NYC Water Tunnel No. 3: Interviews

By Piyawut Koomsiripithuck, Shih Liao, Gwendolyn Stegall, and Mayrah Udvardi

In an attempt to diversify the notion of the ‘expert’ in our discussion of labor, public opinion, and environmental considerations of Water Tunnel No. 3, we sought out people whose opinions might vary from the the standard narrative of the NYC DEP. We interviewed a spokesperson for the Laborers' Local Union No. 147, a member of Manhattan Community Board 6, and an engineer with Sherwood Design Engineers. These three perspectives further complicated our understanding of the project and put into question many of the “facts” we took for granted.

Our phone interview with Richard T. Fitzsimmons, Sergeant-at-Arms of the Sandhogs Local 147 - the union responsible for all tunnel digging in NYC since 1883 - was eye-opening. You can find a full transcript of our interview with Richard here. Richard spoke with candor about his experience in the union and his fears for the future of New York’s water supply. Our 90-minute phone call also revealed a backstory of his office; men - presumably union workers - interrupted our conversation frequently with friendly, mostly muffled banter. The casual nature with which business and media relations seemed to be conducted was fitting with our findings in our literature review. Richard’s vocal appreciation for the DEP was unexpected, although not entirely surprising. According to him, the DEP has worked harder than most agencies to ensure workers’ safety and fair pay. While 24 people have died since construction on the tunnel began in 1973, better tunnel boring machines (TBMs) make the jobsite safer today than ever before.

Richard described the technical differences between Water Tunnel No. 1+2 and No. 3’s engineering and also confirmed where No. 3’s valve stations are. Interestingly, the DEP tries to only place valve chamber stations and shafts on park land to avoid disrupting people. The first is the main chamber up at the start of the tunnel in the Bronx, the second is well hidden at 72nd Street in Central Park, the third is more conspicuous on Roosevelt Island, and the new one is slated to be constructed at the old Bulova Watch Factory in Queens. The project is currently stalled because the DEP is addressing a major leak in an aqueduct near Highland. Richard emphasized the importance of considering not just the water tunnels, but the entire water system from aquifer to tap.

Most interesting was Richard’s commitment to environmental protection. He believes that the best way to ensure NYC’s water security, in addition to job-promoting tunnel digging projects, is upstate conservation. He described how important the DEP’s purchasing of land around their aquifers and policing of local point-source pollution is. He also openly discussed the pitfalls of free-market capitalism and the importance of maintaining funding for agencies like the EPA and DEP. “I’m anti-fracking even though it would help my industry. I see what’s happening all over the country, in Flint. It could happen here too.” The thought of a future water-poor New York contrasted darkly to this mostly upbeat and celebratory conversation about the water tunnel and the positive impact it’s having.

Public Opinion:
We identified Manhattan Community Board 6 (CB6) as a valuable lense through which to address public opinion because they had two shafts put in in their area, both of which caused controversy when they arrived - it is the only community board that has a page on their website devoted to the project, though the last post about the project was from 2015. Our contact at CB6 prefered that I not use their name or post publically about our interview. They said the organization usually doesn't talk to journalists, but they made an exception for us because this is a student project.

We also interviewed Jason Loiselle from Sherwood Design Engineers. His company worked on a landscape restoration that wraps around the Croton Water Filtration Plant to minimize park space reduction. We were particularly interested in the environmental justice implications of Water Tunnel No. 3. Jason talked about how large infrastructure development could provide enumerable other co-benefits like education and park space. He also mentioned that while environmental impact might not be the main pressure on the public side, it is still important to try to cooperate with city agencies to provide more open educational purpose to the public. It has the chance to create a positive impact on the public opinion.

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