Hallets Cove Still Needs Help

Film on the water at Hallets Cove. Photo by Erik Baard

Film on the water at Hallets Cove. Photo by Erik Baard

HarborLAB is sad to relay the news from CUNY LaGuardia Community College that bacteria counts remain elevated days after the New York City Housing Authority capped open drains that allow sewage to discharge from the Astoria Houses into Hallets Cove. As we noted earlier, there’s no “silver bullet” to raising water quality. Dogs and birds frequently defecate on the beach. HarborLAB photographed paw prints and birds yesterday afternoon. As the NYC Department of Environmental Protection noted, wild birds can’t be effectively managed.

Most parts of the estuary suffer fecal bacteria when rain causes combined sewer channels to overflow. Hallets Cove is blighted even in dry weather. Here’s this month’s observed rainfall.

We as a community must sample the water and sand further (HarborLAB will do this in the colder months), work with NYCDEP and CUNY LaGuardia Community College for regular testing, and institute both basic and innovative mitigation measures. HarborLAB need volunteer samplers to keep a neighborhood watch on Hallets Cove water quality. Please email volunteer@harborlab.org with the subject line, “Hallets Cove.”

Here are questions HarborLAB posed to scientists with the NYC Department of Environmental Protection and CUNY in an email conversation that included Rob Buchanan of the NYC Water Trail Association, which coordinates water sampling throughout the harbor:

1) Could such a prolonged exposure (referring to the NYCHA discharge) translate to a slower decline?
2) Could sand culturing of the bacteria cause it to persist?
3) How might activated effective microorganisms be used to mitigate this situation? Does the DEP have a research program or field implementation in place? Partners from the Permaculture movement are interested in contributing to such an effort.
4) How might we reduce dog defecation on the beach?

As measured by Dr. Sarah Durand’s lab at LaGuardia Community College, indicator bacteria counts were again in the “red zone” with183-197 CFU (colony forming units) per 100 ml of water. Observing over 104 enterococci per 100 ml in salt water indicates that an area is unacceptable for swimming, according the the US Environmental Protection Agency. From the EPA website:

What levels of indicator bacteria are considered acceptable?

Based on studies conducted in the 1980s, EPA has determined that a geometric mean (a measure of an overall average) in samples from recreational waters of less than 126 E. coli per 100 milliliters (ml) of fresh water or 35 enterococci per 100 ml of salt water is acceptable for protection of swimming. The geometric mean should be calculated from more than five samples within the previous 30 days. If a single sample exceeds 235 E. coli per 100 ml in freshwater and 104 enterococci per 100 ml in salt water, EPA recommends that the beach be closed, or posted, for swimming until levels are lower. (Some states, such as New Hampshire and Vermont, recommend that advisories be posted at more protective levels of indicator bacteria.) Because elevated fecal indicator bacteria are often associated with storm water runoff, some agencies post beaches preemptively if rainfall exceeds a set amount, based on site-specific studies.

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Contaminated samples fluoresce under UV light due to a chemical reaction between bacterial excretions and a laboratory agent. Photo by Dr. Sarah Durand, PhD, CUNY LaGuardia Community College.

There are no universal health standards for water quality restrictions on such high-water contact activities as introductory sit-on-top kayaking. Even without falling in, children and adults engage in splashing and have frequent hand-to-mouth and hand-to-eye transference of water. Children and adults do fall in (this is normal, but shouldn’t be risked in fouled water) , and after hours children do wade, swim, make sandcastles at Hallets Cove. It’s reasonable to believe that public boating might encourage children and families to believe the water is acceptable.

Sand is more of a concern than was believed in previous generations. Some useful links:

“Microbial Load from Animal Species at a Recreational Beach”

http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2771205/

“Fecal Bacteria May Be Hiding in Beach Sand”

http://www.care2.com/causes/fecal-bacteria-may-be-hiding-in-beach-sand.html

“Bacteria Swarm Keeps Oceanfront Revelers Out of Water”

http://hamptonroads.com/2014/08/oceanfront-swimming-advisory-completely-lifted

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NYCDEP Discovers a Major Source of Hallets Cove Bacteria!

