Some residents waded or even swam through the flood waters that rushed across Hudson County streets and into homes and businesses during Hurricane Sandy. Others attempted to recover their possessions as water sped into their basements at unprecedented rates. Still others tried to evacuate their homes. But officials said last week that it wasn’t necessarily a good idea to walk through the water.
“No, absolutely not,” said Captain Bill Sheehan of the Hackensack Riverkeeper – a local organization that is part of a nationwide environmental group – last week. “People have to be aware that during the storm, several of the major wastewater treatment plants lost power and began releasing raw sewage and industrial waste.”
Places like Hoboken, Jersey City, and Bayonne have an antiquated “combined sewer system” that collects storm water and sewage in one network. When the system becomes overwhelmed, flooding occurs and raw sewage ends up on public and private properties. And while places like North Bergen and Secaucus managed to sustain treatment operations on back-up power, contaminated water from the Hudson and Hackensack Rivers filled up many homes in low-lying areas.
However, tap water was a different story. Throughout the storm, the quality of drinkable water was never threatened because the piping and distribution system remained intact, officials said. During some past storms, the tap water quality was threatened and residents were advised to boil it before drinking it. (See sidebar.)
Meanwhile, Sheehan said that cleaning up your house and property can still make you sick if it’s not done properly.
Some sewer treatment plants lost power
Sheehan, a Secaucus resident and active conservationist, started the Hackensack Riverkeeper in 1997 to protect the watershed and the public’s right to clean water.
Sheehan said that local hospitals, laboratories, and companies discharge water into the area’s sewer systems. While the discharge is treated regularly, when the sewage treatment plant stops working and the water rises, all of that discharge ends up in the flood waters.
“I see these pictures of people walking through the flood waters and I cringe,” said Sheehan. “I wonder how many people know it is really sewage.”
Throw away, and disinfect
During a flood cleanup, failure to remove contaminated materials and to reduce moisture and humidity can present serious long-term health risks, according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
The agency web site says that standing water and wet materials are a breeding ground for microorganisms, such as viruses, bacteria, and mold, which can cause disease, trigger allergic reactions, and continue to damage materials long after the flood.
If people still have standing water, Sheehan said, “It is probably worse now than when it started. They have to definitely protect themselves or else hire professionals.”
“It stunk,” said Secaucus Mayor Michael Gonnelli regarding the Hackensack River water that flooded Secaucus homes. “The river was churning… anything could possibly be in that water.” He said an oil tank on a private property on Farm Road tipped over and leaked 50 gallons of oil into the flood waters in that area.
“It stunk.” – Secaucus Mayor Michael Gonnelli
Sheehan said, “the smallest nick allows that water to go into your system.”
He added that people should be wearing rubber gloves and boots that should also be properly disinfected. People should use a bleach solution to disinfect their homes and throw out as much as they can of what came into contact with the flood waters.
Systems stretched during Sandy
The North Bergen and Secaucus Municipal Authorities did not lose power and managed to sustain their respective treatment plants on back-up generators. While the Hackensack River, which is deemed unsafe for direct contact, flowed into surrounding homes, the SMUA stretched to capacity and managed to treat approximately 20 million gallons of water, which was above the usual average of 3 to 4 million gallons.
Secaucus has a separated sewage system, but if it is stretched beyond capacity it could back-up into people’s homes, which was the case during Hurricane Irene last year.
The North Bergen Municipal Utilities Authority, which has a combined sewer system (CSO), experienced some flooding and minimal equipment damage. Executive Director Frank Pestana commended his staff for the job they did during the storm.
“They were in four feet of water,” he said. “Some of them were trapped.” He said that he is not aware of any sewage back-up into homes that were flooded along the waterfront along River Road.
Overflow into rivers
The federal Clean Water Act prohibits releasing untreated or partially treated sewage overflow into waterways. Untreated wastewater contains E.coli and other pathogens, which can cause a variety of infections in people who come into contact with the contaminated water, according to the EPA.
In the case of Jersey City, the EPA in 2011 issued a consent decree that said the municipality was in violation of the Clean Water Act because of such overflows and the resulting pollution. Residents in the downtown area had asked city officials to confront the problem, which was worsened by Hurricane Irene in August, 2011.
The issue has not been resolved. The Riverkeeper is suing the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) to get cities like Jersey City, North Bergen, and Bayonne to stop dumping overflow sewage in the river during heavy rains.
Sheehan said that while cities like Jersey City and North Bergen may want to do the right thing, they need more guidance from the state DEP.
Water remained safe to drink
While residents were asked to conserve water during and after Hurricane Sandy, the quality of the drinkable water was never compromised and no boil water advisories were issued, officials said. Tap water remained safe to drink and for use in homes and businesses.
That wasn’t always the case in past storms. When the water becomes undrinkable, it could be due to a loss of power, a breach to the system, damage to piping, or a loss of system pressure, which can all lead to the potential for infiltration.
No such incident occurred this time.
“With significant backup generation in place, we have been able to maintain water service to our customers during and after the storm,” Jim Glozzy, vice president and general manager of United Water New Jersey, said in a statement. “However, with a power grid that is still unstable, we continue to rely on fuel-powered generators and fuel is in short supply. Water restrictions seem prudent at this time.”
United Water serves Guttenberg, North Bergen, Secaucus, Union City, Weehawken, and West New York. The company also serves Hoboken and Jersey City through public-private partnerships. According to Director of Communications Steven Goudsmith, the piping system and the integrity of the distribution system remained intact throughout the storm.
“We never lost system pressures. We never lost electrical power to our systems,” said Goudsmith. “When a storm is on its way we take extra precautions.” He said the company moved to back-up generators even before power went out in order to maintain service.
The company conducts an inspection of its facilities, the dam, and the water treatment plants, and ensures they have back-up generators 24 hours prior to the storm.
Sewage waste still flowing into harbor
Combined sewer overflows contain raw, untreated sewage and tons of nutrients that can damage natural ecosystems. Despite the hazards posed to the environment, the CSOs in Hudson County remain an issue especially during heavy rainfall and storms like Sandy.
Captain Bill Sheehan of the Riverkeeper environmental group believes that the Passaic Valley Sewage Commission, which treats sewage for Bayonne and Jersey City, continues to discharge partially treated sewage into the harbor. He is skeptical about whether cities will now address the problem and make it a priority.
“The optimist in me says, ‘I hope so,’” he said. “The cynic in me says, that people will forget all of that as soon as people get back to some semblance of normal.”
He added that while the state and country invests in rebuilding and infrastructure to repair bridges, roads, and transit systems, the most important part is the sewage and wastewater treatment systems. However, those are rarely treated as a priority.
“That is the last place politicians are willing to spend money,” noted Sheehan. “If they fix it there is nothing they can stand next to and say, ‘I did this.’ People can’t see it…the sewage system is buried underground.”
“It would cost billions of dollars to separate the system,” said Frank Pestana of the North Municipal Utilities Authority. He stressed that it was not about it being less of a priority. “It would cost too much money.”
Adriana Rambay Fernández may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.