Sewage Treatment Plant’s Sightseeing and Sustainability Tour


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On Saturday, May 19, the Visitor Center at Newtown Creek will premiere an interactive art installation, “Down in the Ground” (D.I.G.) at 7 p.m. The dance performance and opening reception is free and open to the public, and the new installation runs through May 31. 

By E.Q. Lam
May 16, 2012

NEW YORK — In a far corner of Brooklyn, there lies a very busy sewage treatment plant. People come to see the “eggs” but learn so much more, such as where certain scenes of Angelina Jolie’s blockbuster movie Salt were shot.

“She was here for seven days,” says Jim Pynn, superintendent of the Newtown Creek Wastewater Treatment Plant. “Very nice lady.”

Newtown Creek is one of 14 wastewater treatment plants throughout the five boroughs of New York City, and the Visitor Center at Newtown Creek, which opened two years ago, gives monthly tours of the facility to the public. The plant features eight giant digester eggs which process wastewater, and visitors on the tour get to take an elevator to the top for one of the best panoramic views of the Manhattan skyline from Brooklyn. Check out the popular live performance artists Blue Man Group giving a tour of the facility.

The city’s wastewater treatment system provides more than 1 billion gallons of water each day to 9 million people, and can handle even more in anticipated growth of the city’s population. The story of New York City’s water is told very well by Pynn, who has been at the plant for nearly 20 years and personally leads each tour—one of his favorite aspects of his job, he says.

“I want to make sure you people understand what happens when you flush,” says Pynn, who—besides welcoming famous actors to the plant—has shown around United Nations officials and mayors from cities throughout China.

During the tours, he gets the opportunity to dispel mistaken beliefs that the plant produces drinking water (it produces non-potable but clean water) or that the plant operates on funding from taxes (its revenue comes from water meter bills). Or that raw sewage goes directly to oceans, or that it stinks.

“Raw sewage doesn’t smell,” Pynn says, explaining the smell comes from sewage that is stuck and starts to decompose.

Pynn, who has been with the NYC Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) for nearly 40 years, speaks very personally about the plant: “The material that you may throw out on the street comes to me in droves.”

One can imagine it when he says that the first rain of the fall brings billions of leaves that inundate the city’s sewage pipes, requiring “all hands on deck shoveling the leaves out.”

“What we’re trying to do is replicate what nature does in twenty-one days,” Pynn says regarding the manmade eco-cycle, which functions like a fish tank with a balance of microorganism colonies and air.

Besides learning about the city’s water and wastewater systems, visitors on the tour pick up trivia knowledge, such as which parts of the facility have been used to shoot scenes for movies and TV shows.

Pynn tells guests on the tour—who on this particular day numbered about 100—what happened last Valentine’s Day, which coincided with the monthly tour date. The tour was such a popular sweethearts’ activity that a second tour had to be added to the roster, and the Hershey Company donated 4,000 chocolate Kisses for visitors.

He draws people into the fascinating history dating back to the 1800s when the city had no idea that people’s health correlated to the water supply. He also tells about how the city planned for the anticipated health risks in welcoming foreigners for the world’s fairs hosted by the city in 1939 and 1964, and how the city handled waste from millions of visitors to the historically popular tourist destination, Coney Island.

“Coney Island was to the rest of the world what Disney World is today,” Pynn says of the beachside site of three amusement parks.

He relates the practical stuff, too—the difference between grease and grit, screenings and sludge, that the wastewater comprises—as well as information that can be applied by individuals to help maintain an environmentally-safe city water system. Pynn shows slides of signs at designated outfall points, which permits the DEP to rely on the public to call in any observations of sewage escaping untreated.

The DEP encourages people to keep the water supply pollution free by suggesting, for example, use of biodegradable soap to wash cars or environmentally safe fertilizer.

“As we over-nitrogenize our grasses to get them greener,” Pynn explains, “… if it runs off the land, it’s impossible to treat.”

And Pynn points out that leftover medicine flushed down the toilet or even those that pass through one’s body can challenge the safety of New York water.

“New York City is a very unique system,” Pynn says. It is a combined system: from each individual household’s small pipes and city street drainage openings, used water and whatever is mixed in it travels through increasingly larger pipes to one pipeline. The peaks and valleys of sewage volume in a 24-hour city run from the predictable morning periods when most people start their day to 3 a.m., when bars close for the night.

Besides the education center, the facility also offers a nearby waterfront Nature Walk. Water-saving tips for the kitchen, bathroom, laundry, and outdoors also are available on the DEP’s website.

Along with the day tours which typically run an hour long, the center also offers special night tours for spectacular city-lights views of Manhattan at the top of the eggs.

The Visitor Center is open to the public on Fridays and Saturdays. Visitors must sign-up for monthly tours in advance. For more information on upcoming events, see the NYC DEP’s Newtown Creek Visitor Center website. The Center is located at 329 Greenpoint Avenue in Brooklyn.

© 2012 SCGH, LLC. All rights reserved.

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