I-Team: Despite Zika Risk, Stagnant Water Festers in Abandoned NYC Pools

Scan Astoria Park with your eyes and it is hard to miss the high dive pool. The towering diving platforms have been closed to the public for years, but the pool beneath never stopped capturing rainwater. 

On a recent Thursday, you could see a faded basketball floating in the cloudy water, and knee-high weeds growing out of the pool. 

"It’s definitely a mosquito breeding ground,” said neighbor Ian Eastwick, as he walked by the abandoned pool. "That’s where they hang out. That’s where they come from." 

"I think they need to clean it up, man," added Les Fernandez, as he finished his workout in the park. "This is a popular park." 

Meanwhile, the city is urging residents to eliminate standing water in their own backyards. 

In April, Mayor de Blasio announced a $21 million campaign to fight Zika. The strategy includes public service announcements, travel advisories and warnings to get rid of stagnant water that might be collecting in old tires, birdbaths and pools. 

Despite those warnings, the NYC Department of Parks and Recreation suggested the Astoria Park high dive pool does not represent a mosquito risk. 

"The diving pool is maintained regularly by NYC Parks staff, including weeding, removing debris, and spraying for insects," Meghan Lalor, a Parks spokeswoman, wrote in an email to the I-Team. "However, due to the nature of the deep pool, this work is difficult and requires specialized equipment." 

Less than 24 hours after the I-Team inquired about swampy conditions at the high dive pool, the Parks Department treated the water with three pounds of larvicide. The Parks Department has not disclosed when the diving pool was treated prior to the I-Team's inquiry, despite numerous questions. 

According to the Centers for Disease Control, there have been no cases of the Zika virus linked to mosquitoes native to the United States mainland. However, there have been mosquito-borne transmissions of Zika reported in Puerto Rico, the US Virgin Islands and American Samoa. 

Health experts fear North American mosquito populations could theoretically become infected with Zika if a mosquito native to the U.S. bites a returning traveler who recently contracted the virus in Latin America. 

That is why American cities and towns are striving so hard to control local mosquito populations in advance of the summer. 

Another way New York City tries to eliminate mosquito breeding grounds is by issuing violations and fines to private homeowners and businesses that allow stagnant water to collect on their properties. Many of the violations result from neighbors complaining about abandoned pools. 

Staten Island’s Craig Raucher says he has been calling 311 for four years to complain about the brown water collecting in the backyard pool of 739 Katan Avenue, an abandoned property just a few doors from his house. 

"There have been mosquitoes there forever,” Raucher said. “I’m sure that if that were near Gracie Mansion that would be fixed immediately." 

The city has issued eight violations worth nearly $10,000 to the last known owner of 739 Katan Avenue. No one has paid. 

Carolina Rodriguez, a spokeswoman for the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, said the city’s exterminators have treated the pool at 739 Katan Avenue with larvicide four times in the last two years, including as recently as last week. 

Raucher said the mosquito treatments are a temporary fix and the health violations have no teeth. He wants the abandoned pool to be drained. 

"If the city has said in its own words that the Zika virus is a very serious situation and on the other hand they see situations that promulgate that type of virus and they don’t fix it, on the one hand they are saying it is important and on the other they are ignoring it," Raucher said. 

Not far from Raucher’s home, the mayor of Woodbridge, New Jersey, has taken aggressive action to eliminate abandoned pools. Early this month, he ordered two pools on a list of abandoned property be drained and demolished. 

"We’d hope other towns follow our lead," said Mayor John McCormack (D-Woodbridge). "If the next town over doesn’t do anything and a block away there’s a pool in a different town, it still endangers our residents." 

The I-Team examined data from the New York City Environmental Control Board and found health inspectors have been issuing fewer violations for standing water, even as Zika, West Nile Virus, and other mosquito-borne illnesses have become household concerns. According to published ECB violations, health inspectors issued 826 summonses for standing water in 2012. 

Last year, health inspectors issued 525 summonses, which marks a 36 percent drop. 

Rodriguez suggested the drop in enforcement can be attributed to the city’s successful war on mosquitoes. 

"Between 2012 and 2015, we received fewer complaints of standing water,” Rodriguez wrote in an email to the I-Team. "We attribute this decline in part to our educational and outreach efforts urging New Yorkers to eliminate standing water on their property to help eliminate mosquito breeding sites."

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