HarborLAB brought Hunters Point Community Middle School teachers to meet with Socrates Sculpture Park, which administers Hallets Cove under an agreement with NYC Department of Parks and Recreation. HarborLAB also delivered oysters to the neighborhood for the Billion Oyster Project.

HarborLAB brought Hunters Point Community Middle School teachers by kayak to meet with Socrates Sculpture Park, which administers Hallets Cove under an agreement with NYC Department of Parks and Recreation. HarborLAB also delivered oysters to the neighborhood for the Billion Oyster Project.

The NYC Department of Environmental Protection has discovered that one of the NYC Housing Authority buildings on Hallets Point has been discharging untreated sewage into Hallets Cove. About 140 people live in each of the 22 buildings of the Astoria Houses.

The discharge was revealed when the DEP put blue dye into the system and observed the dye entering the cove, a method for which HarborLAB has long lobbied publicly and in private meetings with the NYCDEP. We’ve been the leader among boating groups in lobbying for water quality improvement at Hallets Cove and are very grateful for the NYCDEP’s extra efforts, despite many other obligations, which produced this great new progress. We also thank NYCHA managers for requesting additional testing of its systems, which directly led to this new knowledge.

Further testing, as promised by the NYCDEP, must be done. This first clear identification of a contamination source, however, is a great start. HarborLAB looks forward to providing educational and fun programming at Hallets Cove if water quality there vastly improves.

HarborLAB is also grateful to Howard Hemmings through the NYCHA Green and Gardening program, who took our concerns seriously and relayed them through official channels, and to Astoria Houses Residents Association President Claudia Coger, who first informed us of sewage backups and related health concerns there. We also thank Vanessa Jones-Hall,  also an official with the residents association, for being a steady conduit of communication. HarborLAB volunteer and western Queens environmental leader Lynne Serpe introduced HarborLAB to these community partners. We’re also grateful to former NYCDEP Associate Commissioner for Public Affairs Matthew Mahoney, now with United Water, who first suggested dye testing.

Preliminary findings by NYCDEP investigators, at Mr. Mahoney’s request in 2012, were that dog and bird feces might be the culprit (much was seen), as it often is throughout the country. Water tests further from shore, in greater depths, were less worrying. We must still test for non-human sources of contamination.

In early September, HarborLAB stepped up its efforts to address the Hallets Cove issue by pushing for a meeting with the NYCDEP. We wanted to both put Hallets Cove on the front burner and to rebuild some lost public confidence. Responding to information from HarborLAB, NYCDEP also invited the NYC Water Trail Association, which coordinates regional water sampling by volunteers. At the meeting the NYCDEP agreed to do more testing in partnership with HarborLAB (sampling in the off-season of late autumn through early spring), whenever possible including the CUNY students we serve. Interestingly, the NYCDEP agreed to also sample sand, to determine the species of bacteria, and therefore hosts, an even more exciting educational opportunity. Sand has only recently been more adequately recognized as a growth medium for bacteria and a transport mechanism. Results and program details will be released in the spring.

Today, however, a NYCDEP official released this exciting information to HarborLAB:

Erik – On September 22, DEP personnel responded to a request from management to inspect the sanitary drains in the Astoria Houses. They discovered uncapped drains that were allowing sanitary flow from one of the buildings to enter the storm sewer and discharge into the cove. This was confirmed by means of a dye test. They issued a Commissioner’s Order for the condition to be corrected (within 30 days), and a follow-up inspection will be made to confirm that the work has been done or the Houses will be issued a Notice of Violation to be adjudicated before the Environmental Control Board.

Children playing with the sand at Hallets Cove. Public boating may have encouraged a false sense of safety at the cove, where bacteria counts are high. Photo by HarborLAB volunteer Audrey Dimola.

Children playing with the sand at Hallets Cove. Public boating may have encouraged a false sense of safety at the cove, where bacteria counts are high. Photo by HarborLAB volunteer Audrey Dimola.

