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Sewage hampers river progress


Riverkeeper data measures pollution that should deter swimmers

HUDSON — Riverkeeper has just released the report of its four-year study of sewage contamination in the Hudson River Estuary, from New York City to Troy, including at the boat launch ramp in the City of Hudson. If you had any plans to swim in the river where it flows past the city, the report may change your mind, especially if it has just rained heavily.

While the water quality varied greatly by location and day to day, overall at the 75 sites tested along the length of the estuary, the water failed to meet guidelines set by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) for safe swimming 21% of the time. At the nation’s beaches generally, the failure rate is 7%.

At the Hudson launch — the only site in Columbia County tested by Riverkeeper — the water tested unacceptable two out of the three times it was checked in 2011; both times there had been significant rains in the preceding five days. Two out of the six tests in 2010 (between May and October) were unacceptable, and overall the failure rate at the Hudson Launch since the testing started in the middle of the last decade was 34%. That failure rate is neither among the worst nor the best of the sites tested.

The outcomes were roughly similar this year for test samples taken on the same dates near the outfall of the Athens sewage treatment plant directly across the river in Greene County.

Hudson doesn’t have a beach designated for swimming, although the report says there is swimming in the area. The main shipping channel for commercial cargo vessels lies a short distance from the city’s shoreline, and the main outflow from the city’s sewage treatment plant is in the channel. The report found that in general the water in the channel showed lower concentrations of potentially harmful microbes than water nearer the shore.

There are also strong currents in the river, which can flush out pollutants, but they also make it a treacherous place even for experienced swimmers.

Riverkeeper’s tests were designed to reveal microbes of the Enteroccus family — which

indicate the presence of fecal pollution and the possible presence of pathogens found in the intestines. These microbes can cause digestive system problems, skin infections and, in extreme cases, more severe effects. The testing was the first ever done across county lines, and, indeed, most of the counties along the Hudson, including Columbia, do not conduct any testing of their own on river water.

Mayor Richard Scalera said this week that he hoped the city’s new sewage treatment plant, which is now on line, will help reduce pollution in this section of the river.

Although none of the tributaries of the Hudson within Columbia County were tested, generally Riverkeeper found a high frequency of sewage contamination entering the river from tributaries. Likewise, wet weather seemed to impact significantly on the water quality, suggesting the impact of contaminated groundwater entering the Hudson or of sewage system overflows.

Riverkeeper’s report concludes that the “good news” is that contamination is often local, can be traced to a local source and hence can be remedied with local solutions. However, New York State does not use EPA guidelines to test our water. While the new sewage plant has been under construction, the DEC has allowed the Hudson sewage treatment plant to be out of compliance with the federal Clean Water Act.

City Superintendent of Public Works Robert Perry Jr., who was familiar with the report, said that the city has 12 sewage discharge sites, including the one in the shipping channel. The combined sanitary sewer and storm water drainage system was built well over a century ago, and there are raw sewage discharges into the river whenever heavy rains overwhelm the capacity of the system. The new sewer plant has more than twice the capacity of the old one, but torrential downpours can exceed even the new system’s capabilities, Mr. Perry said.

He also said that the city does not exceed its permit for sewer discharges into the river.

The study, which is part of Riverkeeper’s Swimmable River Campaign, is a collaboration between the not-for-profit organization and scientists from Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory and Queens College. In addition to Hudson and Athens, tests were also conducted nearby at several locations in the Villages of Catskill and in Coxsackie, both in Greene County and in northern Dutchess and Ulster counties.

The full report and data are available online at www.riverkeeper.org/water-quality/hudson/.

Parry Teasdale contributed to this story. 

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