The City of Mount Vernon, NY has continuously ignored various court orders, fines, and administrative compliance orders placed by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and New York State’s Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) and conservationists, to repair leaking sewer systems that are contaminating the Hutchinson River. The City and its administration have refused to act on these ordinances for 15 years . This negligence puts the citizens and ecosystem of not only Mount Vernon but all surrounding and downstream communities at risk.
The Hutchinson River is a freshwater stream that begins in Scarsdale, New York and travels about 10 miles south through Westchester County and the Bronx, eventually emptying into Eastchester Bay on the Long Island Sound. It also serves as one of the tributaries for the East River that separates parts of New York City and Long Island. The river contains three damned sections that serve as reservoirs, none of which are still used as water sources for Westchester County. These three reservoirs now serve as public lands often used for various outdoor recreational activities . The northern portion of the river is relatively clean with many parts being characterized more as a stream or creak than a river. Once it reaches the City of Mount Vernon, however, the Hutchinson River becomes nearly uninhabitable by wildlife and a health hazard to anyone exposed to its water. Mount Vernon is a predominately minority and low income community with a poverty rate of 14.7% and 63.1% identifying as either Black or African American—a stark contrast to the wealth and whiteness that the surrounding towns and Westchester County hold as a whole. This makes the likelihood of the city being the victim of environmental injustice more than the surrounding cities and towns like Bronxville or Scarsdale; both of which are predominantly white and wealthy (er).
Mount Vernon has a longstanding history of refusing to make much needed repairs to their sewage systems. In 2003, the City of Mount Vernon began to develop Municipal Separate Storm Sewer Systems (MS4’s) to “detect and eliminate illicit discharges” . These illicit discharges were raw and untreated domestic sewage that were being improperly disposed of in the Hutchinson River as well as sewage pipe leakage that further contributed to this pollution. This plan, while entirely necessary for the health and safety of community members and surrounding environment, failed to make any changes as Mount Vernon failed to meet their 2008 deadline . Waste continued to pollute the river as the pipes fell further into disarray with multiple sewage pipe collapses in 2012. In January 2012, a pipe burst on Lorraine Avenue, and in June 2012 another pipe burst on Stevens Avenue . Not only did both of these eruptions cause further pollution to the Hutchinson River and Bronx Rivers, but they also caused communities to come into direct contact with hazardous, fecal waste. Despite this being a direct result of their inaction, the City of Mount Vernon still did nothing to address their sewage system.
In February of 2014, the US Environmental Protection Agency issued the City of Mount Vernon an administrative compliance order “for failure to comply with the conditions and limitation of the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation's State Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (“SPDES”) General Permit for Stormwater Discharges from Municipal Separate Storm Sewer Systems (“MS4’s”) and for the unpermitted discharge of sanitary sewage into waters of the United States.” This required the City to submit regular reports to the Environmental Protection Agency detailing their research, progress and action per the EPA’s request. The City of Mount Vernon however failed to adhere to these requests and make the necessary changes. This caused the EPA to issue a second administrative compliance order for violating the original order as well as continued violation of the Clean Water Act. This mandate imposed potential fines for up to $37,500 per day the City refused to act. In 2017, it was estimated that the City had accumulated around $90 million in fines from the Environmental Protection Agency .
There have been multiple lawsuits and court orders filed attempting to convince the municipalities to protect their citizens and repair their sewers. The most recent (as of April 2021) being when United States District Judge Cathy Seibel issued a September 21st Order that requires Mount Vernon to have their Municipal Separate Storm Sewer System comply with the Clean Water Act . This is almost identical to the multitude of prior court orders calling for Mount Vernon City officials to do better.
This inaction has threatened Mount Vernon residents and communities along the Hutchinson River, with the contaminants carried downstream and emptied into the Long Island Sound, endangering thousands more people. The continued mishandling of domestic waste is the sole fault of the Mount Vernon municipalities. These include not only the current acting mayor, Mayor Andrè Wallace, (who took over after Mayor Richard Thomas was removed by the City Council) but also his predecessors who chose to overlook the dangers of inaction. The blame also falls to Mount Vernon’s City Council, Comptroller, and specifically the City of Mount Vernon Department of Public Works Bureau of Sewers. On the City's website it states that the Bureau of Sewers is responsible for the maintenance and care of 195 miles of sewer lines. With the continuation of Clean Water Act violations due to sewage contamination, we see the incompetence of not only the Bureau of Sewers but the municipality as a whole.
In doing so they have risked the health and wellbeing of the residents of not only Mount Vernon but the Pelhams, the Bronx, along with inhabitants along Eastchester Bay, Long Island Sound, and the East River. The mouth of this river opens in close proximity to homes and poses a threat to the health and safety of visitors to Orchard Beach, the Bronx’s largest public beach, as well as inhabitants of New York City and Long Island. Residents of Mount Vernon and the Pelhams specifically express their disdain for the foul odor that emanates from the Hutchinson River as well as unsightly litter that accumulates on the river’s edge.
While the City of Mount Vernon hasn’t participated or released any data of their own, the effects of raw sewage contamination are far reaching. The independent nonprofit organization Save the Sound, has an annual Bacteria and Water Quality Monitoring Program that tests western Long Island Sound waterways. In 2019, they found that the concentration of fecal bacteria pollution in the Hutchinson River was on average 40 times higher than New York State's limit for safe swimming water. It is estimated by the US Environmental Protection Agency that (broadly) between 1.8 million and 3.5 million people each year contract recreational waterborne illnesses after coming in contact with water polluted by sewage overflow. Exposure to improperly disposed of sewage and fecal matter can lead to contracting a waterborne illness, parasites, or viruses, all with varying severity. Despite the most commonly reported recreational waterborne illness being diarrhea, which can be fatal for at risk populations, there are many that are commonly contracted and have the ability to be extremely dangerous and sometimes fatal. The bacteria Vibrio cholerae, known for causing cholera, is common in areas with high volumes of fecal matter, and if severe, can cause severe dehydration and even death within hours of infection. Other parasites and viruses like Giardia lamblia which initially can cause diarrhea, can develop into long term symptoms of severe hypothyroidism and even lactose intolerance. The Hepatitis viruses are commonly contracted in polluted waterways and can cause liver infection and even liver failure .
There are also grave implications of indirect exposure to sewage contamination. The polluted water in the Hutchinson River has the potential to seep into the river bed and infiltrate sources of groundwater. This spreads the pollution and its subsequent diseases much further and is often too discreet to be accurately traced and dealt with. The Hutchinson River not only poses a health hazard to the people who may choose to utilize it, but to its surrounding ecosystem. Within the river, plant and animal life is scarce with the current conditions being unsustainable/inhospitable for aquatic life. The river also poses a threat to the local non-aquatic wildlife who may choose to cross the river or even possibly ingest the contaminated water. Westchester County already boasts a long list of threatened and endangered species which includes the peregrine falcon (Falco peregrinus), the river otter (Lutra canadensis) and the eastern prickly pear (Opuntia humifusa) .
The City of Mount Vernon’s 15 year refusal to repair their sewage system has led to damage throughout its own community and those surrounding it. This negligence has led to countless legal actions as well as copious amounts of state and federal fines. Despite all this the City continues to ignore the health and wellbeing of its citizens with little to no progress being made. The current status of the project is the same as when it was first addressed in 2003. No action has been taken to even start the work that needs to be done to clean up the Hutchinson River and preserve the health of the people it affects. This can cause severe and irreversible damage to the immediate and surrounding ecosystem and the communities that inhabit it.