Serving the Borough of Queens and Beyond: Gregory O’Mullan Protecting the Fluid Assets of New York

June 21, 2013 | Queens College

America’s finest colleges and universities all have one thing in common: Besides providing an excellent education to their students, they are an invaluable resource to the families and businesses in their communities, offering many kinds of assistance and conducting research that benefits everyone.

At Queens College, service is in our DNA; our motto since we first opened our doors in October 1937 has been Discimus ut Serviamus (We learn so that we may serve). Gregory O’Mullan, Tarry Hum, and Yvette Caro  are just three examples of how our faculty are a strong force in the borough of Queens and beyond, from monitoring the health of the city’s waterways to counseling children and adults in psychological need.

FLUSHING, N.Y., June 21, 2013 — No longer scorned as an industrial cesspool, the Hudson River beckons to kayakers and canoeists, swimmers and fishers, waders with kids and dogs tagging along. More parks now line its banks. Above Poughkeepsie, it’s a source of  drinking water. Yet how can recreationists be sure the water won’t make them sick? Like the salty tides that enrich its ecosystem and the sewage overflows that pollute it, this estuary’s water quality ebbs and flows.

Gregory O’Mullan, a Queens College environmental microbiologist, was shocked by “the lack of  easily accessible information” about the Hudson’s water quality—when and where it’s safe. So beginning as a postdoc in 2006, before joining QC two years later, he immersed himself in getting to the source. O’Mullan partnered with colleagues at Columbia University and Riverkeeper—the prototype of  now more than 200 clean water watchdogs internationally. On Riverkeeper’s patrol boat, over five years and frequent expeditions, he took more than 2,000 water samples at 75 sites (from Battery Park to just north of  Albany) to test and analyze. The resulting data he and others collected—Riverkeeper’s How Is the Water?: 2006–2010—tracked sewage indicators in this tidal estuary.

Partnering between academic institutions and NGOs is “exactly the kind of science we should be doing—feeding back into New Yorkers’ daily lives,” O’Mullan says. “I became more and more interested in having the science that I do make a difference. It was especially important to be doing that in my own area.”

An assistant professor of  earth and environmental sciences, O’Mullan studies how bacteria, harmful and helpful, affect aquatic environments. “Eyes and ears don’t necessarily do a good job informing us about microbial contamination,” he notes. “The locations where you think everything must be fine can be the places that are the most contaminated. There’s no substitute for data.”

Now that the Hudson is much cleaner, “There are lots of  reasons to be optimistic, but we’re not quite there yet,” O’Mullan believes. “Thinking back on why the water quality has improved so dramatically,” he relates, “the 14 state-of-the-art waste water treatment plants do a tremendous job. It’s a great story of  capital investment leading to improvements in the environment.”

At least that’s true for most of  the year. New York City uses a combined sewer/stormwater drainage system to transport waste water to treatment plants. However, on the 50 or so downpour days each year, “all that extra rainwater that enters into the storm drains on the side of  the road exceeds the capacity of  the sewer pipes,” O’Mullan explains, “and it’s released at 400 to 500 overflow points into the river, 27 to 30 billion gallons a year of  untreated sewage. That’s why an average measurement doesn’t tell the whole story.” Overflows also degrade the semi-enclosed Flushing Bay, though its water quality has improved, he has found.

O’Mullan’s overflowing passion for his research and his user-friendly style of  communicating it are evident as he connects with community groups. “I’m a scientist. I’m collecting data. But how great it is to see that data being put into action,” he emphasizes. In October 2011, at a public hearing for the New York State Senate Environmental Committee, he testified on why enacting Sewage Right to Know legislation would be a good idea for the state. Drawing from How Is the Water?,  he stated that “21 percent of  our individual samples from the river failed to meet the EPA single sample guideline for recreational waters. This should be a large source of  concern.”

Not all data can be collected from a boat. “We can’t always be there to do measurements,” O’Mullan notes. Funded by external research grants, he gathers data that can be used to create predictive models for understanding the persistence of  pathogens in sediments. Waders or boat traffic kick up these contaminated particles, degrading the water quality.

O’Mullan’s research doesn’t end at the shoreline; he recently collaborated on research showing that bacteria from contaminated urban waterways can be transported via aerosols into coastal air, creating previously unexplored connections between water quality and air quality. “This raises the potential that water quality may not just be something that people who swim or wade or fish should be concerned about,” O’Mullan notes. “It may be something that people who live along water bodies should be concerned about, too.” It also means that investments in improving water quality may have much broader positive impacts on the quality of our environment and the air in our neighborhoods.

In separate research with colleagues at Columbia, O’Mullan also studies drinking water reserves in below-ground aquifers and what could go wrong if  the federal Department of  Energy proceeds with carbon sequestration. This would involve “taking carbon dioxide from power plants and pumping it below ground to store it there and stop it from being released into the atmosphere,” he explains. “The concern is that there could be a negative impact on drinking water below ground. We are investigating ways to avoid those negative consequences.”

In research and recreation, O’Mullan treasures how the Hudson flows through his life. Boarding Riverkeeper’s wooden boat, seeing the estuary widen at the Palisades, he realizes “It’s a privilege to spend some of  my work days out there on the water. I really enjoy it. There are 8 million people in New York City. I hope many of them are able to enjoy it as well.”

For more about Queens College visit Phyllis Cohen Stevens
Deputy Director of News Services

Maria Matteo
Assistant Director of News Services