in accordance with the SWDA, banned construction of new LCCs nationwide as of April, 2000, and required owners or operators of all LCCs to close them by April, 2005, but the quick succession of administrations after Gov. George Pataki departed in December, 2006 left the task to Cuomo and Harvey, who essentially ignored the issue except for waging a legal battle against EPA’s enforcement efforts, risking a severe threat to human health for over half a decade.

Under the agreement between State Parks and the EPA, many of the raw sewage-containing cesspools in the parks won’t be closed until 2019, a full fourteen years after they were outlawed.

“Public parks and water pollution don’t go together,” said Judith Enck, the EPA regional administrator, chastising Cuomo and his state parks hirelings, “After years of being out of compliance with federal law, New York State will finally close the numerous cesspools found in state parks, helping protect groundwater from nitrogen and other pollutants.”

In addition to nitrogen, untreated sewage has the potential to contaminate drinking water with bacteria (salmonellosis, shigellosis, typhoid and cholera), viruses (hepatitis) and parasites (threadworm, hookworm and dwarf tapeworm).

Court documents describe remediation activities that are to take place at Robert Moses State Park in great detail: “Defendants (State Parks) shall install a urine separation system in the Field 5 Comfort Station at Robert Moses State Park which system shall… divert the collected urine to a holding tank. The tank shall be periodically pumped and the urine taken to a NYSDEC-approved wastewater treatment facility… Field 5 is a major ocean beach facility which receives hundreds of thousands of visitors each season, and the comfort station is subject to heavy use… Urine diversion involves separating urine from the wastewater stream at the point of excretion…”

Elsewhere, “Sunken Meadow State Park: Defendants shall install a urine separation system in the Year Round Bathroom.”

State Parks closes the restrooms at Devil’s Hole and Whirlpool State Parks, as this newspaper has reported on for years, from November through mid-April, to the great inconvenience of the many local residents who enjoy hiking and exploring the Niagara Gorge during the winter. Sunken Meadow State Park, on the other hand, in Suffolk County on the tony north shore of Long Island, gets to have “Year Round Bathrooms”.

Cuomo’s State Parks, or rather, the taxpayers of New York State, are on the hook to pay a $150,000 fine to the feds for the violations, and will spend an estimated $9 million to fix the problem, $1 million of which will be used to mitigate the effects of toxic algae blooms that have sprouted in Long Island’s waterways as a result of the nitrogen-leaking cesspools, although State Parks officially denies that human waste from any of its cesspools has infiltrated drinking water supplies.

The feds are no dummies, and they cut off certain avenues the wily Cuomo may have taken to shirk responsibility for this deplorable situation.

For example, according to the settlement, “No transfer of ownership or operation of any of the Prohibited LCCs… shall relieve Defendants (State Parks) of their obligation to ensure that the terms of this Consent Judgment are implemented… Any attempt to transfer ownership or operation of any of the State Parks subject to this Consent Judgment… constitutes a violation…”

Translation: the putrid mess is to remain in our, the taxpayers’, lap, to clean up.

In addition, any spin the Cuomo administration attempts to impart to this public health fiasco must be qualified as follows: “Any prepared public statement, oral or written, in print, film, or other media, made by Defendants (State Parks)… shall include the following language: ‘This nitrogen reduction project, which was designed and funded by the New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation, was undertaken in connection with the settlement of an enforcement action, United States v. New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation, taken on behalf of the United States Environmental Protection Agency under the Safe Drinking Water Act.’”

Why did it take so long for Cuomo and his State Parks agency to come into compliance with regards to this clear danger to the public health?

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