The Other Side of Water:

Instead of involving community, New York City’s went to greenwashing to hide an Environmental Injustice and Poor Planning

by Anis Shili

Site Description:

By 1938, the Department of Public Works considers channeling all waste from Manhattan’s West Side to one treatment plant on Wards Island in the East River. Due to the cost ineffectiveness of the idea, The DPW decided to build the plant on an unused land between West 70th-72nd Streets along the Hudson River. The growth of population and the Pressure from the middle and upper white class has pushed The DPW to consider moving the building location to West 137th-145th streets in a closed meeting. Despite some complaints, The DPW started the construction in 1972. Since its construction, The plant presented an environmental hazard for the residents who suffered the stinky smell and unhealthy air quality. Many organizations were created as well as many complaints pushed the department to take some minors repairs and improvements but none of them were good enough to provide a healthy environment to the residents

Author Biography:

I am currently a senior in Computer science with a mobile and web minor in NJIT as well as a front-end developer Co-op at IBM. I am a first-generation immigrant who strives for a better life for me and my family. I consider that “Man is the son of his environment” as Ibn Khaldoun stated. I have tried to choose the best place I can afford to live in. Unfortunately, Immigrant and minorities can easily witness environmental injustice as they not as strong as middle or upper white class. I have chosen the North River Sewage plant as a clear and obvious injustice that can a class can witness as being weaker and less capable to defend its environment as prompt as other more powerful classes.


Cars are stopped on the westside highway, blowing their Horns, wondering if it is another accident holding up the traffic from flowing smoothly. That morning of January 17th, 1988, after 7 a.m. “The Sewage Seven”[1] got arrested. Peggy Shepard, Chuck Sutton, state senator David Paterson, council member Hilton Clark, and three others got arrested for holding up traffic on the westside highway and holding signs such as “Our Community is dying”. Who are the Sewage Seven, what do they want, and why they chose to block the highway that day?

January 17, 1988, happened to be the third Monday of the month. It was Luther King Jr Day, a symbol of the Civil Movement in the states. Peggy Shepard and her crew were blocking the highway to protest the injustice that the residents of West Harlem encountered by the building of the North River Water Treatment Plant around west 137th street to west 145th street where most of the residents were of African and Latin American origin. The city of New York decided to create the water treatment plant away from the white community around 72nd st and chose the new area as the community in the new area consists an easier and weaker opposition to its decision.

The North River Plant was Problematic even before its creation as it has revealed clear signs of discrimination against powerless West Harlem residents. After being in that beautiful area along the Hudson River, a new monster is created. The north river water plant polluted the air and the water. Many residents complained about the environmental injustice they face and the complaints escalated to protests. After the arrest on the blocking off the highway, Peggy and Chuck formed a non-profit organization named West Harlem Environmental Action (WE ACT). The main goal of the organization is to fight for powerless communities and ensure the people of color and low income to be efficient and involved in shaping their future.[2] The incident revealed to the city the true strength of the community in Harlem and swiftly acted to calm the anger and frustration of the residents and some activists. Indeed, it has started to pour money to improve the quality of water and air around the plant. The many improvements done to the planet were not sufficient and did not give back the area its natural beauty. In 1993, The city came with a plan to build a state park over the North River Wastewater Treatment Plant. The image of having a park over a sewage plant itself is a smart way of hiding an environmental discrimination by building a park.

Through this essay, I want to demonstrate that the park the city has built was not just a simple action but it is a plan the shut the voices of growing opposition at that time and hide its poor planning. I also want to emphasizes the fact of including the community in the major upgrades and the planning of the building of the water plant close to a populated area can be the best and cheapest way to have such a successful major project.

The essay starts by giving a brief history of the causes of the creation of the North River Water Plant in its actual location. The essay will reveal the environmental danger and injustice that the residents of West Harlem, New York were facing caused by the water waste plant. In addition, the essay shows how opposition to such a decision can make a difference as it resulted in various repairs and improvements as well as the birth of WE ACT.  Ultimately, the essay reveals and uncovers a new form of greenwashing that authorities used to defend its benefits even when the price is the health of the residents.

The city’s unary decision:

After the first half of the twentieth century, New York City’s population doubled to almost 7 million to a point where the city started to think about creating a water treatment plant to handle Manhattan’s waste as it was the busiest borough in NYC.[3] in 1938, The Department of Public Works (DPW) thought about channeling Manhattan’s waste to Wards Island located right at the middle of the east river. The cost was huge and let the department o think about an open area around 70th – 72nd street as an alternative. That neighborhood was mainly populated by middle and upper-class white residents. As soon as the residents heard about the plan, they acted swiftly and used their political power in a way that pushed Robert Moses, The New York City’s parks commissioner, to deny the DPW request for the land as it clashes with the city development plans. Behind closed doors, the city Planning Commission suggested the area between 137th st-145th st in west Harlem as an alternative to DPW’s request.[4] The city rapidly pushed the regulatory process to construct the facility.

