‘We need help’: sewage crisis hits majority-Black town in New York

·11-min read

The sewer lines in Linda McNeil’s neighborhood got so clogged during the pandemic that she had to use a 16-gallon wet vac to suck up her own toilet waste and tub water. As Covid cases surged in the fall and winter, McNeil, 68, wheeled the wet vac outside every day and emptied the contents down an opening in the manhole cover at the top of her driveway.

The smell in her home burned her eyes and made her cough. She couldn’t sleep through the night.

“I’d have nightmares that they were gonna condemn my house,” she said.

Sewage problems are nothing new in Mount Vernon, New York, a majority-Black city of 68,000 that’s only a half-hour train ride from Grand Central station in Manhattan. Officials in Mount Vernon told the Guardian that sewage and wastewater infrastructure is collapsing all over town. The city is an extreme example of ailing wastewater networks across the country crumbling faster than cities can afford to maintain them – and communities of color may bear an outsized share of the burden.

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In the worst-hit homes, like McNeil’s, sludge floods out of toilets with little warning. Sewer water bubbles up from clogged manholes on some streets. Storm drains spill raw waste into the Hutchinson and Bronx rivers, which frame the city’s east and west. Officials estimate that 1,000 households could be at risk of floods or unable to flush their toilets, though the exact number is not yet known and might be larger.

Mount Vernon’s population is 65% Black, making it an outlier in the highly segregated, majority-white Westchester county. Frustrated residents said that whiter towns near Mount Vernon have sewage infrastructure that works just fine.

Left: Linda McNeil, 68, speaking to employees of the Department of Public Works outside of her home in south Mount Vernon, New York, over issues with her sewage line on 26 April 2021. Ms. McNeil has faced consistent problems with the sewage line in her neighborhood for 21 years. Right: Homes on South 11th Avenue in south Mount Vernon, New York. Photographs by Desiree Rios/The Guardian

“It’s no coincidence we’re a Black community. If this was a white community, this wouldn’t be happening,” said Eileen Lambert, 45, McNeil’s daughter. A human resources director for a charter school, Lambert and her husband and two young sons used to live with McNeil in south Mount Vernon, but the constant sewage flooding drove them north of the train tracks in 2018, to an area where the pipes still function. Lambert’s sons now call their grandmother’s home “the poop house”.

For years, experts have sounded the alarm about the country’s failing infrastructure. Wastewater networks across America received a D+ grade, and New York state alone faces a $34.1bn funding gap for wastewater, according to the most recent annual assessment by the American Society of Civil Engineers.

The Guardian is investigating sanitation shortfalls across the US as part of a year-long environmental justice reporting project. In February, we published a story about Centreville, Illinois, a low-income, nearly all-Black town near St Louis where failing wastewater infrastructure floods homes with raw sewage. Residents in both Mount Vernon and Centreville have dealt with these failures for years without significant action from local authorities, and both cities now face staggering repair needs that far outstrip what they can afford. Yet Mount Vernon has over 13 times the population of Centreville.

As with Centreville, Mount Vernon’s sewage pipes weren’t properly maintained for decades, Mayor Shawyn Patterson-Howard said in an interview.

“It’s been a hot potato passed from administration to administration,” said Patterson-Howard, who took office two months before the Covid crisis hit. Slowed by the pandemic and political infighting, Mount Vernon has only recently begun trying to locate every leak, collapse and blockage.

Ever since Mount Vernon’s incorporation as a city in 1892, it has welcomed diverse people looking for a fresh start, whether they were Black folks fleeing the Jim Crow South, or southern Europeans seeking opportunity in a new country, said Larry Spruill, the former city historian.

In the mid-20th century, neighboring cities pushed out Black residents by pursuing policies like urban renewal. “The rest of Westchester, in the 1960s, dumped their Black communities into Mount Vernon. The city received a large population by the 1980s from Portchester, White Plains, New Rochelle,” Spruill said.

The city’s 4.4sq miles are densely settled, while much of its sewer network is almost a century old and built to service a population 40% smaller. One of the MTA Metro-North Railroad’s bustling commuter lines divides the city roughly in half. The southern section, poorer and more crowded than the north, suffers the worst of the sewage problems.

Still, these issues aren’t unheard of in pockets on the more affluent north side, where tidy landscaping surrounds roomy, single-family homes.

The Public Works commissioner, Damani Bush, who stepped into the position during the pandemic, said the city’s sewer crew attend as many as 400 backups a year – double the amount from when he began working for the department in 2009. Not only are the town’s pipes old, corroded and overburdened, but they’re also coated in layers of grime from households and businesses dumping cooking oils down their sink drains, Bush said.

On top of that, his sewer crew often finds trash clogging the system: rags, plastic bottles, mountains of baby wipes. Bush thinks future solutions need to address this problem too and wants the city to do more outreach to community members about what not to throw down their home drains.

