DEC Approves MacNeil Park Outfall Pipe

Staff Writer : Queens Tribune

A proposed city Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) storm water outfall pipe on the northern shoreline of College Point’s MacNeil Park has been granted a permit by the state Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC), despite the months-long outcry by local environmentalists.

The pipe would empty out near DEC-protected wetlands that are currently being restored and preserved by the College Point-based conservation group the Coastal Preservation Network (CPN). CPN has been restoring the sea marsh at the site for years, growing an ecosystem of oysters, mussels and shoreline grasses that the group argues helps reduce shoreline erosion caused by increasing sea levels. In October, the group led a protest, claiming that pollutants found in the stormwater flowing from the pipe could kill the carefully preserved marine life.

But the DEC disagreed after responding to 222 public comments. The permit was effective as of April 13.

“DEC carefully analyzed the substance of the city’s application, application materials and plans for the outfall; conducted multiple site visits to inspect the project area; and reviewed the responses shared during the public-comment period for this project—and found no potential for significant adverse impact to wetland habitat, oysters or water quality would result,” said DEC spokeswoman Erica Ringewald.

The pipe is part of a $132 million infrastructure project to reduce sewer drainage into Flushing Bay. Currently, three combined sewer outfalls in different locations overflow into the bay during heavy storms, releasing untreated sewage and rainwater. The new pipe, which would allow for the decommissioning of the three combined outfalls, would emit only stormwater—not sewage—creating less pollution in the bay overall.

But while CPN president and marine biologist James Cervino approved of the reduced sewage, he argued that the stormwater would still carry pollutants that would fall directly into the sensitive ecosystem.

“It’s not pretty little rainwater that comes off people’s drains,” Cervino said. “It goes into the street. There are oil slicks in the street; there’s animal feces in the street; there’s salt, de-icing chemicals on the street.”

In its response to public comments, the DEC acknowledged that the stormwater has some pollutants, but added that those pollutants are already being discharged at the site and that the water would be generally cleaner than water emitted from the combined outfalls.

But as the Queens Tribune reported in March, Cervino’s own tests of water near clogged storm sewers in College Point found levels of lead and zinc that exceeded regulatory levels. This is a sign, he argued, that the water entering the pipes may not be as harmless to the habitat as the agencies let on. He argued that the public comments were made by specialists in marine immunology who know the risks of such pollutants firsthand, and feared that no such specialists were consulted by the DEP.

Among the public comments was one from Dr. Thomas Goreau, who has worked on the project with Cervino, serves as president of the Global Coral Reef Alliance and was an advisor to the United Nations.

In an interview with the Queens Tribune, Goreau explained that the project was the “most successful that’s ever been done of its kind” since it pioneered a new method using solar panels to speed up the growth of oysters, salt marsh and mussels. Since those habitats can slow erosion, Goreau argued that the technique could provide an alternative to sea walls and other costly artificial structures for protecting shorelines from global sea rise. He said that the pipe would destroy his group’s work.

“I don’t know how they plan to absorb the toxic levels, illegal levels, of pollutants that are going to be in storm runoff, even if no sewage goes into it,” Goreau said.

The DEC told the Queens Tribune that “trained biologists” from the Division of Marine Resources and Marine Habitat Protection carefully reviewed the application and conducted site visits. The agency also added that the plan includes a splash pad—which serves to prevent erosion caused by the outflow of water—and 8,607 square feet of new sea grasses extending west of the new pipe, although Cervino and Goreau both said that pollutants could threaten the sea grasses already at the site.

Both Cervino and Goreau had also suggested that the outfall pipe be extended a few 100 feet farther out, so that the stormwater runoff doesn’t fall directly onto the habitat. In response to these comments, the DEC argued that installing the extended pipe would cause more extensive damage.

“But they’d avoid all the long-term damage that’s going to happen from destroying the environment right at the coastline,” Goreau countered.

In a statement, Councilman Paul Vallone (D-Bayside) said that he was unhappy that the DEC had not agreed to extend the pipe.

“While we appreciate the closing of the combined sewer overflow, which will increase the quality of the water in the area, the situation could have been further improved by including any of the pretty basic concessions that were ignored,” Vallone said.
On Monday, state Sen. Tony Avella (D-Bayside) said that he was also disappointed, but understood the situation.

“I trust DEC,” Avella said. “I spoke to the commissioner several times about it and he assured me they did a careful review of the application and permit.”

Reach James Farrell at (718) 357-7400 x 127, or @farrellj329.