Environmental Building Issues Following Hurricane Sandy

NY Building owners are grappling with a number of environmental issues associated with Hurricane Sandy. Following is a summary of the more common issues and regulatory initiatives announced by NYC Department of Buildings and the NY Department of Environmental Conservation (NYSDEC) to expediate cleanup and recovery efforts.

Commercial and Residential Buildings With Flooded Basements/Parking Garages

Commercial or residential buildings in lower Manhattanor other areas where flooding occurred may have had underground parking garages. Gasoline, oil and other automotive fluids may have contaminated the flood water. Other sources of contaminants can include boilers, storage tanks and transformers.

Normally, contaminated water must be treated before it can be discharged into the sewer system. However, the   New York City Department of Environmental Protection announced that is was temporarily waiving its requirements for businesses and homeowners seeking to discharge water from flooded properties into the City’s sewer system

Owners or operators of properties with parking garages that have petroleum-contaminated flood waters have to comply with the NYSDEC spill notification requirements. Click here for the NYSDEC spill guidance manual. The NYSDEC has also indicated that if water contains significant recoverable material, such as fuel oil floating on water that could cause significant further damage to the structure if not removed first or significant environmental damage, all reasonable measures should be taken to collect and properly dispose of the material prior to pumping out the structure. If the water to be removed does not have significant recoverable material, the discharge will not be subject to a State Pollution Discharge Elimination (SPDES) Permit.  NYSDEC has indicate that such pump outs should be directed to the storm sewer whenever possible.

Where a significant spill has occurred, the owner or operator use environmental contractors to handle, treat and dispose of such substances properly prior to discharging to the City sewer system. Contractors who collect and dispose of released petroleum or hazardous substances must comply with all requirements for the handling, treatment and disposal of the collected materials.

Note that buildings that were located in the flood zone A and subject to mandatory evacuation cannot be reoccupied until the NYC Department of Buildings (DOB) has determined that re-occupation is permitted. The DOB will issue a green placard after authorizing re-occupation. Building owners can also obtain a green sticker by issuing a report prepared by a professional engineer that certifies that there is no standing water in the building, it is structurally safe, all required life systems are properly functioning, at least one elevator is working and the building is otherwise safe for occupancy. More information is available at: Getting Back in Your Home

Residential Oil Spills and Flooding–What Homeowners Need to Know

In some cases, the oil is mixed with the water that has flooded your home. If so, do NOT pump the water out into your yard. The oil may spread and contaminate other areas, including nearby wells, water bodies and homes. Oil spills can contaminate indoor air.

If your home is affected by a flood that causes an oil spill in or near your home, you should contact the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (NYSDEC) Spill Hotline immediately at 1-800-457-7362 to report the spill.

Although New York law stipulates that oil tank owners and operators may be legally responsible for costs associated with oil spill cleanups, including relocation costs, State officials are exploring all other avenues to pay for such costs, including FEMA, the federal Oil Pollution Act of 1990, and insurance.

Oil and Water in Basement

 

In some cases, the oil mixes with the water that floods your home. If so, do NOT pump the water out into your yard. The oil may spread and contaminate other areas, including nearby wells, water bodies and homes. The NYSDEC can help coordinate this work.

If a layer of oil is on water in a basement, you can minimize the amount of oil spread on walls and floors and the amount of other damage to your property by removing the oil before pumping the water out.

  • For an oil film, absorbent pads may be sufficient to collect the oil.
  • For a thicker layer of oil, a vacuum truck may be necessary to skim the oil off the water.

Controlling Odors

NYC DOB cautions that oil spills can also contaminate indoor air.