The building of The North River Water-waste Treatment Plant started in 1983 and began operations in 1986 with a cost close to $1,1 billion “making it the largest non-military public works project in the United States in the past fifty years” and most of the money were spent from the federal government.[5] Since its first Operation, Millions of wastewater are being processed and the plant became one of the busiest plants in New York. The amount of waste was so huge that made it operating at full capacity just five years since its building.[6] this shows poor planning as the North River Sewage Plant resulted in dirty effluent being charged into the river and bad odors affecting the whole area.

Consequences of the decision:

Residents of West Harlem, mainly African and Latin American, complained about the smell that covered the area and even reached Washington Heights (over 30 blocks north of the plant). Residents complained that the smoke burned their eyes and caused coughing. It even affected their daily life to a point where most of the residents with air-conditioning, did not open their windows and tolerated the heat of the summer over the sticky smell. West Harlem residents had to leave their neighborhood to breathe fresh clean air.

The rising number of deaths related to respiratory complications and diseases was an alert to the city. Unfortunately, the city’s response showed carelessness. “Officials offer theory upon theory” to find the cause of the explain the source of the smell. Some explained that the smell comes from the raw sewage and some explained that the smell comes from the treatment itself. After all that spending, the sewage is not sophisticated enough to process water in a safe matter.[7] The city started to pour money to stop the complaints. Despite The city admitting flows in the installation of the plant after 5 years of complaints that initiated in 1986, the city showed a lack of real attention to the problem as the city’s Environmental protection Commissioner isn’t sure that the new repairs would guarantee any permanent fixes.[8] The city invested $52 million to fix the flaws. In 1992, the city added another $100 million to enclose the problem. Unfortunately, the problem persisted and the $1.3 million plant was just another problem for the residents and the city.

Peggy Shepard on the left with Chuck Sutton holding signs to protest the North River Waterwaste Treatment Plant


From the day of its operations, complaints started. The complaints took a new form with the creation of WE ACT as an environmental organization that fights for the residents of Harlem. Peggy M. Shepard, The Washington, DC girl who was raised in New Jersey, moved to New York first as a reporter in 1972 and then became a speechwriter in the New York Division of Housing. Peggy was very involved in her community and she had a main role in the creation of WE ACT. Her arrest did not stop her from fighting for the residents of West Harlem against the environmental injustice of the DPW. WE ACT and the residents did not stop their complaints and four years after the arrest on westside highway, WE ACT sued the city of New York demanding stringent odor control measurement and serious improvements in the plant’s design and capacity as well as compensating the injuries and losses caused by the plant.


Picture of the Riverbank State Park topping the North River Wastewater Treatment Plant


In 1993, On his last day of office, mayor David Dinkins’s administration agreed to pay $1.1 million to WE ACT in settlement funds.[9]  Although the settlement seems like a real shift in the city, unfortunately, if we compare the amount the city wasted compared to the amount rewarded to people affected by the water-waste treatment plant, we still can see that the city favors its benefits and tried hard to shut the opposing voices but giving them just a little to get busy with and feel winners when they are still victims but this time a victim of a lie.

This is not the last lie, a bigger one came right after the alleged win that WE ACT thought achieved. In the same year, residents of West Harlem got another reward. They were gifted an unusual park. A park like no other park. A state-of-the-art 28 Acres of Roof and a Place to Play in West Harlem. The Riverbank State Park was built atop the North River Wastewater Treatment Plant. What a slam in the face![10]

After John Lindsay became a mayor of New York City, Lindsay tried to ease the frustration  of the West Harlem Community about the plant so he assigned Philip Johnson as an architect to reconstruct the area in a way that pleases the residents of the area and shift focus and complaints from the North River Treatment Plant dissatisfaction to an acceptance of the new healthier and entertaining place.[11]

Since its planning phase and not to fall in the same mistake twice, the residents of West Harlem tried hard to be involved in the new Park. This new park was named Riverbank State Park and it was opened in 1993. This is all became an inevitable reality to the political and civic community leaders. They realized that they have accepted the city plan and accepted to be healthy and have an outdoor healthy life on top of 125 million US gallons of daily waste-water.

In all its history, The North River Wastewater Treatment Plant presented The New York City monopoly of decision. The city deliberately did not involve West Harlem residents as they didn’t have the power that middle and upper white class resident of midtown west to first have access to the information and second to be able to put pressure on the city to stop and be involved in any decision that relates and affect their daily life. The city did not care about the or rather did not feel the pressure of the weak African American community to have the need to involve them only when the city started to feel a legal pressure, and even with the legal pressure, the city did as little as it can to include the citizens. The involvement of the citizens was in a sham way and it is a form of what is called greenwashing.

