NYC DEP Commissioner Emily Lloyd
There are very few people in New York City more qualified to lead an agency with as extensive a portfolio as the Department of Environmental Protection, and it is safe to say that Emily Lloyd is one of them. Lloyd was appointed by Mayor Bill de Blasio to head the agency in February, her second stint at DEP, after serving as commissioner under former mayor Michael Bloomberg from 2005 to 2009. Lloyd, who also served as commissioner of the Department of Sanitation in the Dinkins administration, spoke with City & State about the new environmental challenges the city is facing, how the agency has changed since her departure, and some of the initiatives around sustainability and infrastructure improvements the new administration is pushing.
The following is an edited transcript.
C&S: This is your second stint as commissioner of DEP. Has the agency changed at all since you last ran it, from 2005 to 2008, from a philosophical or managerial standpoint?
Emily Lloyd: One of the significant advances the department has made during the last six years is in the area of customer service, where we have empowered our 836,000 ratepayers with near real-time information concerning their water consumption. In the past, water meters had to be read by an inspector, which meant visits to each individual property, and often, when the inspector could not gain access, estimated bills. And when the technician finally did gain access to the property and got an actual reading of the water meter, in many cases what would follow was a significant “catch-up” bill. This led to many billing disputes. We have now substantially completed the installation of wireless meter readers throughout the five boroughs that transmit water consumption data to DEP in near real time. This information is also available to our customers via our My DEP Account website, and through a new mobile app. This means that nearly all bills are now based on actual consumption, and we have seen the number of billing disputes drop by 41 percent since 2008. The technology has also allowed us to send alerts to homeowners when we detect a jump in water consumption, which may indicate that there is a leak somewhere on their property. Over the last three years this Leak Notification Program has saved homeowners more than $55 million.
C&S: Are there new environmental challenges you have to deal with this time around as commissioner?
EL: New York is truly a city of islands, and one of our greatest natural resources is our local waterways. In order to open as much of our waterfront as possible for all New Yorkers, we must address the stormwater that can overwhelm our combined sewer system when it rains, impairing water quality in the harbor and its tributaries. Key indicators show that New York Harbor is cleaner today than it has been in more than a century, thanks to the more than $10 billion we have invested over the last decade in traditional infrastructure projects. Still, sewer overflows remain our top harbor water quality challenge. To further reduce these overflows, and continue to improve the health of New York Harbor water, we launched the Green Infrastructure Plan—an innovative way to manage stormwater that is also affordable for New Yorkers. Over the next two decades we will invest $2.4 billion to install thousands of green infrastructure installations, as well as an estimated $2.9 billion in traditional gray infrastructure upgrades, that will significantly reduce sewer overflows. Green infrastructure is more cost-effective, and it provides benefits that traditional gray infrastructure cannot, such as cleaner air and shade to cool the city.
C&S: When you talk to environmental advocates, one of the main problems they say needs to be addressed is the condition of the city’s aging sewage and water infrastructure. Does the agency have a long-term plan to address this concern?
EL: DEP maintains a vast system of infrastructure that extends from the far reaches of the five boroughs to more than 125 miles northwest of the city. Over the last decade, DEP has invested more than $20 billion to upgrade this infrastructure and ensure that it remains in a state of good repair. Over the next four years, DEP is budgeting for more than $2 billion for sewer and water main upgrades alone. Further, Mayor de Blasio has committed an additional $300 million to accelerate these upgrades, which will put us on track to replace the oldest infrastructure over the next 10 years.
C&S: The previous administration started an organic waste to renewable energy initiative. Are there plans to expand this program?
EL: Yes, we are very excited about the potential benefits of this initiative and work is under way to expand the pilot program. Last summer, partnering with the Department of Sanitation and Waste Management, we began injecting between 1.5 and 2 tons of preprocessed organic waste into the digester eggs at the Newtown Creek Wastewater Treatment Plant each day. The digester eggs act like giant stomachs and break down sewage sludge into its most basic elements: carbon dioxide, water and methane gas. We currently reuse approximately 40 percent of the methane to heat the plant and the digester eggs, but the remaining 60 percent is flared into the atmosphere. Partnering with National Grid, we plan to capture that excess methane and purify it into pipeline-quality renewable natural gas. This will be injected into the local natural gas distribution system to heat local homes. We plan to increase the daily load to 50 tons of organic waste each day by next summer and, over the next three years, expand it to 250 tons each day. Together these partnerships have the potential to produce enough natural gas to heat nearly 5,200 New York City homes, reduce annual greenhouse gas emissions by more than 90,000 metric tons—the equivalent of removing nearly 19,000 cars from the road—and help city government reach its goal of reducing municipal greenhouse gas emissions by 30 percent by 2017.