Shit in the Water

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Although 1 WTC and the ruined pilings of a once-great pier may seem, at first, the most salient features of the image, a keen observer, noting the disturbance of the water beneath the cantilevered stretch of the esplanade, might be led to ask: “I know what sharks do when there’s blood in the water, but what do they do when there’s shit?”

It’s raining today in New York, and so felt fitting to finally write about sewage. According to the New York City Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), “heavy rainfall” can lead to “combined sewer overflows” (or CSOs) owing to the fact that New York, like many City’s with aging 19th century infrastructure, has an, in large part, combined sewer system in which the same pipes carry both stormwater runoff and sewage. The nonprofit Riverkeeper offers some further statistics on CSO events in NYC (“[more] than 27 billion gallons of raw sewage and polluted stormwater discharge out of 460 combined [CSOs]… each year”); the content of those CSOs (“raw sewage from homes, businesses and industries, as well as stormwater runoff and all the debris and chemicals that wash off the street or are poured in storm drains”); and some potential solutions to the CSO problem (green streets, street trees, green roofs, and rain barrels). Readers who are interested in keeping abreast of when and where CSO events occur in NYC should consider signing up for Notify NYC alerts.

Still, thankfully, the vast majority of New York City’s sewage flows to the City’s 14 wastewater treatment plants which, together, treat more than 1 billion gallons of wastewater each day. Readers who live in New York, I encourage you to look over the list of treatment plants to see with how many of them you are familiar. Most of us know the Newtown Creek Wastewater Treatment Plant with its rudely nicknamed anaerobic digester eggs which, alone, process just shy of 20% of all of the City’s wastewater. I can say that, personally, of the plants, I can place the Hunt’s Point, North River (atop which sits Riverbank State Park), Owl’s Head (the smell from which wafts towards the increasingly hip Brooklyn Army Terminal at times), Rockaway (which we pass on our way from the ferry terminal to the beach), and Ward’s Island (which sits not so far from Robert Moses old headquarters), which is to say, I’m not personally aware of the locations of more than half of New York City’s wastewater treatment facilities beyond just having glanced at those locations on Google Maps.

That should give you an idea of my expertise. If you’re longing for a true deep dive on the historical development of New York’s remarkable sewer system – how the City went from dumping increasingly staggering volumes of untreated sewage directly into its surrounding water bodies (through stories of oysters grown fat on human feces, the accompanying spread of oyster-born typhoid, and the final closure of New York Harbor’s legendary oyster beds) to dumping now, still staggering volumes of untreated sewage into those water bodies, but alongside far more staggering volumes of treated wastewater – I can recommend Ted Steinberg’s Gotham Unbound and the work and tours of Steve Duncan as a few helpful jumping off points.

For readers interested in the technical aspects of New York’s wastewater treatment process, I can do no better than the DEP itself; this description shouldn’t take you more than 10 minutes to read and offers an accessible description of the steps that lead from untreated “influent” to treated “effluent” and “sludge cakes,” which are “managed by outside contractors who take it to landfills for disposal or further process it to recover its value as a nutrient-rich soil amendment.”

I imagine many readers will be heartened to learn that:

“As part of the mayor’s plan for OneNYC, we have a goal of zero-landfilling of biosolids by 2030. This means we will develop a program to reuse all biosolids beneficially. Some of the further processing technologies that can be used to qualify biosolids for reuse include composting, drying, and gasification or pyrolysis. New York City produces about 1,400 tons/day of biosolids or about 60 truckloads! Such a large quantity spread out over our 6 dewatering facilities means that our beneficial use program will need to be diverse and include multiple types of further treatment.”

Readers may also appreciate that as part of NYC’s Open Data initiative, a data set containing the names of all the establishments which were “in significant noncompliance with applicable pretreatment standards and other requirements” is available on the DEP website.

Given that my time is somewhat limited at the moment, and too much typing makes my body ache, I’ll briefly narrow the focus: Every one of New York’s 14 wastewater treatment plants lies in the floodplain. Each one of them sits right next to a water body. Couple that fact with the unfortunate reality that our largely combined sewer system means that rising sea levels will threaten to eventually swamp the outflow points, and – post-Sandy – the stage is set for potentially grim scenarios in which combined sewage outflows become combined sewage inflows, and untreated wastewater mixed with rainwater begins to flood city streets at the same time that wastewater treatment facilities themselves are inundated by storm surge events.

The Modern Infrastructure section of the current iteration of OneNYC points to a number of piecemeal projects and solutions being undertaken and implemented across the five boroughs, but the larger fact remains unchanged, that our political leadership, like most of the population, remains in deep, passive denial about the fundamentally-shifted realities of the world in which we are now living.

What do we do if rising seas and more frequent and extreme storms begin to eat away at the fundamental systems and infrastructures upon which we all rely? Managed retreat remains a dirty term for now, and based on the East Side Coastal Resiliency debacle currently unfolding on the Lower East Side, sea walls are likely, increasingly, to be the call of the day, at least in Lower Manhattan, but setting aside both retreat and fortification (flight or fight), no real progress can be made until our political conversation radically shifts in the direction of biogeophysical fact. The water will almost certainly rise significantly by century’s end – probably sooner – and owing to rising tides and the myriad other disruptions already unfolding, our water, sewer, electrical, food, and solid waste infrastructures will all be menaced. Piecemeal solutions will fail, as will (idiotic) mega-projects like the massive barrier the Army Corps is considering building across the mouth of Lower New York Harbor from Breezy Point to Sandy Hook.

Solutions which will not fail are harder to conjure, but a first step towards imagining them is coming to climate acceptance and a second is embracing the urgent need for climate action, about both of which topics I’ll be writing more in the coming months.

Note: As with waste transfer station siting, the siting of wastewater treatment facilities is an environmental, racial, and social justice issue. Likewise, the massive ecological destruction wrought by our biological and chemical effluents merits far more attention than I was able to give it above. As Alon Levy points out, regarding transit, in his piece The Future Is Not Retro, evolving away from 20th century norms does not mean moving back towards those of the 19th; while it is instructive to look back to the closed-loop character of waste management in the early days of the settler-colonial project in New York (when carts laden with human and animal feces delivered this valuable fertilizer to surrounding farmlands), we cannot expect the future – even allowing for buzzword-y circular economics – to look much like that past.

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