Where it all goes

Sometimes, when people find out about my professional work with sewage systems, they ask, “Oh, yeah, where does everything go when it goes down the drain? If you live in New York City, there’s a good chance it all goes here:

to the Newtown Creek water pollution control plant run by the NYC Department of Environmental Protection.  This is one of the largest wastewater treatment plants in the world, and I was there for a meeting this morning.  Afterwards, I took a stroll around the perimeter to get a view of the beautiful digesters, shown at the head of this post, that turn the residue of the treatment process into methane gas and inert sludge.  The shape of the tanks is quite innovative, and the DEP is very proud of them.  [In the aerial view, the digesters are on the right, under construction.]  At night, they are illuminated in their waterfront setting with blue searchlights.  These treatment plants are like ‘negative’ farms:  they use natural processes, aided by technology, to break down, rather than grow up, organic matter.

The public investment in facilities like these is enormous, and largely unremarked.  This plant is being enlarged and upgraded to the tune of about one billion dollars.  Lot’s of money is spent on sewage and drinking water, although not always wisely.

In the USA, the Clean Water Act of the 1960s was the impetus for a vast program of construction all across the nation to clean up urban waterways.  When I first came to NYC in college, it was not quite finished:  the entire west side of Manhattan dumped its raw sewage into the Hudson River, and on a  warm summer night, it stank!  A new treatment plant went on line there in the 1980s, and now all of NYC wastewater is treated, except when it’s raining (but that’s a story for another post.)

Consider this:  The waters around the city, in the Hudson and the East River, are easily cleaner than they have been in 100 years, despite the greatly increased population in the surrounding region.  In those bygone days of yore, when handsome lads would cool off in the summer with a dive off the East River docks, more likely than not they were dunking themselves in a pretty filthy brew.  Now it’s clean, although some people have a hard time believing it.

I came across this rather forlorn remnant of local national pride during my walk around the plant.

10 Responses to Where it all goes

  1. zeusiswatching says:

    I love seeing technology like this in action. Both the sludge and the methane have obvious uses.

    The next thing we need to work on is urban scale water harvesting. Having been a small scale farmer, I used simple water harvesting techniques to catch and use rainwater. I’d love to see large cities like New York and LA develop this type of technology next. It just can’t be that hard.

  2. lichanos says:

    The methane is used in many plants to generate electricity to run the plant machinery. The sludge poses problems: it would be a good soil conditioner, but it often has too much heavy metal residue in it.

  3. Ducky's here says:

    The East River and the Charles are now both safe for swimming? Whoda thunk it.

  4. Man of Roma says:

    This post is great. I let myself tripping into such powerful technology only you guys out there are capable of creating in such big dimensions.

    This is one of the largest wastewater treatment plants in the world … the digesters are on the right … ‘negative’ farms: they … break down, rather than grow up, organic matter. [Now] the waters around the city, in the Hudson and the East River, are easily cleaner than they have been in 100 years …


    [earlier] likely than not [the handsome lads] were dunking themselves in a pretty filthy brew

    The witches again? Man, it is an obsession …

  5. troutsky says:

    Does the treatment remove chemicals ingested by humans, birth control and other drugs?

    Does the storm drain system go here as well? that is expensive.

  6. Man of Roma says:

    Do I have an obsession with witches?

    Hard for me to say from here. You once said you had.

  7. lichanos says:


    Nope…I think you have me confused with some other pagan.

  8. lichanos says:


    Not sure about drugs ingested, but my guess is that most are degraded over time and through the metabolic processes, if not destroyed outright by the heat generated in the sludge digesters if they remain in the residue. Still, there is a problem with residual pollution remaining in the effluent and the sludge residue.

    With the sludge, heavy metals are a special problem, and the city has been trying to head it off at the source by controlling the discharge of the pollutants into the sewers in the first place. I believe that this has had a lot of success.

    Regarding the storm drains, ah…BIG problem!! In older cities, there is usually one drain system that carries both stormwater and sanitary sewage: this is called a Combined System. When it rains, the volume of water in the pipes can increase ten-fold, but the plants have an upper capacity of two-times the usual dry-weather flow. The rest overflows – CSOs, combined sewer overflows. VERY difficult, but the impact varies. In some places, it’s transient, but if the area is not well flushed by tides, it can be awful. And, if beaches are nearby, they will be closed temporarily, a big nuisance in the summer.

  9. Man of Roma says:

    True. I know many pagans, now that I think of it.

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