HarborLAB has for its existence opted to not provide children’s programming at Hallets Cove because intestinal bacteria counts in its near-shore waters were alarmingly high, even in dry weather. Normally such elevations are caused by combined sewer overflows when it’s raining. Runoffs from streets force engineers to open sewer gates, rather than have fouled water back up into neighborhoods, because rain and toilets go into the same pipes and treatment plants.

HarborLAB initiated weekly water sampling at Hallets Cove as part of the NYC Water Trail Association’s “Citizen Science” program, coordinated by Rob Buchanan. Testing was done at The River Project and LaGuardia Community College, and Riverkeeper provided great public outreach. Bacteria counts were so high and sustained that HarborLAB Founder Erik Baard called for children’s programs to be suspended at Hallets Cove until the problem was identified and addressed. That we saw high bacteria counts in dry weather told us that even occasional favorable results from weekly sampling on Thursdays were meaningless as a guarantor of public safety on weekends because without knowing the source (not rain) we couldn’t know when contamination would spike again. Erik also founded the LIC Community Boathouse, which continued with children’s programming at Hallets Cove. Some doubted the reliability of the sampling and redundantly sampled Hallets Cove (we later withdrew from that activity rather than be wasteful or political), but received similar results.

For years, HarborLAB has lobbied for green infrastructure, dye testing, and other innovative measures at Hallets Cove, which should be a safe destination for educational recreation in a habitat restoration. We still believe that Hallets Cove should have the agreed upon extra testing and should be a showcase for green design and clean-tech innovation.

Waterfowl at Hallets Cove. Photo by Erik Baard.

Waterfowl at Hallets Cove. Photo by Erik Baard.

HarborLAB Intern Presentation on Water Quality

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HarborLAB Environmental Science Intern Erik Yax Garcia of Keuka College made a presentation about water quality sampling and testing to the Hunters Point Community Middle School this week. He demonstrated sampling and explained the need for precise, uniform techniques. Then in the classroom he gave a PowerPoint presentation about the science used to identify water quality problems and solutions.

“For me it was a great experience to work with middle school students and it was very challenging because they would ask for details and deep explanations,” Erik said. He noted that a central question was, “what can we do to have clean water?”

Thanks to a grant from the United Nations Federal Credit Union, Erik takes weekly water samples from Willow Lake and Gantry Plaza State Park for pathogen testing at The River Project. He also picks up Bronx Kill samples taken by Randall’s Island Park Alliance. The lab’s looking for Enterococcus, a kind of bacteria that normally lives in human intestines and can therefore reveal the presence of sewage in a waterway. Rainstorms overwhelm our waste water treatment facilities because household water and street runoffs pour into the same tubes and containments. When that happens, raw sewage is released into the estuary in “combined sewer overflows” (CSOs) to prevent disease-bearing foul waters from backing up into homes and streets.

Erik’s visit melded with the students’ curriculum, said science teacher Mary Mathai. “Erik Yak’s presentation was very informative. This worked very well since in their present unit of study, we have been talking about the enterococcus bacterial levels in the water and about CSO’s,” she said.

Mathai praised how methodical Erik was in his instruction. “He introduced students to the sampling sites in his presentation. He also showed them a video on the CSO’s.  This was followed by a demonstration of how water samples are collected with importance given to preservation of the samples and avoidance of contaminating the samples.Photographs of the enterococcus bacteria were shown to students.  This was very much tied into what students were learning in the classroom, since they were involved in a project based learning activity regarding CSO’s and water quality in New York Harbor.  Students were then taken to the sampling site in Long Island City, where Erik demonstrated the water sample collection.  This was followed by a question and answer session,” she recounted.

 

NYC is behind schedule in fixing the CSO problem, but has spent billions of dollars toward that end in recent years. Traditional engineering solutions are termed “grey infrastructure” because they rely on concrete catch basins and new facilities. Another set of solutions gaining favor now are grouped together as “green infrastructure” because they rely on plants and are sustainable and resilient. Green roofs, bioswales, tree pits, and other planting absorb rainwater into soft earth and up through roots so that less pours into the sewer system.