  • Keep all doors, laundry chutes, etc., between the basement and living space closed.
  • Stairways between the basement and the first floor living space that do not have a closable door should be partitioned off with a sheet of plastic.
  • Avoid tracking oil in the home. Do not wear any shoes in the living space that may have been contaminated with oil.
  • Fans can help to control odors. The DIRECTION of fan air flow is critical to keeping odors out of the living space.
  • Exhaust basement areas by BLOWING AIR OUT of basement through a single window, with no other basement windows open.
  • If the only opening to the outdoors is a walkout basement door, then a large fan should be placed in the doorway, blowing out.
  • If possible, block or reduce the open space around fans (shroud) to increase the fan’s effectiveness.
  • Any windows near the basement exhaust air should be kept closed to prevent contaminated air from re-entering the home.
  • Fans used in the living space for occupant comfort (reduce odors) should blow outdoor air inward.
  • Use caution when operating central heating or central air conditioning systems, as these could further distribute odors and possibly contaminate system components.

Furnaces and Boilers

Oil-fired furnaces or boilers should not be started, until they have been checked by a service technician. Combustion processes using fossil fuel generate exhaust gases including carbon monoxide which can be deadly and must be vented. If a furnace or boiler is damaged, gases may be released in your home. Be sure all tank vents are clear. Be sure all flue vents are clear so gases exhaust freely. When basement exhaust fans are operating, the potential for back drafting should be evaluated.

Drinking Water Wells

Drinking water from wells contaminated by petroleum will often have an odor. If you think this is the case, do not drink the water and notify the NYSDEC and/or NYSDOH.

Potential Health Effects-

Petroleum

Most of the information on the health effects of petroleum products in humans is based on inhalation exposure to petroleum product vapors. Long-term exposure to petroleum product vapors should be minimized to the extent practical. If petroleum odors are present, measures to reduce long-term exposures should be considered

  • Exposure to high levels of petroleum products can cause health effects, primarily on the nervous and respiratory systems.
  • People who inhaled elevated air levels of fuel oil vapors for short periods of time had nausea, increased blood pressure, eye irritation, headaches, light-headedness, and poor coordination.
  • Longer term exposure to elevated levels of fuel oil vapors can cause similar effects on the nervous and respiratory systems and may also affect the blood, liver and kidneys.
  • Petroleum products in contact with the skin may cause irritation and blistering in some people.
  • The elderly, the very young, and people with respiratory diseases may be especially sensitive to the effects of inhaling petroleum vapors.

Mold

After a flood, it is important to clean and dry affected items as quickly as possible to prevent mold growth. Click here for more information about mold risks. To minimize mold growth, the NYC Department of Health has the following recommendations:

  • Dry all affected areas and items quickly and thoroughly.
  • Open windows to let in fresh air (if it is not raining).
  • Use fans to help dry out your home and reduce odors. Warning: Do not run any electrical equipment or appliances near standing water.
  • Use a dehumidifier to help dry out enclosed spaces.
  • Bring in professionals to clean and restore your home if there is extensive flood damage (you may not be able to do it all yourself).

Sewage-Contaminated Water

The NYC Department of Health (DOH) cautions that mud left from floodwaters may contain sewage and hazardous chemicals. To prevent infection, the NYC DOB recommends:

  • Keep children, pets and people with compromised immune systems away until the area has been cleaned and disinfected.
  • Throw away any food (including packaged food) that was touched by sewage water.

While it is important to disinfect sewage-contaminated items, the NYC DOH  warns that it is important not contact with the sewage during cleaning. When cleaning water that has come into contact with sewage, DOH recommends taking the following steps:

  • Pre-rinse fabrics with cold water to help prevent staining.
  • Launder with detergent.
  • Dry clean items that cannot be laundered. This process will generally disinfect clothing.
  • Throw out soaked leather shoes, as it may be very difficult to disinfect them.
  • Speak to a professional trained in conservation methods about cleaning valuable papers and photographs

For cleaning rugs and carpets that have been contaminated with sewage, the NYC Department of Health has the following recommendations:

  • sewage-contaminated rugs and carpeting be cleaned?
  • Clean small contaminated areas with detergents and disinfectants.
  • Dry thoroughly and quickly.
  • Hire a professional to clean larger areas.
  • Throw away soaked rug padding.