Where it all goes

January 13, 2010

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.



Drainage on my mind…

December 10, 2008

  welles_sewer

The other night, I caught the tail end of a special on the The History Channel called “The Sewers of London.”  Wow, that must have drawn quite an audience…but I was watching.  It described the horrors of cholera and typhus in London before the scientists had sorted out the causes of these scourges.  The miasma theory (infection borne by odor) which was wrong, but which nevertheless motivated great public works that led to spectacular gains in public health, dominated the medical establishment.

The Great Stink of the the mid-19th century in London arose from raw sewage dumped right into the Thames, the source of the city’s drinking water.  The theory of water-borne disease was not accepted, and Pasteur’s germ theory was not developed yet.  Get the stink away and the cholera will leave – it was common sense!

bazelgetteEnter Mr. Bazelgette, heroic engineer of the Victorian Age.  (Alas, we  have these giants  no more!)   He built a huge gravity drainage system that directed the city’s sanitary waste to two large pumping stations, from which it was lifted into giant holding reservoirs.  (They must have been a frightful sight when full!)  When the tide on the Thames was going out to sea, the reservoirs were emptied into the river, and the sewage was carried downstream, away from the city.  “The solution to pollution is dilution,” as they say in the engineering world.  Today, the beautiful Thames Embankment, imitated the world over, including in New York City’s Battery Park developments, sits on top of the massive gravity sewers designed by Mr. B.

londondrain1 thames_embankment

Around the same time, Doctor Snow made his famous map, dear to epidemiologists and cartographers, that showed the incidence of cholera in a neighborhood he studied.  He inferred correctly that the cases were all linked to the snow_mapsource of their drinking water, a local pump.  To test his notion, he dared to remove the handle (take note, Mr. Dylan) and the frequency of cholera deaths in the area dropped suddenly.  Case closed!  Disease is carried by…something…in the water, not by smell!

Which brings us to Alida Valli, the woman at the head of this post, the love interest of Harry Lyme (Orson Welles) who meets his ignominious end in the sewers of post-war Vienna in Carol Reed’s film The Third Man. I heard about this film from my mother, at a very young, formative age. Was I, perhaps, conditioned by what Pynchon calls the “Mother Conspiracy, ” just as poor Slothrop was? Is that why I now make my living fiddling with drainage systems and subterranean infrastructure? Well, leaving aside my hydraulic-psychoanalytics(and Freud was, I recall, very fond of hydraulic metaphors) it’s a great film.  And if you think I’m the only one who spins strange associations off of this film, read this appreciation of Ms. Valli.

I recently saw Valli in another film, Hitchcock’s The Paradine Case, a not-so-great film in which she plays a wonderful femme fatale. Yep, she did it, she get’s hanged.  The film’s location shot of the court struck me as it showed the corner blasted away from a bombing raid – it was shot in 1947.

And on the subject of sewers and culture, check out:

  • He Walked by Night - Richard Basehart kills and is killed in this Los Angels noir featuring a climax in the storm sewers
  • V by Thomas Pynchon – Benny Profane searches for the albino alligator rumored to lurk within the New York system
  • Need I say it, Les Miserables, which includes an entire chapter devoted to the history and importance of the Paris sewers, and includes some deprecatory words on the modern ones
  • Various memoirs of the Warsaw Ghetto – hiding and escaping in sewers was common
  • Adolf Loos’ emphasis on plumbing as the standard by which civilizations are to be judged
  • Gibson’s novel featuring The Stink, The Difference Engine

There are other items I’m sure…send me your finds!

valli


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