We’re happy to report that water at Gantry Plaza State Park, where HatbotLAB will offer public paddling this summer, has tested as cleaner than other western Queens sites (Hallets Cove, Anable Basin, Newtown Creek) in this year’s first few weeks. This activity is part of a broader “citizen science” project coordinated by the NYC Water Trail Association, a network of paddling and rowing groups that HarborLAB Founder Erik Baard also initiated and co-founded.
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The students revealed that they have a big stake in improving water quality, Erik said. “I also spoke about HarborLAB’s paddling program and many students seemed to be excited about it!”

HarborLAB Helps Tree Giveaways!

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Forest Hills tree giveaway. Photo by Erik Baard. Tulip tree saplings in the foreground.

Seven HarborLAB volunteers helped make the Forest Hills Tree GIveaway organized by Michael Perlman at the Forest Hills Jewish Center and MacDonald Park on October 13 a great success. Help get more trees planted in western Queens with the Queens Public Library! Both events were coordinated with campaign leaders New York Restoration Project and MillionTreesNYC.

If you’d like to join our team in supporting the western Queens tree giveaway, please email volunteer@harborlab.org with the subject line “Broadway LIbrary Trees.” It also helps to join through our Facebook event. Please indicate if you’d like to work the entire event, or the first shift (noon-2PM) or the second shift (2PM-4PM). The program runs from 1PM-3PM.

This is a MillionTreesNYC event coordinated by New York Restoration Project and its local partner, Queens Library at BroadwayGreening Queens Library. HarborLAB volunteers will follow their directions. Our help was requested by Greening Queens Library.

Here’s the link to register for your tree, or to register a tree for the HarborLAB launch site:  http://treegiveaways.com/qnlib. Here’s a general page for NYRP-coordinated tree giveaways in all five boroughs.

Trees and other plants reduce combined sewage overflows, which raise pathogen levels in local waterways. Let’s do all we can as advocates and greeners to make Hallets Cove and other NYC inlets safer, especially for kids. The ability of these trees to absorb CO2 also reduces ocean acidification, perhaps the world’s greatest looming threat to food supplies and ecosystems.

HarborLAB enjoyed great success helping the Forest Hills tree giveaway. Let’s do it again! This is also a great opportunity for HarborLAB to earn salt-tolerant fruiting trees for our launch! We have shadbush (aka service berry) trees for our launch now, and will add persimmon. Maybe some tulip trees, which were the trunks of choice for the first canoes of this harbor?

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The Forest Hills tree giveaway’s cutest volunteers (Harpo the pooch puts it over the top). Photo by Erik Baard.

Trip Report: Hour Children on Jamaica Bay

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After our paddling and nature walking, a final group shot. The kids felt triumphant that they’d learned so much and kayaked! Photo by Erik Baard.

On  August 22, HarborLAB took 15 kids from Hour Children, with their counselors, on an outing to the Jamaica Bay portion of the Gateway Wildlife Recreation Area. The Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge is a fantastic resource for conservation education, and the site provides a model for wetlands restoration. The children saw osprey, all manner of shells, a burrowing wasp, rosehips in flower and fruit, goldenrod, tent caterpillars, saltwater marshes, and other sights that they’d never witnessed. HarborLAB volunteers loved the kids’ humor, mutual support, and unflagging curiosity.

We started at the Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge visitor and education center, with an orientation provided by National Park Rangers and a lengthy and fun nature walk. The kids were given clipboards and activity sheets, which they completed with seriousness and enthusiasm. These exercises enriched the later paddling, as the kids watched for the animals and plants they’d learned about earlier (a great chance to also discuss the need for nutrients (vitamin C in rosehips, for example) found in nature — real foods). They more deeply understood they were paddling in a natural system, not an oversized swimming pool. Some requested that we return when the diamondback terrapin turtles are laying eggs and when horseshoe crabs come to shore in early summer.

It was a bit windy, so instead of using all eight boats we trailered to the site, we used only two for the kids, plus on guide boat. The kids and staff shared boats staffed by HarborLAB volunteers in the stern. We stayed along the shorelines in an area that enjoyed wind and current shelter, thanks to the old seaplane ramp at Floyd Bennett Field, and remained in water shallow enough to stand (you can see bottom in photos and from the boats). The kids, however, still found it to be an amazing adventure.

