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Another worry: how often would Atlantic Yards sewage overflow the system?

Would the sewage produced by 7,300 residential units and a new basketball arena overwhelm the city's sewage system? Yes, periodically, though that's because the Atlantic Yards development would only be adding to an already overburdened system. But the details of developer Forest City Ratner's plans to address the impacts won't be revealed until the issuance of a Draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS).

Such was the dry (er, wet?) but important testimony at the meeting Thursday of the Brooklyn Borough Board Atlantic Yards Committee. (The meetings are informational only, and neither the developer nor the Empire State Development Corporation (ESDC) appears.)

The acronym to learn is CSO: Combined Sewer Overflow. CSOs, says Riverkeeper, occur "[a]bout half the time it rains in New York City, once a week on average, raw sewage and polluted runoff combine in sewer pipes and overflow – without treatment – into the City’s surface waters." Hundreds of such CSOs are triggered simultaneously in the city during steady rainfall, leading to the discharge of about 27 billion gallons of this untreated wastewater annually into bodies of water like the still-foul Gowanus Canal.

Why is that? Reports Riverkeeper, "In order to keep sewage from backing up in the system – where it could spurt through manhole covers or backflood into homes and businesses, as it did several times in 1999 – the City’s combined sewer system is designed to overflow during rains and discharge excess wastewater directly to the Harbor and other waterbodies. About 460 CSO discharge pipes, called outfalls, line the shores of the five boroughs."

This isn't typical. Only 772 of more than 20,000 U.S. municipalities have such combined sewage system designed, in the 19th century, to collect both wastewater and storm runoff in the same pipes. These days, engineers design separate systems.

Looking at the impact

The Draft Scope that will lead to the DEIS for the Atlantic Yards project has been criticized for taking too narrow a view of the potential impacts on transit and pedestrian access. The primary study area is a quarter-mile radius and the secondary study area a half-mile radius. "Those type of study areas don't correspond to anything signficant in terms of CSOs," commented Franco Montalto, of eDesign Dynamics. The appropriate scale he said, should include the Red Hook waste treatement plant.

"The sewage is not going to stop where the study stops," added Assemblywoman Joan Millman. In response, Darryl Cabbagestalk of DEP said that recent EIS documents regarding other projects had in fact looked at broader areas.

Jerry Armer, chairman of Community Board 6, said that CB6 had recently met with the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) about flooding at the Red Hook plant. "We're looking at wastewater from 7000 additional residential units and from an arena. We already have a problem."

Once the Atlantic Yards project is up and running, he said, "we may be exceeding the requirements of the consent decree" regarding DEP performance. The DEP's Cabbagestalk said, "I'm assuming that would be dealt with in the EIS."

Armer continued, "Whatever the excess capacity there already is, we're taking it away."

Capturing all stormwater?

One confusion at the meeting was the idea, expressed by Borough Hall staff, that Forest City Ratner had already decided on a plan to retain all the storm runoff on the site in a basin of some sort; this would lessen the burden on the city's sewer system. The Lower Manhattan Development Corporation has committed to doing so on the World Trade Center site, and so has the Brooklyn Bridge Park Development Corporation. (Of course, a park has greater flexibility in using water.) Several exchanges proceeded on that assumption; Columbia Law Professor Reed Super (who also has worked for Riverkeeper) said, "I was very pleased to hear Forest City Ratner was planning to capture all the stormwater."

After some discussion, Greg Atkins, Borough President Marty Markowitz's chief of staff, acknowledged that FCR had not yet announced its plans, and that they would be in the DEIS. He later told me, "What we've asked and hope Forest City Ratner is able to do is prevent stormwater from overloading the system."

The DEIS could arrive within weeks. In early February, the Empire State Development Corporation said that document could be issued in early March, but the whole project has been delayed by the agency's appeal of a judge's ruling removing their lawyer because of a perceived conflict of interest.

Montalto also praised the concept of retaining storm water, but said the increase in wastewater would still be significant. Atkins suggested that conservation techniques--like low-flow toilets--could mitigate the impact of wastewater from the residential development.

Armer suggested another tactic: "It's nice that the developer will be retaining wet weather flow, but we ought to be looking at pre-treatment of wastewater."

There seem to be already-existing problems. City Council Member Letitia James pointed to the low-rise housing across Atlantic Avenue from the Atlantic Yards site. "Are you familiar with Atlantic Commons?" she asked Cabbagestalk. "Are you aware some residents have sewer problems?" He said no.

What to do with water

Paul Mankiewicz of the ecologically-oriented Gaia Institute observed that "the opportunities are enormous" should a development retain stormwater. The entire edge of the development could be filled with vegetation, and the buildings could feature "green roofs," with agricultural systems. There's been no indication so far that those implementations are in Forest City Ratner's plans.

Noise and air quality

Another panel addressed the impact of a decade-long construction project on a well-populated area. Are there any city requirements that contractors and equipment have to use low-emissions technology, Armer asked.

New standards are being implemented in the next few years, said Geraldine Kelpin of the DEP, and construction equipment and trucks can be retrofitted to meet those standards.

Kelpin acknowledged that projects overseen by state agencies (like the ESDC) do not have to comply with local laws regarding noise and emissions, but "we've seen a lot of commitment to do so."

James said, "It's troubling that because this is a state project contractors will not have to adhere to local laws." She cited high asthma rates among children in Fort Greene, such as at the Atlantic Terminal 4B housing project across Atlantic Avenue from the Atlantic Yards project footprint; she also pointed to bronchial problems among seniors at the Cumberland Gardens building nearby.

"What state laws would address or mitigate some of those concerns?" James asked. Kelpin said, "I don't know enough about how this is going to be put together. The issues are going to have to be resolved."

Millman commented that the state legislature should be able to write a bill that requires state projects to adhere to city regulations.

The energy picture

There was some mildly optimistic news from two representatives of the utility Con Edison. First, said Con Edison's Joe Murphy, representatives of the developer have been in touch with NYSERDA (New York State Energy Research and Development Authority) regarding the potential use of highly-efficient motors and low-energy lighting equipment in the project.

Also, said Con Ed's Larry Laskowski, "The geographic location is pretty unique." Four separate "network load areas" converage on the project site, so "we have choices about how to supply that." Maybe that's why part of the Atlantic Yards footprint has been zoned for manufacturing.

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