Dawn Henning dipped her hands into the murky water near the sewer pipe that leads from Soundview Park to the Bronx River. “It’s warm,” she announced.
She held up a small tube filled with dirty-looking brown water. Demetri Vaughn, Govin Baichu, Catherine Perez and Darrell Tanner stopped rowing to look at it.
Henning, the director of the Environmental Jobs Skill Training Program at the non-profit Rocking the Boat, and her team of apprentices have been working together since February to test the river’s water. But this was the first time they were testing for bacteria that can make swimmers sick.
The testing is preparation for a new effort to clean up the river.
Whenever it rains more than a little bit, the city’s sewer plants, including the Hunts Point Wastewater Treatment Plant, are overwhelmed. The water that flows into the plant, and the human waste, gasoline, oil and industrial solvents it carries with it, overflow into 460 pipes like the one Henning’s crew was monitoring, and from there into the city’s waterways.
Now, a coalition of non-profits, backed by state and federal funds, wants to do something about the filth that washes into the river with every storm. They will introduce mussels into the East River at the foot of Farragut Avenue, near the Fulton Fish Market and an abandoned waste transfer station, in the hope of creating a natural system to clean up the water.
”The mussels have a siphon-like pump that moves bacteria or sediment-saturated water through a filter in their body,” explained Paul Mankiewicz, executive director of the City Island-based Gaia Institute, which is in charge of the project. “They feed on these particles and excrete clean water after it moves through their system.”
The tides will carry cleaner water from the East to the Bronx River, said Mankiewicz. Gaia’s ecological engineers will partner with students in Rocking the Boat’s Environmental Job Skills program to install the mussel beds and monitor the water.
The Gaia Mussel Biofiltration Project is the second attempt by Bronx-based organizations to use shellfish to filter polluted waters.
In 2006 and 2007, working with Rocking the Boat, Lehman College and the Bronx River Alliance, the Parks Department’s Natural Resources Group launched the Bronx River Pilot Oyster Restoration project, building two sets of oyster reefs near the mouth of the Bronx River, with mixed results.
“We did not expect that the very small oyster reefs constructed in the Bronx River estuary would, by themselves, result in a measureable change” in water quality, said Marit Larson of the Natural Resources Group in an email response to questions.
While they attracted oysters and other species, the reefs are not sustainable, according to a report published this summer. But Larson said he hopes what was learned about designing the reefs will yield more lasting results in programs around the city.
That’s one of the goals for the Gaia project, along with building on the Bronx River oyster project’s alliance with community organizations. The new plan includes a larger role for Hunts Point youth, who will take part in every stage of the project.
The students will work with the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)’s Milford Labs to build a platform and bed for the mussels, a raft on which to conduct the installation and the anchors that will hold it. They will return to test the impact of the mussels on the polluted water.
The collaboration between Rocking the Boat and Gaia is building real job skills for the highs school students from Hunts Point enrolled in the apprenticeship program, said Adam Green, Rocking the Boat’s executive director. Henning agrees.
“I have watched them grow a lot in less than a year,” she said of the apprentices, who range in age from 16 to 18 years old. “It’s so great to see them understand each test, so that they are comfortable enough to actually teach it.”
Henning says she schools her apprentices to view the Gaia Institute and other partner organizations as clients, the way that they would in the work world.
When they graduate, she says, “No matter what they do, they will probably incorporate the skills they learned and give back to their community.”
Catherine talks excitedly about the apprenticeship program. She has many responsibilities, she says, and her chemistry grade has gone up since she began working at Rocking the Boat.
Asked what she wants to do after she graduates from high school next year, she responded quickly “nursing.” Then she paused. “On second thought, I think I want to go to a school that has a little bit of everything because I just might want to study environmental science.”
A version of this story appears in the November 2010 issue of The Hunts Point Express.