By Madina Toure
The Empire Dragon Boat Team, which consists of 32 breast cancer survivors, is exploring the possibility of establishing an oyster reef on the banks of Flushing Bay near LaGuardia Airport.
The team, which practices in Flushing Bay, is working with the Billion Oyster Project, a plan to restore 1 billion oysters to New York Harbor over the next 20 years.
Oysters are efficient water filtering systems, said Carmel Fromson, a member of the Empire Dragon Boat Team.
“We have this dream of doing that in Flushing Bay, but it’s really at the beginning stages and we have to be very, extremely careful to locate it in an area that no fishermen can get to,” Fromson said.
In collaboration with Riverkeeper, a watchdog organization that works to protect the Hudson River and its tributaries, and the city Department of Parks and Recreation, the team sponsors an annual Flushing Bay Marina cleanup day.
In its Flushing Creek plan, the city Department of Environmental Protection determined that Flushing Creek’s water quality is affected by combined sewer overflows, or CSOs, which is when combined sewage — a diluted mixture of rainwater, human waste and sewage — is released into local waterways once a sewer system is at full capacity.
In December 2012, the DEP said it would commit to dredging 16.8 acres of Flushing Bay along the southwest shore adjacent to the World’s Fair Marina. In May, the DEP started installing “green infrastructure,” including curbside gardens, throughout the area that drains back into the bay to reduce sewer overflow. The agency also planned to install 100 more curbside gardens.
Because Flushing Bay has three big CSO pipes, the bay gets an unusual volume of sewer water, Fromson explained.
James Cervino, CB7’s environmental chairman, who has been working on a self-funded project that has a permit from the state Department of Environmental Conservation and the city Department of Parks and Recreation for the last seven years that entails using alternative energy to stimulate the growth and immune system of baby oysters and naturally occurring oysters, praised the work of Riverkeeper and the Empire Dragon Boat Team.
But he said that it would be risky to put oysters in contaminated water and that the DEP’s method for dealing with the pollution in Flushing Bay does not adequately address the waste entering the bay.
“We’ve got to deal with our pollution and green roofs and bioswales are not going to deal with the amount of fecal matter and nutrients and bacteria that get into the water during heavy rainstorms,” Cervino said.
The untreated liquid portion of the fecal matter is dumping out into the bay because the bay’s sewer treatment plants cannot contain them, Cervino explained.
Citizen scientists from the Empire Dragon Boat Team, in conjunction with Riverkeeper, have conducted 58 water quality samples at the World’s Fair Marina location on Flushing Bay weekly from May through September from 2012 to 2014 in collaboration with the New York City Water Trail Association.
Preliminary results suggest that 40 samples, or 69 percent, did not conform to the Environmental Protection Agency’s safe swimming guidelines. Exposure to pathogens in untreated sewage is the main cause of illness from recreational water.
The scientists tested for a bacteria called enterococcus, a recommended indicator for assessing water quality for sewage or fecal contamination. Rain tends to trigger contamination at Flushing Bay, said Dan Shapley, Riverkeeper’s water quality program manager.
“At this location, we definitely see that we get a lot of high bacterial counts associated with rain, but there are also times when there’s been dry weather and we’ve also measured high levels of bacteria,” Shapley said.
The team and Riverkeeper are hosting a workshop at Flushing Town Hall Jan. 21 to encourage citizens to clean up waterways and inform them of the oyster reef goal.
The team still has to consult Queens Community Board 7 and other entities, Fromson said.
“There’s a lot of things we need to discuss,” she said. “It just might be a fabulous thing. We’re exploring it. We’re going to spend this winter doing more research on it.”
Reach reporter Madina Toure by e-mail at email@example.com or by phone at (718) 260–4566.