Despite abnormally high levels of fecal coliform—a bacteria found in animal and human waste—discovered at various locations in and around Mamaroneck within the past few years, the verdict is still out as to whether the contaminated waters can be attributed to stormwater runoff, illegal sewer line hook-ups or even leaky sewer pipes, leading residents to wonder: Is it safe to swim in the Sound?
Although fecal coliform by itself is not harmful according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), a higher than average reading can indicate the presence of disease causing bacteria or viruses such as E. Coli, which are harmful if swallowed while swimming or consumed through eating shellfish from a contaminated area.
The most recent trouble began in September, 2010 when the Division of Enforcement and Compliance Assistance (DECA)—at the request of the Division of Environmental Planning and Protection (DEEP)—made two onsite inspections to 11 locations (listed in the table below) as part of their review of the village’s Stormwater Management Program (SWMP) annual report, said Dan Sarnoff, assistant village manager in the Village of Mamaroneck (VOM). Please click to the right of this article for all supporting documentation.
Drain behind Lexus dealer on Boston Post Road
Pryer Manor Road
Fenbrook Subdivision to open lot detention basin
Hampshire Golf Course, Hommocks Road
East Creek Basin, Fenimore by I-95 Bridge
Outfall – 729 Plaza St.
Catch Basin at Union Street
Catch basin at Union and Halstead Avenues
Catch basin at 500 Halstead Ave.
Confluence of Mamaroneck River and Harbor
Confluence of Sheldrake and Mamaroneck Rivers
Location# Total Coliforms Fecal Coliforms
1 77,000 30,000
2 170,000 80,000
3 24,000 13,000
4 50,000 30,000
5 80,000 80,000
10 50,000 24,000
11 220,000 30,000
The SWMP, among other things, aims to address the runoff from storms, which can be a mechanism for transporting pollutants like garbage and excrement to large bodies of water, threatening beaches and drinking water alike.
Back in 2007, the EPA documented evidence of discharges from sanitary sewers in the VOM, however, they delayed further enforcement until 2010, when follow-up tests were performed.
But it was the result of wet water samplings (after heavy rains) at outfalls and catch basins in seven locations (listed above) that exceeded the NY Water Quality Standard of 10,000 MPN/100 ML for total coliform and 2,000 MPN/100 ML for fecal coliform in 2010, that gave the agency pause.
In March of 2011, the EPA slapped the village with an official violation of the Clean Water Act—a 1972 law that establishes quality standards for surface waters and regulates the discharge of pollutants into the water—based on the Septemeber findings.
The violation cited the village, among other things, for not being in compliance with their municipal separate storm sewer system—that collects and conveys stormwater and pollutants to surface waters—MS4 permit. According to the violation, the village also missed their January, 2008 deadline for implementation of a comprehensive illicit discharge detection and elimination program, a required component of the SWMP.
Further, since the VOM discharges stormwater into one or more bodies of water that have a Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL)—a predetermined amount of pollutant that can enter a body of water before it exceeds water quality standards—they are required to meet a more stringent set of requirements, particularly since Mamaroneck Harbor had previously been designated as an “impaired water body” for pathogens and floatables.
Although the cause of the consistently high bacteria counts continues to elude both village and state, one theory, stated in the violation says, “water quality standards were exceeded at all locations, supporting evidence that there is a high potential for illicit sanitary connections to storm sewers which discharge into Mamaroneck Harbor.”
Other residents have their own theories about what’s causing the high levels.
According to Katherine Desmond, former chair of the VOM Mayor’s Advisory Committee on Water Quality from 2001-04, the problem may have more to do with the state of the village’s sanitary sewer system than anything else.
“Pipes are leaking all over the village,” she said, referring to a growing number of defects in sewer pipes needing repairs.
Cracked or broken pipes can cause rainwater or inflow from illegal sanitary pipe hook-ups to leak in, thereby overwhelming the system that they both flow into. Contamination between sanitary waste pipes and stormwater pipes can also cause an overflow of bacteria laden, untreated stormwater into streams, rivers and neighborhoods.
“The contamination is not coming from upstream,” said Desmond, adding, “The water in the Sheldrake River is ‘swimmable’ before it flows into the village.”
As part of their remediation plan in connection with the violation, the VOM is required to submit an illegal detection and elimination plan identifying pollutants in the storm sewer system tributary; an engineering plan for corrective measures to be taken and, following the corrective measures, additional sampling within six months of completion.
In May of 2011, the VOM contracted with a company they had used previously for similar water sampling tasks, the Tarrytown-based firm Dolph Rotfeld Engineering, P.C.
But, in February of 2012, the firm pulled out of their agreement with the village, delaying mitigation further, due to, “ill informed comments made about us on a very wide basis…the risk to our valuable reputation is not worth taking and is distracting to our mission.” The village requested an additional 90 days in order to find another engineering firm.
On May 14, 2012, the village selected White Plains-based Malcolm Pirnie as a replacement and, according to their Request For Proposal (RFP)—obtained from the EPA via a FOIA request—their plan of action to identify the source of fecal contamination includes performing video inspections of sewer lines, smoke and dye testing, among other things. Their fee for coming up with the plan and helping the village to implement it is $27,200.
But it wasn’t only the VOM where there was suspected contamination.
In May of 2012, the EPA opted to re-test locations near Hommocks Road and the —an area that sits right on the border of the Village and Town of Mamaroneck—for potential duck and goose waste that was believed to be fouling the nearby water.
The same area had been tested in October, 2011, and, according to a report obtained from the EPA, showed the presence of both gull and human fecal matter, with levels ranging from 700 to 24,000 MPN/100 ML. The 2012 results showed significantly lower levels as follows:
Fenbrook Lane (down stream of culvert) 300 MPN /100 ML
Kolbert Street (down stream of bridge) 130 MPN/100 ML
Kobert & Salem Drive (center of brook) 300 MPN/100 ML
Adrian Circle (upstream of culvert) 80 MPN/100 ML
Griffen Avenue (down stream of culvert) 90 MPN/100 ML
However, a re-test of the Fenbrook subdivision (an original location for stormwater discharge sampling by DEEP) showed higher levels of fecal coliform than previous tests with 8,000 mpn/100 ML, and total coliform 50,000 mpn/100 ML as recent as May 9, 2012.
“The coliform levels for Fenbrook currently exceed ambient water quality standards. Meeting these standards would likely reduce the risk of illness from disease causing organisms,” said John Martin, a press officer for the EPA in response to questioning whether the current levels were harmful to public health.
With a hefty fine up to $37,500 per day per violation, the village is motivated to continue their compliance with the terms of the EPA citation. Their next quarterly report is due at the end of August. So far, “Mamaroneck is currently in compliance with the requirements of the order we issued and making progress towards addressing the Clean Water Act violations as required,” said EPA Press Officer Elias Rodriguez.
But, for others, the situation may take longer to right.
“It's an unacceptable condition for a civilized society to allow sewage to run free,” said Desmond.
Editor's Note: A sentence clarifying the duties Malcolm Pirnie will perform for a $27,200 fee was added to the original version of this article.