On March 9, 1998, Soundkeeper followed through on his promise to sue New York City for discharge of pollutants into Long Island Sound, the East River and Jamaica Bay. Soundkeeper filed suit in the Eastern District Federal Court in Brooklyn, NY. This action came after Soundkeeper filed a 60-day notice of intent to sue the City on December 18, 1997. Since that time Soundkeeper met with representatives of the New York City Department of Environmental Protection and lawyers for the City in an attempt to resolve the matter without going forward with a federal case. According to Soundkeeper Terry Backer those efforts proved fruitless. “The City pretty much said ‘go ahead and sue us — we’re going to do this our way,’” said Backer. “Its all right with me,” he added. “We tried doing it the nice way. Now I am taking off the gloves. This law suit is the single largest effort ever undertaken in a court of law on behalf of the Sound. New York City is the largest polluter of the Sound and has attempted to delay their part in the clean up as long as possible.”
In a related move, the state of New York filed its own action against New York City in state court. “We can’t applaud Governor Pataki and Commissioner Cahill of the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation enough for their decision to take the City to court on this matter. It is a courageous decision to defend Long Island Sound and the people’s resource against a political heavyweight like New York City,” said Backer. “Governor Pataki and Commissioner Cahill’s action not only shows their commitment to Long Island Sound, but also reinforces Soundkeeper’s allegations of illegal pollution of Long Island Sound. The Governor and Commissioner’s help is welcome and appreciated.”
For the twelve months preceding May 1997 the 4 NYC sewage treatment plants discharging to Long Island Sound dumped 7 million lbs. of nitrogen above and beyond their limit of 27 million lbs per year or 25% more than they are allowed by permit. They have acted as obstructionist and have worked to delay the reduction of pollutants to the Sound. “They agreed to hold to 1990 nitrogen levels thus accepting a permit to function within its parameters—they haven’t,” Backer said. According to Backer the city has consistently violated it’s State Pollution Elimination Discharge Systems Permits (SPEDS) permit by discharging excess tons of nitrogen from their Ward’s Island, Tallman Island, Hunts Point and Bowery Bay sewage treatment plants. In addition to the nitrogen violations Backer cites numerous sampling violations and discharges of fecal coliform levels in excess of permit levels.
Excessive nitrogen feeds huge blooms of algae, which decompose and consume the oxygen in the water, suffocating marine life. In addition to the nitrogen violations, the City has violated limits for several other parameters that impact water quality. The main goal of the Soundkeeper suit is to force the City to comply with its legal obligations to reduce nitrogen loads to the Sound.
Nitrogen pollution of the Long Island Sound has been determined by the Federal Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) Long Island Sound Study to be the major cause of the decline of the Sound’s health. “Western Long Island Sound is under severe stress each summer causing fish to die and our waters lack the full range of fish and animals the good Lord intended to live there”, said Soundkeeper Backer. According to Backer, hundreds of millions of dollars have been invested to upgrade of sewage treatment plants and reduce nitrogen in a number of communities around the Sound. “Those taxpayers dollars will have been spent in vain if New York City continues to pollute in excess of their permit and continues to stall implementation of the Phase Three nitrogen reduction plan of the Long Island Sound Study. Soundkeeper is committed to putting every effort forward, down to our last red cent in defense of the Sound, the people who use it and our members’ interest.2”, Said Backer.
Soundkeeper is represented in this action by the Pace Environmental Law Clinic, which is directed by attorneys Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. and Carl Coplan. The Clinic is located on the Pace University campus in White Plains, NY. Its lawyers and legal interns have successfully represented Soundkeeper in several pollution cases in New York and Connecticut over the past ten years.