Environment
Internet resources for what you need to know on NYC Environment
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The Topic
"Environment" refers to the places where New Yorkers live; our surroundings; the air, water and land that make our existence possible.
The Context
With more than 22,000 people per square mile, NYC must take considerable measures to protect the environment from the effects of such population density. Problems like asthma, PCBs, lead poisoning and waste disposal compromise the quality of the City's natural resources and threaten the health of its residents. The policy implications for solving environmental problems are complex: Should commercial activity take priority over environmental protection? To what extent can we require changes in lifestyle and consumption through legislation? How far does our responsibility extend to those in other places and future generations?
The Reporter
Eric Goldstein is co-director of the urban program at the Natural Resources Defense Council.
The Archives
See past monthly updates for Environment.

by Eric Goldstein

Earth Day

Thirty-two years ago this month, the modern environmental movement burst onto the national scene.

On April 22, 1970, millions of Americans turned out for Earth Day celebrations in major cities and environmental teach-ins on college campuses around the country.

Here in New York City, tens of thousands poured onto Manhattan's Fifth Avenue, which was free from cars and buses for the first time in memory. Fourteenth Street, also closed to traffic between 3rd and 7th Avenues, became an "ecological carnival," according to a front-page story in the New York Times the following day.

Over 100,000 New Yorkers gathered in Union Square, a focus of the City's Earth Day speeches and festivities, with crowds remaining well into the night. A block-long polyethylene bubble on 17th Street provided all who ventured inside with pure, filtered air. And the Environmental Action Coalition, one of the event's co-sponsors, distributed "New York Pollution Survival Kits," with suggestions to celebrants for fighting the city's pollution ills.

Much has changed in New York City since that First Earth Day.

There have been important environmental advances and new pollution challenges. Here is a brief update on five areas of concern.

AIR QUALITY

First, some good news. Perhaps the biggest pollution success story in New York City over the past three decades has been the reduction in airborne contaminants. In 1966, a mayoral task force warned that, in proportion to its size, New York City was pumping more poisons into its air that any other major city in America. Thanks in large part to the passage of the federal Clean Air Act of 1970 and to actions by the New York City Council, pollution levels have declined for key pollutants.

For example, the Congressionally-inspired removal of toxic lead from gasoline has resulted in airborne lead levels plummeting by 95% in the New York region since l970. Levels of carbon monoxide, the colorless, odorless pollutant discharged primarily from motor vehicles, have also declined dramatically from more than two and one-half times national health standards in the early l970's. And sulfur dioxide concentrations in our city's air have also fallen -- a result of low sulfur fuels used in power plants and home heating systems.

Of course, not all air quality problems have been solved. Particulate matter, especially from diesel-powered buses and trucks, remains a troublesome pollution source, as does summertime ozone smog. Indoor air pollution problems have grown in importance. Localized toxic air pollution hotspots persist in the nation's most densely populated city. And the air quality impacts of the horrific attacks on the World Trade Center are not yet fully resolved.

But there is no mistaking the improvement over the past several decades in the quality of the air most city residents breathe.

DRINKING WATER

More worrisome is the status of New York City's drinking water supply. While overall tap water quality is still good, the system's margin of safety has slipped. Many of New York City's 19 upstate reservoirs, which provide more than 1 billion gallons a day to half the state's population, are facing greater long-term threats than at any time in their history.

Fortunately, the city's tap water, with few exceptions, has consistently met state and federal health standards and continues to do so.

And New York City reservoir water remains generally free of toxic contaminants and heavy metals. Still, pollution runoff from roadways, farms, golf courses, and commercial and residential developments is among the explanations for a city-reported "degradation trend" in reservoir water quality, al least from the mid-1970's to the mid-1990's.

Overall, the data suggest that New York City's water remains safe to drink, but that our upstate water resources are confronting increased pressure from encroaching development. (Although bottled water consumption has skyrocketed in New York City in recent years, government and independent tests have found variations in quality and that bottled water is not necessarily higher in quality than the city's supply.)

