MOUNT VERNON, Westchester County (WABC) -- The vice chair of the White House Environmental Justice Advisory Council was in New York Monday to tour waste sites in Mount Vernon amid what officials are calling an unprecedented sewage crisis.
Mount Vernon Mayor Shawyn Patterson-Howard says the problems have been exacerbated by climate-fueled extreme weather events.
Vice Chair Catherine Coleman Flowers, who authored "Waste: One Woman's Fight Against America's Dirty Secret" tour the sites along with Mount Vernon senior leadership and other key stakeholders.
Mount Vernon has over 100 miles of sewer lines in varying states of disrepair, and federal and state consent decrees have cited the system for polluting waterways.
Flowers and her team met with Mayor Patterson-Howard and her staff to explore resources to fix the crumbling infrastructure, which will cost approximately $150 million to repair.
Mount Vernon's entire annual budget is only $122 million.
"I never thought that I would see what is akin to third-world sanitation conditions north of the Mason-Dixon line," Flowers said. "I am calling upon our friends in Washington DC in the Biden Administration to come and help resolve this sewer problem. I've seen the Army Corps of Engineers rebuild sanitary systems in Afghanistan and other places, and I want to know why can't they do that in Mount Vernon? I've been to New York many times and was shocked to see that 20 minutes away from New York City, third-world conditions are impacting this city. These environmental justice issues with partners from the federal and state government will help bring resources needed to help Mount Vernon. I plan to use my voice and speak up during my Congressional testimony about what I saw here today."
The mayor hopes to convince federal and state officials to provide not only manpower, but also financing for a comprehensive overhaul of a system plagued with problems.
"We have been pushing for and hearing about this infrastructure bill, a trillion dollars of funding," Patterson-Howard said. "Mount Vernon needs their share of this."
Flowers, a leader in the environmental justice movement who uses her platform to shed light on aging sewers systems in communities of color across the United States, was accompanied by Natural Resource Defense Council Acting Director Mitch Bernard, BlocPower CEO Donnel Baird, Columbia University professor and engineer Kartrik Chandran, and senior leadership from the city of Mount Vernon.
"It's shocking to me to see what I've seen this morning, and to learn what I have learned this morning," Bernard said. "This is an environmental issue. It is a human health issue."
The tour began with testimony from city residents impacted by raw sewage back filling into their basements, as entire neighborhoods are supported by the fragile sewage pumps.
"It smells like a sewer," Mount Vernon resident Linda McNeil said. "My grandchildren call this the poop house."
It's easy to understand the nickname when you learn about McNeil's 21-year nightmare. There's been dozens of floods, countless sewage backups in her basement, and tens of thousand of dollars in new sump pumps and costly repairs.
She has the city's sewer response team on speed dial.
"My master bath is directly over the basement bathroom," she said. "So the fumes, I literally had to stay at my daughter's house for weeks on end because I couldn't take the fumes."
McNeil's two-decade horror story, which she has carefully documented with a hefty collection of photographs, is one of many in the city of more than 100,000 people.
They then visited MS4 outfalls along the Hutchinson River, followed by a remote demonstration of the SL-RAT truck currently mapping Mount Vernon's entire sewer system.
"They're old clay pipes that are breaking," Mount Vernon DPW Commissioner Damani Bush said. "They come in three-foot sections. Over time, with the influx of usage, the wear and tear on it, they break down."
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