HarborLAB now has a trailer, so we’re able to bring kids on field trips with partners who arrange for their transportation. HarborLAB, in consultation with experts in government and academia and in response to tests, has determined that water in western Queens isn’t suitable for children’s programs — Hallets Cove has a steadily high population of sewage bacteria according to tests by The River Project (part of a NYC Water Trail program), indicating an infrastructure problem; Anable Basin is the site of lingering industrial pollution from its former use as a barge slip for an oil refinery, paint factory, and other notorious toxic spillers that forced huge soil remediation efforts; Steinway Creek is similarly blighted by pollution; and the Newtown Creek is an EPA Superfund site with a pollution problem especially east of the Pulaski Bridge. We prefer Pelham Bay Park, which is swimmable at Orchard Beach, and Jamaica Bay, and parts of the Hudson River, Long Island and New Jersey.

Hour Children helps children who were born in prison or whose mothers are incarcerated or rebuilding their lives after incarceration and the errors that brought them into the prison system.

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Ranger Will teaches the kids about osprey nests and hunting methods. Photo by Erik Baard.

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An Hour Children staff person discovers the cutest grasslands critter. Photo by Erik Baard.

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Ranger Will lines the kids of for osprey nest viewings. We also saw them in flight as we walked the nature path. Photo by Erik Baard.

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The kids were given clipboards and assignments for observation, which they undertook with enthusiasm and keen insights. Here they are scanning the canopy. Photo by Erik Baard.

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Goldenrod, a staple of migrating monarch butterflies and also for moths. Photo by Erik Baard.

Goldenrod and rosehips in fruit and bloom.  and rosehip in fruit and bloom. We discussed how all the nutrients we need, like vitamin C, come from nature. It was a great chance to remind kids about the important of real foods. Photo by Erik Baard.

Goldenrod and rosehips in fruit and bloom. and rosehip in fruit and bloom. We discussed how all the nutrients we need, like vitamin C, come from nature. It was a great chance to remind kids about the important of real foods. Photo by Erik Baard.

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The synchronistically vibrating tent caterpillars were a hit with the kids. Maybe a nice preview of Halloween too? Photo by Erik Baard.

Burrowing wasp. The kids were fascinated. Photo by Erik Baard.

Burrowing wasp. The kids were fascinated. Photo by Erik Baard.

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At the far end of our nature walk. One girl took the binoculars and pointed back to the education and visitor center of the Wildlife Refuge and said, “I”m lookiing at my sandwich!” Hint taken. 🙂 Photo by Erik Baard.

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HarborLAB Facilities Manager Patricia Erickson paddles as perimeter keeper and safety escort while Erik Baard and EJ Lee bring the kids paddling in shallow water. Photo by Wesley Miller.

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HarborLAB Operations Manager EJ Lee with her seafaring friends. Photo by HarborLAB Board Member Lisa Belfast, After School and Summer Camp Program Manager for Hour Children.

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EJ Lee and Hour Children kids. Photo by Wesley Miller.

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HarborLAB Founder, Executive Director Erik Baard with Hour Children kids. Photo by Wesley Miller.

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Wesley Miller launches and lands the kayaks. Photo by Lisa Belfast.

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Frolicking in the sand. Photo by Erik Baard.

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Connecting with the water and sand. Photo by Erik Baard.

HarborLAB’s Water Sampling Recommences

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Vial on beam at Newtown Creek launch sampling site. Photo by Emanuel Steier.

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Vial on beam at Newtown Creek launch sampling site. Photo by Emanuel Steier.

Before HarborLAB had a single boat, we initiated weekly “citizen scientist” water sampling in Queens and Randalls Island through the NYC Water Trail Association. The River Project was the first testing center for this program, which is funded in part by the Lily Auchincloss Foundation.  We soon invited the environmental science program at CUNY LaGuardia Community College to participate in the program (HarborLAB’s board includes faculty from the college). This year The River Project is our testing site again, so we must deliver samples in cooler packs to Pier 40 in lower Manhattan (Hudson River at West Houston Street). That’s a great opportunity for our newer volunteers to meet a model estuary education nonprofit, but also a logistical stretch.