With the region now facing a significant drought, the issue of water conservation is again receiving much-warranted attention. Over the past ten years, thanks in part to a City Department of Environmental Protection program advanced by former commissioner Al Appleton, average daily consumption has declined by several hundred million gallons a day from peak levels. Nevertheless, progress on fixing leaks in the City's aqueducts and water distribution system, along with additional business and household conservation programs, is necessary -- both to make it through this emergency and in anticipation of more frequent droughts in coming years.

WATERWAYS

The overall quality of New York City's surrounding rivers and bays has significantly improved since 1970.

Sewage has long been the City's largest source of water pollution. And discharges of sewage into the city's waterways have been sharply cut back over the past three decades. Over 200 million gallons a day of raw sewage, previously discharged from Manhattan's West Side and Brooklyn's Red Hook have been largely halted with the completion of sewage treatments plants there in the 1980's. And over the last two decades, 11 of the city's 12 other sewage plants have been upgraded to advanced secondary treatment levels.

These activities, undertaken primarily with federal Clean Water Act funds, have led to dramatic improvements in two leading indicators of sewage pollution -- bacteria counts and dissolved oxygen levels in surrounding waters. As a result of these improvements, New York City's marine ecosystem is healthier and recreational opportunities have increased. For example, Seagate Beach at Coney Island and South and Midland Beaches on Staten Island were reopened in the late 1980's and early 1990's after being closed for decades.

Despite the substantial progress, sewage-related pollution is not yet a thing of the past; raw sewage discharges still occur in New York City when it rains or snows, as waste in the city's combined sewers bypasses treatment plants.

Meanwhile, progress seems finally to be coming to New York's most prominent toxic water pollution concern. From the mid-1940's to the mid-1970's, two General Electric manufacturing plants north of Albany dumped hundreds of thousands of pounds of polychlorinated biphenyls into the Hudson River; these synthetic, organic chemicals have since been detected in virtually all species of Hudson River fish tested. The recent U.S. Environmental Protection Agency order, directing GE to dredge and remove some of the toxic, PCB-sediment offers the best hope in years that this long-standing pollution problem will be remedied, and that Hudson River commercial fishing restrictions and health warnings for recreational anglers may one day be lifted.

ENVIRONMENTAL JUSTICE

In l970, the term "environmental justice" was not yet in the lexicon. But even then, communities of color in New York City were suffering more than their fair share of environmental burdens and receiving fewer environmental and recreational benefits than other city neighborhoods.

One long-running environmental justice concern has been childhood lead poisoning, with lead in paint the major source of high-level exposures. City Health Department data suggest that the number of youngsters with acute lead poisoning has declined significantly since 1970. but the problem, most concentrated in central Brooklyn, northern Manhattan and the South Bronx, persists. And a city law that weakened lead abatement requirements in apartments and homes remains hotly contested; it is now the subject of review by the new City Council.

Access to parks, recreational facilities and open-space has been another persistent concern of residents in the city's working class neighborhoods and communities of color. Although some progress has been made in this area over the last two decades, historic inequalities prevail.

Perhaps the most important environmental justice advance over the past three decades has been the growth of the environmental justice advocacy community, with groups like West Harlem Environmental Action, the New York Environmental Justice Alliance, New York Lawyers for the Public Interest and others devoted to educating the public and remediating such discrimination. In addition, there is a growing recognition among government officials that communities of color deserve equal treatment when it comes to sharing environmental burdens and benefits, leading to the hope that the pace of progress in this area will accelerate.

SOLID WASTE

Solid waste disposal practices in New York City have advanced from the highly polluting systems in place in 1970. But major challenges remain.

In the years leading up to the first Earth Day, eleven rudimentary municipal garbage burning plants and 17,000 apartment house incinerators were major sources of airborne contaminants and generated thousands of tons a day of potentially toxic ash residue. During this same period, the City's Sanitation Department operated nine unlined landfills in Brooklyn, Queens and Staten Island (home of the mammoth Fresh Kills dump); liquid wastes leached out of them into surrounding waterways and noxious odors wafted into nearby neighborhoods. Over the past three decades, all of these facilities have closed, significantly reducing air and water pollution discharges into the City's environment.