Greenwashing is a process of giving a false impression providing misleading impressions or information about a product and make it more environmentally friendly than what it really is. Even the term greenwashing is a fairly new one, the idea itself is not new and people and the government used it for many decades. New York City’s decision to build Riverbank Park was in its essence a form of greenwashing. After the numerous complaints about the deterioration of the old healthy West Harlem, the city wanted to give a new fake healthy and green look to the area. After being the “Sewage Chernobyl”[12], The city wants to cover all its planning mistakes and create a new healthy area by covering and wrapping the sewage with a green cover.


From hiding its decisions and projects to poor planning to greenwashing, the city could have solved all the troubles and saved millions of dollars by simply involving the residents instead of its unary decisions. The North River Wastewater Treatment Plant serves as a great example of discriminating against a certain group in favor of other groups. with the expansion of the white population and the possibility of white community inhibit West Harlem, will the city act differently or even move the plants somewhere else? Or will operate the sewage plant in a different way or lower capacity. If it does so, it will be still continuing its old careless behavior and if it acts differently, it will be clearly discriminating against the African and Latin American community of West Harlem. Either way, the city did put itself in a big dilemma.


[1] Smith Sandy, “WE ACT for Environmental Justice – 17th Anniversary Report” 2005, 4-5

[2] ”Empowering Communities to Power Change”,

[3] The Encyclopedia of New York City, ed. Kenneth T. Jackson (Yale 1995, ISBN 0-300-05536-6), p. 923, citing “U.S. Department of Commerce, Bureau of the Census, Census of Population 1960 (vol. 1, part A, table 28), 1970, 1980, 1990”. After annexing part of the Bronx in 1874, the population of the then-New York City was 1,206,299 in 1880 and 1,515,301 in 1890.

[4] Mikhaila Richards. “ A Neighborhood Fights Back , building the North river Wastewater Treatment Plant in West Harlem” 2017.

[5] Vernice D. Miller. “Planning, Power and Politics: A Case Study of the Land Use and Siting History of the North River Water Pollution Control Plant”. (Volume 21 | Number 3 , 1994) 713-714

[6] Allan R.Gold. “Sewage Plant Near Capacity After 5 Years.” The New York Times, Apr 2, 1991.

[7] Joyce Purnick. “The Editorial Notebook; The Foul Mystery of North River” Dec. 6, 1989

[8] Allan R.Gold. “Flaws May Cost Millions At Harlem Sewage.” The New York Times, Aug 14, 1991.

[9] Mikhaila Richards. “ A Neighborhood Fights Back , building the North river Wastewater Treatment Plant in West Harlem” 2017.

[10]   HOLLOWAY, LYNETTE. 1992. “28 Acres of Roof and a Place to Play in West Harlem; Riverbank State Park Is Under Construction Atop North River Sewage Treatment Plant.” The New York Times, September 1, 1992, Late Edition (East Coast) edition.

[11] Vernice D. Miller. “Planning, Power and Politics: A Case Study of the Land Use and Siting History of the North River Water Pollution Control Plant”. (Volume 21 | Number 3 , 1994) 715-716

[12] Sherri Day. 2000. “HARLEM: The Unending Travails of Life Near a ‘Sewage Chernobyl.’” New York Times (1923-Current File), October 8, 2000.

Primary Sources:


New York Beacon (Brooklyn, New York, N.Y.). 2000. “Peggy M. Shepard: Securing Environmental Justice”, December 20, 2000.

Peggy M.Shepard. is very involved in the opposition of the building of the North River Wastewater Treatment Plant and she was even arrested after she and six others blocked traffic on the westside highway in front of the plant. the incident and the turmoil that the new plant caused have encouraged Peggy to create WE ACT, “West Harlem Environmental Action” , as a formal way to oppose these environmental injustices.


HOLLOWAY, LYNETTE. 1992. “28 Acres of Roof and a Place to Play in West Harlem; Riverbank State Park Is Under Construction Atop North River Sewage Treatment Plant.” The New York Times, September 1, 1992, Late Edition (East Coast) edition.

This source present an ironic way of presenting the solution that the city of New York have gifted its residents after building the North River Wastewater Treatment Plant. I have chosen this article as a way to demonstrate the acceptance of the residents with everything the city decides.

Secondary Sources:


Allan R.Gold. “Flaws May Cost Millions At Harlem Sewage.” The New York Times, Aug 14, 1991.

The article describes how The city admitting flows in the installation of the plant after 5 years of complaints that were initiated in 1986. It clearly emphasizes the lack of real attention carelessness towards the problem as the city’s Environmental Protection Commissioner isn’t even sure that the fixing planned would guarantee any permanent solution to the problem.


The New York Times. 1995. “Harlem Sewage Plant Can’t Handle Trump’s Riverside South: Letter”, February 16, 1995, Late Edition (East Coast) edition

The article shows clearly the weakness and slowness of any legal action against the power of the trump housing empire as the north east river sewage treatment plant is operating above its permit capacity due to the westside housing construction.

Image Analysis:

Data Analysis:

Oral Interviews:

Video Story:

The video is an overview of the environmental hazard and injustice the North River Water Plant presents.


North River Water Plant