By Armand Echeverry
York College has appointed an engineering firm to supervise and develop the logistics for an estimated $26 million project to prevent water and salt intrusion into the sub-basement of the Academic Core Building caused by the rising water table in Southeast Queens.
Water infiltration has already cost the college at least $10 million in damages to relocate electrical equipment and continues to cause deteriorating conditions like corrosion to the boilers and pipes.
Executive Director of Facilities and Planning James Minto said the company, AECOM, was hired to formulate the design documents that will be scrutinized by the York administration, CUNY administration and Dormitory Authority of the State of New York.
“They have to put together the construction documents for that particular problem,” said Minto. “Once they complete 30 percent and 60 percent of the documents, they send it to us for inspection.”
Once the design documents are completed, the firm will collaborate with different entities to implement their final schematics. At 100 percent completion, Minto said that AECOM will send the design documents to their respective subcontractors, whether it’s electrical, mechanical, structural or geothermal firms, and provide their input.
The need for the repairs stems from decades of water infiltration that began when southeast Queens became the last neighborhood in New York City to be connected to the Croton Water Supply system around 1996.
Prior to that water was supplied to the area by the Jamaica Water Supply Company, which pumped water directly from the aquifer which lies under parts of Brooklyn, Queens and Long Island. Once the company stopped pumping water out, the underground water table began to rise year after year, contributing to flooding that has plagued the area, especially during heavy rains.
Originally officials discussed plans to run pipes from numerous pumping stations to drain off excess water in the aquifer into Jamaica Bay. York Geology Professor Stanley Schleifer and others have been working on solutions to this problem for years. Schleifer said the original idea had many problems.
“That you’d have to be very careful with, because there are houses between here and Jamaica Bay, so if you raise the water there by pumping it out of here, that could create problems,” said Schleifer.
Another problem Schleifer mentioned was the presence of toxic chemicals in the groundwater. A possible solution to that problem was suggested by another York Geology Professor, Ratan Dhar, through a process called phytoremediation. The process involves planting Hybrid Poplar trees which absorb the contaminated water and change it into harmless vapor that is emitted into the atmosphere through the tree leaves.
Dhar said the Hybrid Poplar tree can be seen as a nuisance in that it is aggressive and will take away the nutrients from the other native plants, which will cause them to die. “I’m a geochemist and I don’t necessarily know the behavior of the plants,” said Dhar. “Most of the work I’ve looked at has been done in the laboratory, but never in a local environment. In this kind of urban environment, you have to make sure one species won’t hurt the habitat of another species.”
When water started infiltrating York’s sub-basement several years ago, the quick fix was to run pumps 24-hours a day and discharge the excess into the New York City sewer system. The college was initially fined, then worked out a permitting deal with the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) to run pumps constantly in order to protect mechanical equipment from the infiltrating water.
“It’s 65,000 gallons a day that we are licensed by the DEP and we pay a permit renewal fee for that,” said Minto, adding that the agreement was only struck because York had secured permission from state officials to proceed with the repair work. “Their position is, ‘we’re only going to grant you this upon the understanding that you’re going to fix the problem, so every year we want to know what you’ve done.’”
While nobody really knows why, Minto said that in recent years the water level in the sub-basement has abated from an elevation of three feet above floor level in 2010 to two feet in 2014, and is currently at 14 inches. One theory is that annual rainfall amounts have been down for the past few years.
The project’s anticipated completion date remains unknown, but Minto said that it will likely take more than one year to prevent water intrusion and any other contaminants. A salient issue they’ll encounter is their flexibility to work while students and faculty are in the building, ensuring that there is a viable safety environment for everyone.
“This is going to be a multiyear project and we have to expedite the schedule as needed or make the schedule longer as needed,” said Minto. “We’re not going to stop school for this, so we’re going to have to work while students are in the building while following OSHA and CUNY safety guidelines.”