Unfortunately, most of the more than 30,000 tons a day of waste generated in New York City today is now shipped to out-of-state landfills or incinerators. While these facilities are improvements over the unlined landfills and uncontrolled incinerators of previous generations, they still pose environmental risks. In addition, New York's trash is exported mostly via thousands of additional daily diesel-truck trips. And the more than 80 land-based waste transfer stations (from which much of this trash is now exported) pose major localized environmental burdens to the communities in Brooklyn and the South Bronx where they are concentrated.

As to recycling, there has been slow progress over the last decade, although even this is now endangered. Throughout the 1970's, less than 1% of the city's waste was collected for recycling. Today, New Yorker's separate nearly 20% of their trash for recycling collection by the Sanitation Department.

But the Bloomberg Administration's recent proposal to suspend recycling of metals, glass and plastic for 18 months, beginning in July, threatens to unravel the entire program and dissipate the hard-won public participation. And waste prevention -- the least expensive option for a cash-strapped city but an alternative that requires new ways of thinking at the Sanitation Department -- is still in its infancy.

At New York City's 1970 Earth Day celebration, author Kurt Vonnegut worried about the future of our environment: "If we don't get our President's attention, the planet may soon die . . . . I'm sorry he's a lawyer, I wish to God that he was a biologist."

Today, in New York City, Mayor Mike Bloomberg is a businessman, not a lawyer. But many who are concerned about preserving our irreplaceable ecosystems and enhancing our quality of life are probably wishing the Mayor would add a biologist or environmental scientist to his bullpen at City Hall.


Sites For Beginners:


Other Recommendations:

  • Wind Power New York (WPNY) - A project of the American Wind Energy Association, was formed to promote the development of wind-powered electricity generation in New York State. For more information about the PG&E project in Madison, follow their link to The windmills of Madison County, a feature of Syracuse Online.
  • Cornell Cooperative Extension - Entomologists from Cornell University tell you everything you want to know about the Asian Longhorn Beetle, from how to identify it to how it can be destroyed.
  • Audubon Society - Founded in 1905 and named for famed ornithologist, explorer, and wildlife artist John James Audubon (1785-1851), the National Audubon Society's mission is to conserve and restore natural ecosystems, focusing on birds and other wildlife for the benefit of humanity and the earth's biological diversity. Learn why birds are an "ecological litmus paper".
  • www.moregardens.org - This pro-garden web site provides background on Esperanza Garden and efforts to preserve the city's other community gardens. Log on to learn about the Samson Bill, which would make all New York City community gardens permanent State parkland, and SLR 61, a complimentary bill that the City Council must endorse before the State can act.
  • Center for Bioenvironmental Research at Tulane and Xavier Universities - Environmental concepts made easy. A great little Web site that provides comprehensive information about lead, environmental estrogens and, in case you were wondering, environmental astrobiology.
  • The Environmental Defense Fund - In conjunction with several other prominent environmental groups, presents a comprehensive explanation and analysis of global warming. Contents range from a simple explanation of how global warming works, to a discussion of its likely impact in the coming century. Be sure to check out the map of early warming signs.
  • Environmental Health Center's Asthma page - The Environmental Health Center, a division of the National Safety Council, provides voluminous, easy-to-understand background information on a comprehensive array of environmental and safety issues. If you live in New York City, this is a good place to start learning about asthma risks and prevention.
  • The Fire Island Ecology Coalition - Fans of Fire Island who can't bear the long winter separation may visit this comprehensive site, but they won't get the languorous summer feeling associated with their traditional summer visits. Instead, it offers a vigorous examination of threats to the island that demand serious attention“from the proliferation of jet skis and deer to global warming.
  • The New York City Environmental Justice Alliance - This page belongs to a coalition of grassroots organizations concerned with providing a clean and safe environment to communities of color and low-income communities, with topics such as "What's Transportation got to do with Environmental Justice?" This site connects you with such groups and shows you what they're doing . . .and how you can help.

Visit the Topic Archives!