A lawsuit filed by former employees of NY Waterway, which operates ferries between New York and New Jersey, claims the company illegally dumped raw sewage, oil, fuel, coolant, and other pollutants into New York harbor and surrounding waters for years.
In response to the lawsuit, NY Waterway denies the allegations. According to a statement by the company’s chairman Armand Pohan, the lawsuit is “totally without merit.”
Spokesperson Patrick Smith said the lawsuit was filed by “disgruntled ex-employees” and noted the decision by the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Newark to not intervene in the case proved the “baseless nature of the claims.”
U.S. Attorney Craig Carpenito declined to intervene in the matter, according to a court document. The decision followed years of investigation by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), beginning in 2016 and wrapping up in 2018.
EPA agents from its criminal division probed the claims, including direct surveillance of NY Waterway vessels, onboard travel to observe illegal discharges, and agents visiting the company’s main corporate facility in New Jersey to interview officials and review records.
After a lengthy investigation, the EPA determined there was not enough evidence to request the U.S. Attorney bring formal charges. The investigation is now closed.
In a recently unsealed complaint filed in the United States District Court of New Jersey, former NY Waterway fuelers and overnight mechanics Rafi Khatchikian and Ivan Torres allege that the company knowingly and intentionally forced them to discharge hundreds of gallons of liquid pollutants, batteries, and aluminum shavings into the Hudson River, East River, Upper New York Bay, Lower New York Bay, and Raritan Bay.
The complaint alleges that New York Waterway, under contract to the City of New York and Goldman Sachs, dismissed the concerns and complaints of the plaintiffs in order to cut costs, boost profits, and remain on schedule.
The company allegedly failed to maintain equipment designed to safely dispose of the pollutants and regularly told the plaintiffs to “get the job done” and lie about the illegal practices if asked, according to the suit. Both were allegedly threatened with termination if they took their concerns to management. Khatchikian was fired for doing so, the complaint alleges.
“These brave defenders of the public interest are admitting their own wrongdoing in order to stop NY Waterway from further polluting the harbor and other local commercial and recreational waters,” said Michael D. Fitzgerald, counsel for plaintiffs. “They lost their jobs because of NY Waterway’s illegal practices then put the interests of 15 million residents over their own futures. They are true environmental heroes.”
According to the complaint, videos and photographs taken by the former employees show workers dumping sewage through a hose thrown over the side of ferries and illegally dumping it into the Hudson River from the holding tanks.
In one video, dye provided by the EPA to track the pollution is shown billowing across the river as employees scramble to disperse the evidence by stopping and starting engines at the dock. The ferry depicted in the video was taken out of service and its GPS device turned off before being moved to a New York-based dock, the lawsuit alleges.
The complaint alleges that when the EPA returned a few weeks later, the bathrooms on ferries under investigation were either locked or removed entirely, in an attempt to show that no sewage could have been dumped in the river. The removal of the bathrooms allegedly took place just days after NY Waterway received notice of Clean Water Act violations.
“NY Waterway cynically put out-of-order signs on bathrooms and even removed toilets once they learned they were being watched,” Fitzgerald said.
The complaint further claims that NY Waterway’s ferries engaged in the act of “running open,” an illegal practice in which ferries discharge their holding tanks while sailing between destinations. NY Waterway allegedly delayed repairs of equipment and cooling systems until it knew federal inspectors were due, causing hundreds and hundreds of gallons of toxic waste to pollute the river and surrounding waters daily.
According to the lawsuit, NY Waterway and affiliated companies allegedly improperly received approximately $9.6 million from federal and state agencies since 2015, including from the Department of Transportation, Federal Highway Administration, Federal Maritime Administration, Federal Emergency Management Agency, and New Jersey Transit. NY Waterway allegedly unlawfully certified it was in compliance with all environmental laws in order to receive the money despite knowingly and illegally discharging pollutants every day, the complaint alleges.
“The dumping of raw sewage into New York Harbor by Waterway is outrageous,” said Jeff Tittel, Director of the New Jersey Sierra Club. “The fact that it has gone on for years is downright shameful.”
Tittel said what’s worse is that the EPA looked into the claims but didn’t hold the company accountable or make them stop. He said the lack of enforcement by the EPA will lead to more pollution and more violations.
The whistleblowers coming forward took an act of courage, according to Tittel. He said it is important that people come forward when they see wrongdoing, even if it means that they may lose their jobs.
“I have been involved with the whistleblowers and their legal team, and I would like to thank them for holding NY Waterway accountable,” said Tittel. “NY Waterway is the same company that has been trying to build a huge ferry maintenance facility in the middle of the Hoboken Greenway. This company is all about greed and taking care of themselves over public health and the environment.”
Tittel also questioned where the state Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) was during all of this. He said that since New Jersey has partial jurisdiction over the Hudson River, the DEP is supposed to be doing water monitoring and sending out boats to make sure that no violations are taking place.
Tittel called for an investigation into why the EPA didn’t enforce and why New Jersey didn’t act. He said that polluters cannot be allowed to get away with illegally dumping in the state for years without anything being done to stop them.
He continued: “By failing to enforce, the EPA sent a message to every company and agency in the region that they can get away with dumping on the Hudson River. When they don’t enforce, it encourages more violations, more accidents, and more spills.”
For updates on this and other stories, check www.hudsonreporter.com and follow us on Twitter @hudson_reporter. Daniel Israel can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.