Boaters battle Flushing Bay pollution

By Alex Robinson

Carmel Fromson knew something was wrong when she woke up in the middle of the night with excruciating pain in her eye.

She had been out rowing on Flushing Bay hours earlier with the Empire Dragon Boat Team when she got some water splashed on her face. Unfortunately for Fromson, the area’s waters receive approximately 10 truckloads of human feces a year from sewer overflows that empty into the bay, according to researchers.

Fromson went immediately to the emergency room and required antibiotics to deal with an infection that was festering in her eye.

The constant flow of sludge into Flushing Bay is a problem the Empire Dragon Boat Team, which consists of 32 breast cancer survivors, has been dealing with for years.

The team, which was founded five years ago, uses the bay to practice twice a week. Raw sewage overflows into the bay anytime there is even minimal rainfall because the city’s sewer system cannot handle the extra water. It is not uncommon to see used tampons, condoms and feces floating in the water.

“It’s like an open sewer,” Fromson said. “You see toilet paper. It’s really disgusting.”

The group has started to coordinate a concerted effort to clean up the bay.

Club members started taking weekly water samples in the bay two years ago to have the water’s bacteria levels analyzed. In the first year of samples, they found the water quality indicated extremely high levels of bacteria, especially after rainfalls. Last year’s samples showed better water quality.

Boat team members were unsure of why this was, but suspected that it might have been because there was less rain last summer.

Some 5 to 6 percent of the city’s sewage empties into Flushing Bay, according to Eymund Diegel, an environmental and urban planner who has been working with the dragon boat team to research the waters and figure out solutions to the predicament.

“The problem is that too much rain gets into the sewer pipes, which aren’t designed to handle that much water,” he said.

The city Department of Environmental Protection has committed to dredging 16.8 acres of Flushing Bay, which will clean out the existing sediment in the water. The problem, however, runs deeper than just cleaning up the water’s current contaminants, Diegel said.

“They aren’t dealing with the problem, just the symptoms,” he said.

Wetlands in the bay’s surrounding area, which once absorbed a significant amount of rainwater, have been developed over the years into streets, sidewalks, buildings, playgrounds, stadiums, and parking lots which are all impervious. The water that normally would have been absorbed by these lands is therefore streaming into the city’s combined sewer system instead of being discharged into waterways, Diegel said.

Nearly 72 percent of the city’s ground doesn’t absorb water and all the rain that falls on these locations will divert straight into the sewer, the DEP said.

A DEP spokesman said the agency considers Flushing Bay a priority water body and has begun installing “green infrastructure,” including curbside gardens, throughout the area that drains back into the bay in an effort to reduce the sewer overflow. He said DEP plans to install an additional 100 curbside gardens in the area this year.

Diegel said these initiatives are are not enough to properly tackle the problem and the city needs to do more to push developers to build infrastructure that would absorb rainwater.

“A lot of fresh water is going into the sewer and getting contaminated by poop and crap — and it doesn’t need to be that way,” he said.

The environmental planner has been in the process of using cameras attached to balloons and kites to map the area’s streams and to see where water is flowing.

“This is detective work at this point,” he said. “It’s trying to untangle the spaghetti maze of what’s going on underground and the net result is better water quality for people.”

In the meantime, the dragon boat club members have started using goggles to protect their eyes. They also have flushing systems on hand to clean eyes and mouths immediately if any members get exposed to the water.

“We’re all cancer survivors and we’re just fed up with it,” Fromson said.

Reach reporter Alex Robinson by e-mail at arobinson@cnglocal.com or by phone at 718-260-4566.