Deadline Looms For Sanitary Sewer Repairs Outlined in 2015 U.S. Clean Water Act Suit

The race to meet the target stems from a 2015 federal lawsuit brought by Save the Sound that accused Westchester County and 11 municipalities of violating the 1972 U.S. Clean Water Act.  

Sewer manhole cover in Yonkers
Published April 11, 2024 8:17 PM
4 min read

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The city is facing a December deadline to finish $22 million worth of repairs to its compromised sanitary sewers, an ongoing project that Rye’s top administrator said is “of the utmost importance.”  

The race to meet the target stems from a 2015 federal lawsuit brought by nonprofit organization Save the Sound that accused Westchester County and 11 municipalities, including Rye, of violating the 1972 U.S. Clean Water Act.  

Poorly maintained sewer systems, which for decades caused millions of gallons of raw and only partially treated sewage to enter the Long Island Sound, were at the center of the suit.  

Sewer lines under streets and lawns in Westchester were cracked, broken, and leaking fecal matter and other contaminants into local waterways, causing low oxygen and high bacteria levels, according to the lawsuit. That meant that the Long Island Sound is not safe for swimming or fishing, which violates the Clean Water Act, according to David Ansel, vice president of water protection for Save the Sound. 

“There’s contaminated water in our communities, not just when you go to the beach or go swimming or boating,” he said. “The rivers and streams … have really high bacteria counts, which is well in exceedance of safe limits for human contact.” 

Save the Sound also claimed that the municipalities were aware of the pollution and,  since 2003 knew steps they had taken to fix the problem were “woefully inadequate.” All of the communities named reached settlements agreeing to make repairs and upgrades to their infrastructure.  

“It’s probably the single biggest investment the city has ever made in anything infrastructure-related,” City Manager Greg Usry said. “That has to be at the top of, at least operationally, the staff focus for the next nine months.” 

As part of the city’s August 2023 settlement with the state Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC), and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and Department of Justice, the city agreed to complete roughly $13.3 million in sanitary sewer repairs by the end of 2024. Rye is on track to finish that work by Dec.1, according to a city spokesperson.  

“A court is telling us that (by the) end of this year we have to be finished,” said Usry, adding that this is why so many streets have been dug up around the city. 

The work was contracted out in two parts, with the first scheduled to be finished in June. The entire project is being funded primarily through state grants, with the city covering $3.3 million of the cost.  

The city was awarded the largest grant in its history to complete the work, according to a city spokesperson. And Ansel called the opportunity for communities to take advantage of available grant money “once in a generation.” 

In 2023, Rye received $10 million in state DEC grant money to pay for the installation of 22,000 linear feet of pipeline and repairs to hundreds of manholes across the city. 

As a condition of the settlement, the City Council also passed a November 2022 law to help prevent sanitary sewer blockages and backups from businesses, particularly food establishments. Penalties for violations are not to exceed $1,000 per day. To date, no violations have been issued, according to a city spokesperson.  

That work was done in conjunction with an initial 2021 settlement, for which the city spent more than $8 million, including an additional $3.9 million in state money, to repair 52 miles of sewer pipe. The city had to address more than 5,000 defects and undertake a $150,000 environmental benefit project to improve the water quality of Blind Brook by treating stormwater from the Locust Avenue parking lot.  

But the city fell behind schedule with those repairs, leading the parties to reach a second agreement last August. That agreement required Rye to fund a second water quality project —a $150,000 bioretention facility to treat stormwater runoff —at the Rye Recreation Center on Midland Avenue.  

The latest efforts to meet the requirements of the legal settlement are part of a $98 million citywide capital infrastructure program, believed to be the most comprehensive in the city’s history.  

“We are pleased that … the City of Rye has recommitted to completing measures necessary to prevent sewage discharges to local waters,” Roger Reynolds, Save the Sound’s senior legal director, said in August. 

But it appears there’s still work to be done.  

Water sampled from Blind Brook at the Rye Nature Center failed to meet the EPA’s safe swimming criteria all 12 times it was tested last summer — the worstof any of the city’s rivers or streams analyzed. 

One of the indelible moments of the annual Rye-Harrison high school football rivalry is a tradition where the winning team jumps into the Blind Brook, alongside Nugent Stadium, to celebrate. 

“The Blind Brook tests very poorly for bacteria, so it’s not safe for these kids to do that,” said Ansel. “It’s obviously bad having that stream moving through Rye, but it’s also ending up in the Long Island Sound.” 

Twenty-three Long Island Sound beaches, including seven in the city of Rye, occupy the 36 miles of Westchester’s eastern coastline. 

According to Save the Sound’s 2023 Long Island Sound Beach Report, which ranks public and private beaches along the Long Island Sound in New York and Connecticut using data from 2020-22, Harbor Island Beach in Mamaroneck was rated the worst of all Westchester beaches in 2022, receiving an overall grade of F.  

Of the seven beaches in Rye, Playland Beach received the worst overall grade (C+) in 2022, and an F for its frequency of failures during wet weather events. 

“The goal is to feel that we are safe swimming and should be able to catch a fish and eat it, but that is not the case,” Ansel said.  

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