New York City’s largest utility company has been dumping millions of gallons of wastewater — some of it heated to above 90 degrees and some containing toxic metals like chromium and lead — into the Hudson River in a park with special protections for fish and other aquatic life, public records show.
The utility company, Consolidated Edison, has had permits to discharge the water into the river for more than 20 years from its plant on an industrial pier at the park’s north end. But an adviser to the trust charged with running the park recently discovered the dumping, prompting a dispute over whether Con Ed should be allowed to continue the practice or even remain in the park.
The utility uses the water to fill and flush giant boilers in a steam plant and to cool high-voltage electrical cables before dumping it into the river under the pier, according to those records and Con Edison officials.
A spokesman for Con Ed said the discharges occurred only about twice a week and that the presence of toxic elements in them was minimal. The effects of the dumping on water quality in the area are unclear, though plumes of hot water can be hazardous to marine life.
Officials at the trust that oversees the park were already aware of the company’s activities. Con Ed rents the pier from the trust, paying more than $1 million in annual rent, the utility confirmed.
But members of a council of advisers to the trust said they never knew about the dumping, and said it appeared to conflict with the trust’s mission as an environmental steward.
Tom Fox, an adviser to the trust, said he noticed the pipes snaking along Pier 98, which the utility leases from the trust, and started inquiring about their purpose.
Mr. Fox, 75, serves on the Hudson River Park Advisory Council, a state-mandated 50-member group established to advise the trust on park planning and operations. He joined the council as a representative of City Club, a longstanding civic organization in New York focusing on land use and development.
“The trust is getting paid rent to allow the pollution of the estuary they were established to protect,” said Mr. Fox, who helped lead the revitalization of the rotting piers that lined Manhattan’s West Side, which has transformed them into a haven for recreation. “It’s incredible to me.”
Con Ed’s wastewater dumping in the city has drawn concern from state regulators in the past. A 2010 consent order from the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation shows that the company settled $5 million in fines for those violations, by agreeing to pay $1 million in fines and to contribute $4 million toward an educational center that the Hudson River Park planned to build. That center, known as the Estuarium, is still in the planning stages, trust officials said.
In the years since that consent order, the department’s records document at least 21 violations of wastewater standards and monitoring requirements at Con Edison’s pier in the park.
This month, lawyers for Mr. Fox and the City Club sent a letter to the trust, Con Edison and the Department of Environmental Conservation, giving notice of plans to sue them within 60 days for alleged violations of the federal Clean Water Act.
In a statement, the trust said Con Ed is responsible for adhering to the terms of its permits on the property.
A spokesman for the utility, Allan Drury, said that Con Edison officials were reviewing the letter from the City Club and Mr. Fox’s lawyers in detail and “have noted numerous inaccuracies,” but did not say what those were.
“Con Edison takes compliance with environmental rules and regulations extremely seriously,” Mr. Drury said.
The D.E.C. said in a statement that it “will continue to ensure compliance” with rules to protect public health and the environment and that its commitment to the ecology of the Hudson is evident in the waters of the estuary.
Con Edison, which distributes electricity, natural gas and steam across the city, started using Pier 98 in 1959 as a dock for barges carrying the oil that fueled a large steam-generating plant on West 59th Street. When the Hudson River Park was established in 1998, Con Edison was grandfathered in as a tenant because the oil delivery was a maritime use of the waterfront that the park’s founders wanted to showcase, Mr. Fox said.
Back then, Mr. Fox said he was a proponent of letting the company continue to occupy Pier 98 out of necessity.
But over the years, those oil deliveries declined as the plant switched to natural gas as its primary fuel. And gas is supplied through a pipeline, not by barge, Mr. Drury, of Con Ed, said.
Still, the company has continued to rely on the pier as the source of millions of gallons of river water that it uses to cool cables connected to a substation on West 49th Street.
Mr. Drury said the company pumps more than four million gallons a day from the Hudson at Pier 98 when its pumps are operating, but he said that has happened an average of just 118 days annually over the last six years.
In 2006, Con Edison sought permission to raise the maximum temperature of water it returned to the river to 104 degrees, from 90, the typical limit in a protected estuary, public records obtained by Mr. Fox’s lawyers show. Mr. Drury said that the water the company discharges in the river had never been limited to 90 degrees but that they had exceeded 90 degrees only six times in the last six years and had not exceeded 100 degrees during that period.
Claire Holmes, a spokeswoman for the trust, said Con Edison’s lease was the subject of public notices, a comment period and a public hearing in 2011 before the trust approved it, and was met with no objections at the time.
That lease lists “water cooling” as one of the approved uses of the pier, but it makes no mention of taking water from the river or dumping it back in. The public notice the trust published in the City Register on March 10, 2011, did not mention “water cooling” as a specific use.
As for the $4 million payment from Con Edison, Ms. Holmes said the trust played no role in negotiating it. She said the money was reserved for “the park’s long-planned Estuarium at Pier 26, an intended public education and research facility.”
Executives of the trust as well as city and state officials regularly celebrate signs of the river’s revival, such as oyster restoration projects, visits from dolphins and, just this month, a Navy SEAL swimming race.
But in an estuary depleted by centuries of human exploitation, localized risks like wastewater outflow can combine unpredictably with global threats like climate change, said George Jackman, a habitat restoration manager with Riverkeeper, an environmental advocacy group.
Mr. Jackman said the dumping of heated wastewater can be harmful to marine life because it decreases the level of dissolved oxygen in the water. Plumes of warm water can also alter the migration patterns of fish in the river, he said.
Con Ed’s outflow can be up to 20 degrees hotter than the river’s summer average and is among many sources of hot industrial wastewater pouring into New York’s waterways, which are already warming amid the climate crisis. Hotter water holds less oxygen and can suffocate aquatic creatures, and warm spots can tempt migrating fish to linger and miss the chance to mate.
“From an ecological perspective, Hudson River Park is an estuarine sanctuary,” Mr. Jackman said. “As a sanctuary, there should not be hot water discharges going into it.”
Other members of the Hudson River Park Advisory Council said the trust has been less than forthcoming.
The advisory council’s chairman, Daniel Miller, said he was perplexed that the trust did not reach out directly to consult the council, which exists under state law to advise on matters like ecology. He and other members of the council, including Mr. Fox, said they were unaware of Con Edison’s wastewater dumping.
Mr. Miller said he now worries about risks to fishers who eat their catch from the park’s piers. He vowed to press the trust to explain the situation and rectify any ecological harm.
“I want to understand,” Mr. Miller said. “They could say it’s like putting a drop in the ocean — well, prove it to me. All I know is I haven’t been in the Hudson since I found out.”
Mr. Miller said he believes the trust, under its new president, Noreen Doyle, will ensure that everything on Pier 98 is safe, clean and in the public interest, so he can return to proselytizing for a healthy river open to everyone.
“If you’ve ever been out in a kayak, on a paddle board, you get on the water and all of a sudden the noises of the city fall away,” he said. “It’s something that every New Yorker should experience.”