His most concerning discovery is buried under the 3rd Street corridor, a cramped part of town that experiences frequent sewer clogs. Bush’s crew found 80-year-old, damaged sewage pipes buried at unusually deep levels – between 60 and 100ft. Digging up and replacing those pipes would be impossible for Mount Vernon or even Westchester county, both of which lack the equipment or the manpower for a job like that, to say nothing of the cost, Bush noted. For now, the city and county have teamed up to install an external pump system in the middle of the street to help sewage flow properly. Traffic weaves slowly around the pump station all day.

“It’s scary because, what else is out there? We’ve barely scratched the surface of the problem,” said Bush.

Bush and Mayor Patterson-Howard both suspect the city will need to excavate the entire network of sewage pipes and replace them, then redo every city street.

“This is going to be a $100m job. That is about 95% of our annual budget,” said Patterson-Howard. “I’m not here to make excuses, but we need help.”

Mount Vernon has the highest tax rate in Westchester county, yet residents are baffled at where their money has been going all this time. Wayne Fletcher, 48, lives just off the troubled 3rd Street corridor and pays $18,400 in yearly property taxes for his two-family home

Left: An external pump system, known as a bypass, on 3rd Street in south Mount Vernon, New York on Monday, April 26, 2021. The bypass was installed to help sewage flow properly after the Department of Public Works after discovered 80-year-old, damaged sewage pipes buried within the corridor. Right: The Emergency Sewer Division of the Department of Public Works perform preventive maintenance on a sewage line on Primrose Avenue in north Mount Vernon, New York on Monday, April 26, 2021. The Emergency Sewer Division will degrease a sewage line and vacuum solid waste to prevent clogging. There are roughly 20 problem sewage lines in the city of Mount Vernon that need constant maintenance. Photographs by Desiree Rios/The Guardian

Like McNeil, he spent much of the winter with sewage backing up into his house and spreading across the garage floor. Fletcher, who grew up in Jamaica and works for AT&T as a network engineer, said that on the worst days, he and his family skipped showers and drank less water to avoid using the toilet.

“I’m paying for a lifestyle I’m not living,” said Fletcher. “In all my years in Jamaica, I never saw something like this. Never.”

Environmental damage

Sewage flooding inevitably makes its way into the Hutchinson and Bronx rivers. The runoff might be partly responsible for creating algae blooms that result in periodic die-offs of fish downstream from Mount Vernon, according to Tracy Brown, director of the environmental advocacy group Save the Sound.

One of her group’s weekly testing sites is a double-arched storm drain in a stone wall, situated along the Hutchinson River, just a few minutes’ walk upstream from McNeil’s house. “Sometimes there’s more fecal bacteria than we can even read,” Brown said.

However, Brown was quick to point out that Mount Vernon is not responsible for the majority of the pollution in local waterways. For example, far more waste comes from the Bronx’s much larger sewer system, which tends to overflow during rains. “This is a problem communities all around the state are facing,” she said.

Federal authorities sued Mount Vernon in 2018 over years of illegal pollution discharges from storm drains into nearby rivers. But the city failed to take action, and by the time the pandemic hit, the situation had spun out of control. In September, a federal judge ordered Mount Vernon to figure out where its sewage system was failing and take aggressive steps to fix it.

The city might owe tens of thousands of dollars in unpaid penalties for failing to stop its sewage discharges in a timely manner. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), citing active litigation against the city, did not comment on whether it would use these fees to help the city pay for what is likely to be a massive overhaul to its infrastructure.

During the pandemic, a months-long dispute between city officials delayed payments to independent contractors with the expertise to help the city work on its sewage system. Residents like Fletcher and McNeil watched with frustration as the standoff played out in public meetings while raw sewage seeped into their homes.

In recent months, the city finally began dipping into a $1.6m water quality improvement grant it received in 2016, said Patterson-Howard. So far, she’s used the money for high-tech equipment to help explore the pipes and find hidden problem areas. But these funds are only a fraction of what the city will need in the coming years. The city hopes to bring in more funding through additional grants and other programs.

Left: A storm drain along the Hutchinson River in Mount Vernon, New York on Monday, April 26, 2021. Sewage flooding inevitably makes its way into nearby rivers, such as the Hutchinson. Right: Sewage solid waste alongside the Hutchinson River in Mount Vernon. Photographs by Desiree Rios/The Guardian

Last week, the US Senate overwhelmingly passed a bill that would improve water and wastewater infrastructure by authorizing $35bn for state programs. The bill, which now moves to the House of Representatives, was sponsored by Illinois senator Tammy Duckworth, a Democrat, who has visited the city of Centreville multiple times and spoken in support of residents whose homes are flooded with sewage.

Next November, New York state residents will vote on whether to raise $3bn in environmental bonds, which aim partly to improve wastewater infrastructure. As with the Senate bill, the focus is on low-income or communities of color that bear an unequal share of the impacts from infrastructure failures.

Meanwhile, residents like McNeil remain anxious about their plumbing. In February, the sewer crew pumped out all the manholes in her neighborhood and got the pipes connected to her house flowing again. She cried with relief when they finished working, she said. She hasn’t had an overflow since then, but she’s convinced the problems will return. They always have, in the past.

“Every day, I hold my breath,” she said.