By Joy Bergmann
They feed at night. Squeezing through any available crack or crevice. Sneaking up sewer pipes. Thwarting all mesh covers, caulk and other futile measures taken by the warm-blooded residents of West 84th Street between West End Avenue and Riverside Drive (also known as Edgar Allan Poe Street).
They are the oversized, flesh-welting mosquitoes called Culex pipiens molestus and they have besieged this block since at least 2011, causing sleep deprivation, serious allergic reactions (especially in children and those with weakened immune systems), bites with week-long itching and – perhaps most distressing – endless runaround from city agencies about how to eradicate this extra-hardy pest and potential serious disease vector, residents say. We broke the story about this problem several years ago, as well as the city’s previous spotty efforts to remedy it.
“It’s the number three mosquito-control priority from the city’s point of view, behind Zika and West Nile, but it’s this block’s number one priority,” says Tom, a resident and member of the block’s volunteer Mosquito Squad. “If we could get one official to spend one night in any of our homes, the next morning it would become a city priority.”
Residents say they’ve spent years attempting to work with the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, Department of Environmental Protection and the Department of Transportation to investigate the underground habitat of these mosquitoes – to no avail. “In other infestations, the City flushes the sewers and treats them with larvacide, and that cures it,” says Pauline Galiana, another Mosquito Squad activist. “But on our block and the surrounding area, there are still mosquitoes.”
After consulting with scientists around the world and painstakingly tracking where mosquitoes were most prevalent – and when – the Mosquito Squad pinpointed the area around a mid-block fire hydrant as a prime suspect for the breeding colony’s location. Serendipitously, this past December, Con Ed began tearing up the street to refurbish its gas lines. The Mosquito Squad cheered this as an opportunity to look at what might lurk deep under the pavement. They contacted City agencies to take advantage of the cost-effective excavation moment.
Exasperated, the Mosquito Squad rallied the entire block – all 403 families – to sign a petition asking Mayor de Blasio’s office to order the Department of Environmental Protection to dig under the suspect hydrant, or provide a reason why that could not happen:
The proximity of this colony in the sewer line adjacent to the mid-block hydrant, coupled with incontrovertible evidence of water-induced soil erosion around that hydrant, points to failed hydrant infrastructure as the primary source for this standing water – yet DEP has refused to commit resources to investigate the condition and DOH has refused to exert its authority under Article 151 to compel it to do so.
Technically, residents say, the Department of Health should be citing the city for not adhering to Article 151 of the Health Code, because the mosquitoes’ breeding colony is likely within infrastructure controlled by the city:
- 151.02 Prevention and pest management measures. (a) Properties shall be free of pests. All premises capable of attracting or supporting rodents, insects and other pests shall be kept free from rodents, insects and other pests, and from any conditions conducive to pests. The person in control of such premises shall take such measures as may be necessary to prevent and control the harborage and free movement of rodents, insects or other pests.
In early February, the Mosquito Squad presented the signed petition at an interagency meeting arranged by Assemblymember Linda Rosenthal with DOH, DOT, DEP and a Mayor’s Office representative. To date, the residents have not heard back from the Mayor. Their demand remains: dig the hydrant hole, or tell us why you can’t.
An interagency representative, the DEP and the DOH did not respond to requests for comment.
“For five years now, the residents of West 84th Street have been forced to sleep under netting as a result of a mosquito infestation that has been allowed to persist unabated,” says Assemblymember Rosenthal, who has been advocating, with residents, for City action to eliminate the mosquito population on the block. “The city has been ensnared in its own net of bureaucracy and missed a golden opportunity when Con Edison tore up the block to investigate under the street to find the source of the infestation.”
Mosquito Squad-er Tom refuses to be defeated, “I’m hopeful that what we discover here could be applied to future instances; looking at our hydrant could provide a prototype solution. Why can’t they see that?”