We spent our first Valentine’s Day together at a Michelin-starred restaurant on one of New York City’s trendiest streets. Our second featured a single rose and authentic Mexican cuisine. Today, Keith and I are spending our third year as Valentines among millions of gallons of raw sewage.
The Newtown Creek Wastewater Treatment Plant, our destination on this most heart-filled of Hallmark holidays, isn’t too far from our neighborhood in Brooklyn, and for the second year running, it’s inviting couples -- and loners with strong stomachs -- to tour its facilities. You’d be surprised how many take them up on the offer; more than 300 people are here this morning. Due to demand, plant officials added a third tour earlier this week. Luckily, I was able to snag a spot.
As Keith and I gather with other curiosity seekers in the packed visitor center, we're greeted by superintendent Jim Pynn. He gives me the distinct impression that while the rest of us are celebrating Valentine’s Day, this is his Super Bowl. And indeed, television cameras roll, photographers click, and two artists from Queens are aglow, beaming with the knowledge their faces might show up on both NY1 and Brooklyn 12 tonight.
Here in Brooklyn, the irony capital of the world, Pynn is mixing romance with 310 million gallons of sewage, which is what his plant processes each day. He warms up the expectant crowd with tales of 19-century women who used parasols to shield themselves from the urine that city residents would heave out their apartment windows. Yes, we’ve come a long way, baby. But after more than 45 minutes of Pynn getting into the nitty gritty details of what happens at the plant, Keith and I are ready for some action.
A few couples hold hands while we walk along a chainlink fence to the plant’s eight digester “eggs,” but I'm not feeling it. I linger back, lost in thought: Is that girl wearing thigh-highs for the tour, I wonder, or is she going somewhere else afterwards? I’m also peeved we won't be seeing the plant’s settlement tanks, where treatment workers sift out litter, cigarette butts, grease, toilet paper, and tampons. Keith, a stickler for punctuality, is anxious to catch up to the group. “We are going to lose them!” he says, annoyed when I stop to take a picture. So I take another picture, and then another just for spite.
Things aren’t going well.
But it is nothing a trip to the top of 140-foot digester eggs can’t fix. The almost 360-degree views of the city, the Sanitation Department, and a graveyard are spectacular, if not particularly romantic.
It was Keith’s and my first time … at an anaerobic digester. We peep into the egg from above. Within the tank, 3 million gallons of sludge churned as bacteria feasted, breaking it down and producing methane gas. “We’ve added a lot of odor control here,” says our tour guide Diane Hamerman. From where I stand, they didn’t add enough. Keith sniffs and looks my way. “Was that you?” he jokes. “No,” I reply, knowing full well from Pynn’s PowerPoint that all of my waste goes to the Red Hook facility, one of 13 other wastewater treatment plants in the city, not here to Newtown.
After treatment, the wastewater -- like a born-again virgin -- leaves its sullied past behind and returns to the East River anew. Meanwhile, the biosolids in the digesters head to the Bronx, where the Hunt’s Point plant sucks out any remaining moisture. The next stop? A landfill in West Virginia. One day, Hamerman hopes, the process will improve enough that they can use the biosolid for fertilizer.
After almost two hours at the plant, most of my questions about what happens after I flush my toilet are answered. But one remains; if Keith sticks around -- after a Valentine’s Day like this -- how do I top it next year? A trip to a landfill, say … in West Virginia?"
Images: Melissa Mahony
Hat tip: Rachel Nuwer