Now that HarborLAB has found its sea legs this summer — launched our fleet and held programs across the harbor — we’re recommencing our citizen scientist participation. On August 1, Emmanuel “Manny” Steier biked to our Newtown Creek launch and sampled water about six inches deep. If you’d like to participate, please click onto our Facebook event page here.

This program tests for intestinal bacteria, but sewage is only one risk factor in western Queens. HarborLAB opposes sit-on-top paddling for children in western Queens sites like the Newtown Creek, Anable Basin, and Hallets Cove. This is because bacteria levels are frequently high in these locations — especially Hallets Cove — and also because we struggle with the consequences of industrial pollution from generations past. The Newtown Creek is an Environmental Protection Agency-designated Superfund Site because of sediment contamination and because Standard Oil caused our nation’s largest urban petroleum spill. Anable Basin, a former Standard Oil barge slip, has been described by some as a potential “mini-Newtown Creek” because the adjacent land was so fouled by underground refineries that the Queens West development required massive soil remediation. Indeed, as the Queens Chronicle notes, “steel sheeting had been installed to keep outside pollution from seeping into the site.” That is, the residential site needed to be protected from pollution from Anable Basin.

So while we are huge fans of testing for bacteria, western Queens requires more comprehensive testing as soon as funding allows. Moreover, we must all show restraint despite kids’ welcome eagerness to paddle — lobby hard for cleanups now, and then provide programs when conditions are better. Recreational programs should be truly controlled by the community and subject to the informed judgment of voting parents. No sign-on-the-fly liability waiver can reasonably empower parents to place children in wet-riding sit-on-top kayaks into such highly polluted waters.

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Sample drop box at The River Project. Photo by Emanuel Steier.

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2012 testing at LaGuardia Community College. Photo by Erik Baard.

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2012 testing at LaGuardia Community College. Photo by Erik Baard.

Western Queens Green Resources Fair

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HarborLAB was a hit at the packed Western Queens Green Resources Fair! It was a happy, busy gathering at the Queens Library Broadway branch in Astoria, with lots of kids and fellow environmental groups like Transportation Alternatives, Recycle-a-Bicycle, GrowNYC, Green Guerillas, Bucky Buckaw, Smiling Hog’s Head Ranch urban farm, and neighborhood groups like Green Shores NYC.

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Organizer Lynne Serpe calls out another raffle round.

HarborLAB’s table was staffed by volunteers Danushi Fernando, Erik Baard, and Ricardo Grass. We displayed and explained navigation lights, safety signal strobes, current and tide charts, a children’s life vest, and other materials. We especially emphasized our coming New York City-based children’s programs in safer and cleaners waters than can be found in western Queens (an issue we continue to address — Hallets Cove is physically the most suitable spot but quite frequently has unacceptably high bacteria counts) and autumn’s inauguration of Catskill Watershed Wonder Tours. The latter will let kids experientially learn about their drinking water sources by kayaking and canoeing on the Neversink Reservoir.

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Over the shoulder view of volunteer Danushi Fernando teaching kids about safety lights for navigation and emergency signalling.

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Mental note: Like crows, kids really go for the shiny stuff! 😉 Maybe we’ll raffle lights next year!

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A family at the Transportation Alternative display. We shared a table. Paddlers and pedalers unite!

The entire event was a huge success. One dramatic moment was when a young boy began to choke on his candy. Unfortunately, his mother began slapping his back to help him, which can do more harm than good. Proper first aid education is vital, especially given that choking is a leading cause of death in kids under fives years old. Erik rushed the boy and his mother to the next room because he happened to know that Queens Library event staff member Chiamaka “Chi Chi” Onyejiukwa (who has volunteered for future HarborLAB events) is also a nurse. As luck would have it, interrupting the back slapping allowed the boy to clear his throat just as Chi Chi swung into action. The boy cried for a bit, clearly traumatized, but we were all comforted that a nurse was on hand for an event with kids — these kinds of things can happen anywhere, anytime.