New York’s Toxic Wasteland: America’s Water Crisis (Part 1/3)

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EMERSON ROSENTHAL: New York
City’s full of shit– real shit, 27 billion gallons
of shit that get dumped into the Hudson River every year. And that’s billions, with a b. Even though the city pipes in
crystal-clear drinking water from a collection of reservoirs
up north, the waters that New Yorkers see
and smell every day are a toxic nightmare. Oil spills, PCBs, rotting
corpses, human feces, and 15 feet of something called “black
mayonnaise” are just a few of the pristine features
Mayor Bloomberg isn’t bragging about. We’re dipping our toes in and
testing the waters for ourselves to see how the
toxicity of the Hudson River has become the norm for
America’s urban waterways. Welcome to “Toxic.” All right, I’m getting out. I’m going to take this sample,
make my way out of here. All right, so that was it. Hudson River swim. Fucking disgusting. TRACY BROWN: New York City
wouldn’t be New York City if it wasn’t for the
Hudson River. The fact that it is on the river
and surrounded by water is what defines the city and
gives it its character. One of the lingering problems
we still have to address is sewage pollution. -In the early development of New
York City, wetlands were considered wastelands. And they were basically filled
in with garbage to create solid land. TRACY BROWN: Where you have
older cities, like New York City, and Albany, and Yonkers,
where they used to build the wastewater infrastructure
where the sewage and the stormwater went through
the same pipe. So when too much rain happened,
it would overwhelm those pipes, and they didn’t
want all that rain and stormwater to go to their sewage
treatment plant and overwhelm the sewage treatment
plant or back up into people’s houses, so they just
bypass it directly into their local waterway. And that’s what happens in New
York City when it rains. That’s what happens in other
cities around the country. EMERSON ROSENTHAL: The River
Project has been systematically testing the
bacterial content of the Hudson River for years now. So we took our sample to their
lab to evaluate it for bacterial content that signifies
the presence of fecal matter in the river. -Hello. EMERSON ROSENTHAL: Hello. -This is Nina. EMERSON ROSENTHAL: Hi
Nina, I’m Emerson. I’m here from Vice. I was swimming in it. -OK. EMERSON ROSENTHAL: I cut my foot
on some rocks on the way. Do you think that’s
a bad thing? -Did you wash it out? EMERSON ROSENTHAL: Not yet. -You should probably
go wash it out. -You should. EMERSON ROSENTHAL: OK,
I’ll take care of that as soon as possible. All right. -And then you leave it to
incubate for 24 hours at 41 degrees Celsius. EMERSON ROSENTHAL: Commercial
fishing on the Hudson was put to an end after the fish were
deemed too toxic for consumption. So after I cut my foot, I
started to worry that, I, too, like many of the poor, native
fish species, might end up jawless, three-eyed,
and sterile. The Atlantic tomcod has the
unique honor of being the first fish species to adapt
to PCBs, the toxic factory coolants GE poured generously
into the Hudson in the ’70s. Usually known to cause cancers
and deformations in the fish, some tomcod have adapted
to thrive in a PCB-rich environment and have since
evolved to survive in such a toxic world. CHRIS CHAMBERS: My particular
group studies the early life stages of marine fish. And we’re particularly
interested in how the environments and habitat affects
the survival and fitness of those animals. This is a typical tomcod
larva hatching. The head and eyes are
dark in hatching. Jaw is typically straight. Here’s some not so
nice baby fish. What you see here is a greatly
enlarged yolk sac. That’s the edema
I referred to. The jaw is malformed. The head has a bit
of a point to it. The eyes are not as dark. And the body tends be more
curved or not as straight. TRACY BROWN: There’s such
limited commercial fishing still allowed on the
Hudson based on the health of the fish. Commercial fishing, as a way
of life, on the Hudson was destroyed and taken away because
of the pollution in the river and its effect
on the fish stock. EMERSON ROSENTHAL: The 14
wastewater treatment plants around the city process
1.3 billion gallons of raw sewage a day. That’s 15,000 gallons
per second. Before they were built, and for
most of the 20th century, all that sewage was just loaded
onto a boat and dumped 12 miles east of the
Jersey shore. Later, they decided to
dump further out– 106 miles instead. In 1991, somebody thought it
was a good idea to load all the sludge onto a train and send
it 2,000 miles to Sierra Blanca, a little town
in west Texas. New York State sent Texas
250 tons of sludge a day for over 10 years. NEVIN COHEN: Combined sewer
overflows were the last remaining uncontrolled form of
water pollution in cities. There are a few things
that a city can do. It can build holding tanks. It can actually enlarge
the sewer pipes. But those are really expensive,
and the alternative to gray infrastructure for CSOs
is green infrastructure. And that means building parks,
and gardens, and bioswales, and other permeable surfaces in
the city to both absorb and slow down the flow
of stormwater. EMERSON ROSENTHAL: All right. So yesterday, after my delicious
dip in the Hudson River, we took a water sample
and came here to the River Project, let our sample incubate
for 24 hours, and now we’re back to find out what was
really in the water I was swimming in. -If our MPN is below 30,
then that is a green light from the EPA. So you can basically
do whatever you’d like in the water. You can go swimming. If it is over 100 for the MPN,
you should be careful, whether you’re recreating in the water
But you definitely don’t want to get the water in your
face, in your eyes, or anything like that. 259 bacterial colonies. EMERSON ROSENTHAL: So not only
was the water I was swimming in above the EPA limits– which nobody had told me– it
was about 2.5 times above federal standards. -Yeah. -You definitely shouldn’t be
swimming in the water. EMERSON ROSENTHAL: Shouldn’t
have done that? -No. I hope you didn’t swallow any. EMERSON ROSENTHAL: Me too. Tracy Brown and River Keepers’
Sewage Right to Know Act mandates that the public are
notified immediately when sewage is dumped into
the Hudson. But it’s almost too obvious that
public officials should warn the people when they’re
paddle boarding in a bunch of shit. But while Governor Cuomo signed
the act in August, it’s going to take at least until
May 2013, for provisions to take effect. TRACY BROWN: This is the new,
more dangerous pollutant. As people get back in the water,
sewage gets in the water, there’s less money for
testing, and there’s very few requirements to tell the public that you aren’t testing. I can tell you that New York
City was not supportive of the Sewage Right to Know Law. They worked hard in the
legislative process to water down the bill. And we hope that, now that it’s
passed, we’ll implement it in the way that it’s intended
to be implemented. I would say based on my
experience that it does not seem that the Bloomberg
administration is interested in letting people know about the
sewage problem around New York City– absolutely not, no. EMERSON ROSENTHAL: The
Environmental Protection Agency has forced New York
City to solve many of its water quality issues since the
days of hauling our sewage by train to Texas. But our test sample found that
even a mile or so upstream of Manhattan, the Hudson River
contained 2.5 times the legal limit of feces. And this isn’t only New
York City’s problem. Since 772 of America’s cities
were built with combined sewage systems, about 40 million
people living near urban waterways will be up shit
creek for years to come. -Some days are just
unforgettable– the birth of a child, your first day at school,
the day you fell in a giant sinkhole. EMERSON ROSENTHAL: So we’re
right outside of Gainesville. And this house right
here has a huge fucking hole in its backyard. Holy shit, it’s cold.

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