Law Student's Report Promotes Greener New York

Press Contact:
Sonia von Gutfeld
Cell: 347-266-6018
[email protected]

July 25, 2007 -- New York City could more effectively reduce the amount of raw sewage in its harbor and create a greener environment if it adopts alternative strategies to the city's current tentative plans, a new report written by a Columbia Law School student recommends.

Each year, more than 27 billion gallons of raw sewage and stormwater runoff from streets overflow into New York Harbor because of the city’s outmoded sewer system. Combined sewage overflows (CSOs) leave most parts of New York City’s waterfront and beaches unsafe for recreation after it rains, according to the report.

Environmental organization Riverkeeper advocated long-term solutions to New York’s CSO crisis in the March 2007 report, “Sustainable Raindrops: Cleaning New York Harbor by Greening the Urban Landscape.” Intern Mike Plumb ’08, a Columbia Environmental Law Clinic student and former U.S. Air Force officer, wrote the report with Riverkeeper Chief Investigator Basil Seggos.

“We needed someone to help pull all the details together into one cogent argument,” said Robert Goldstein, senior attorney at Riverkeeper. “The report made a compelling case for dealing with this issue on a holistic basis.”

New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg cited Riverkeeper’s findings in PLANYC: 2030, a long-term proposal to preserve and improve New York’s environment, in April 2007. Bloomberg’s plan echoes a broad sustainability campaign in which Riverkeeper and the Columbia Law School Environmental Law Clinic have played leading roles.

The Environmental Law Clinic, founded in 2000, has represented local, regional and national organizations like Riverkeeper that address critical environmental challenges. The clinic litigates local and federal cases and this spring won a major Clean Water Act challenge to the EPA and the electric power industry. Current international projects include research on river dams in China and case studies on access to environmental data and information through the equivalent of Freedom of Information laws in other countries.

Clinic students take on the responsibilities of law firm associates. Under the supervision of Ed Lloyd, the Evan M. Frankel Clinical Professor in Environmental Law, and Reed Super, senior clinical attorney, they take depositions, draft pleadings and appear in court.

“Students get to see how litigation is done from the inside. They’re doing battle in the trenches and getting their hands dirty,” said Super.

Plumb began work on “Sustainable Raindrops” as a Riverkeeper intern in the summer of 2006 and continued while enrolled in Columbia’s Environmental Law Clinic. Plumb, who holds a bachelor of science in environmental geoscience and a master of science in civil engineering, came to Columbia Law School interested in water protection. Working for Riverkeeper gave him a better understanding of the field, he said.

“I got to interact with many environmental advocates who deal with water issues in the city,” said Plumb. “I had to learn the history of the New York water system, and how to identify an audience and craft an argument.”

The city should treat rainwater as a powerful resource rather than as a waste product, said the report. Source controls can capture and harness stormwater that falls on the city before it ever enters the sewer system. Street trees, porous pavement that allows water and air to reach tree roots, small parks known as Greenstreets, green roofs and rain barrels can significantly decrease CSOs at little economic cost. They provide additional benefits, such as cooling the city, removing air pollution and reducing energy consumption. Greener urban spaces also increase property values, decrease crime and reduce stress among inhabitants, the report said.

“Mike’s report showed how cost-effective these measures can be,” said Super. At the time of the report’s release, the New York City Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) intended to control CSOs exclusively with additional storage tanks and in-line storage to collect portions of the overflow and send it to sewage treatment plants. $2.1 billion invested in “end-of-pipe” storage tanks would capture 5.1 billion gallons of water, produce no ancillary benefits and add air pollution during treatment stages, Riverkeeper’s research found. The same $2.1 billion toward source controls could capture 7.2 billion gallons of water and remove 60 tons of air pollution and 340 tons of carbon dioxide.

DEP, facing a deadline from the State Department of Environmental Conservation to propose a long-term CSO control plan, submitted a placeholder report in June 2007. DEP is investigating source control methods to incorporate in a future proposal to the state.