State Park or Major Health Hazard in Disguise?

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This year Riverbank State Park is celebrating its 20th anniversary since its grand opening in 1993. Riverbank is home to 28- acres of outdoor recreational opportunities that vary from swimming and running to ice-skating and roller-skating. The park runs from 137th to 145th street and oversees the Hudson River and parts of the George Washington Bridge. With such beautiful sites on the property you might be blindsided by the tall white smoke stack columns that protrude from the caisson that is a watertight retaining structure at the parks core. These are the smoke stack towers from the wastewater treatment plant, which used to emit toxins from the plant into the atmosphere. According to the New York City Department of Environmental Protection studies volatile organic compounds commonly known as VOC’s have been found emitted from the plant. Including compounds like Acetone, Benzene, Methanol, Toluene and many others. These emissions can cause irritation, harmful effects to bone marrow, confusion, brain fog, headaches and sleepiness. This plant is located directly underneath the parks surface.

Riverbank State Park (credit: Alex Silverman / WCBS 880)

According to CBS Local News, the plant treats up to 340 million gallon of wastewater a day; it sits just a few hundred feet from the homes of tens of thousands of West Harlem residents. Odor frustrations from the treatment plant have persisted for years. “The first phase of the water treatment plant had been completed in 1986. At a cost of $1.3 billion, it was the largest non-military public works project in the US in 50 years. When it started to operate, residents noticed new foul smells in the air—the scent of rotten egg, from too much hydrogen sulfide. A series of lawsuits regarding the foul smell, created a rush to build the park because serious errors had been made in the plant’s design and construction. The plant’s potential impact on air quality had never been taken into account. An environmental impact statement was never created or presented to the community. West Harlem is home to six out of seven of Manhattan’s bus depots, and it’s only 24-hour marine garbage transfer station. The North River plant was another air polluting facility in a neighborhood with already excessive environmental burdens. West Harlem residents already suffered from excessive asthma and air pollution problems. In 1992 WE ACT (West Harlem Environmental Action, Inc.), the National Resources Defense Council, a local day care center and 7 residents sued the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) and the City of New York for operating North River as a public and private nuisance, arguing that the plant had injured their health, property values, and quality of life. A 1993 settlement led to an extensive and expensive fix of the plant’s defects.

However in 2009, Riverbank State Park visitors were unaware of the wastewater treatment facility that existed underneath the park. According to an article by DNA info titled ‘What Sewage Waste Treatment Plant? Many Riverbank State Parkgoers Unaware of Facility,’ residents Marcus and Laurel Simmons were oblivious to the plants existence. “Marcus Simmons, 40, a construction worker from The Bronx, came to the park Thursday with his wife Laurel for a birthday celebration for their son. “I didn’t know there was a plant here,” Laurel Simmons said. “It’s not listed on any signs that there’s a sewage treatment plant here.” Peggy Shepard, Executive Director of WE ACT for Environmental Justice which is one of the main activist groups that fought to prevent the plant’s construction said, “It doesn’t surprise me that people look up at the [plant’s] smokestacks and say, ‘What’s that?’

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Now 20 years later, advanced technology within the air monitoring systems have been installed to ensure the gases from the wastewater odor will be captured and treated before any gases are released. According to an article by CBS Local News titled ‘City Hopes to Control Stench of Sewage Plant Below Riverbank State Park,’ DEP Commissioner Carter Strickland said on June 12th 2013, “This investment will ensure the North River Plant is equipped with the most effective technology to perform this vital environmental function while remaining a good neighbor to the residents of West Harlem and the 3 million annual visitors to Riverbank State Park.”

 Click here to see more of Riverbank State Park:

 Have you ever noticed environmental issues in Riverbank State Park that go unattended?

Has any activity or lack of activity made you question if this park might be harmful to your health?

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