The Newtown Pentacle

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Archive for April 3rd, 2012

strange corridors

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– photo by Mitch Waxman

Staying current on the story of Newtown Creek involves attending a lot of meetings. Some are private, most public. Often, they came rapid fire and it feels as if every other evening is consumed. One of the many community groups which hold such gatherings is the Newtown Creek Monitoring Committee. I’m a guest at this particular gathering, and as such an attempt is made to remain silent and observe the proceedings.

The group engages in a dialogue with representatives of the NYC DEP, who are offered input from community representatives regarding issues that might arise from the presence of the Newtown Creek Waste Water Treatment Plant.

One of these issues, as you would imagine, is the spread of odors emanating from the vast facility.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

The DEP contract with a company, called “Odor Science and Engineering”, who specialize in the detection and discovery as well as elimination of point sources for malodorous gases. Luckily, an inspection of the plant by the company was scheduled for the following week and Christine Holowacz (DEP community liaison) arranged for a few of us to accompany the effort.

Pictured above is Kate Zidar (Newtown Creek Alliance Executive Director) and Laura Hoffman (Newtown Creek Monitoring Committee), who with myself, showed up bright and early to be fitted with hard hats and vests.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

We were introduced to Dr. Ned Ostojic Ph.D and P.E., Odor Science & Engineering’s Vice President & Director of Engineering.

A tall and dignified fellow, Dr. Ostojic spoke with a barely detectable yet pleasant European accent and was extremely hospitable to us as he described his function at the plant. An engineer, he was tasked with not only finding the sources of odor but describing practical solutions to eliminate them.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

Dr. Ostojic produced a device whose purpose was to combat a human perception bias called environmental adaptation. To describe it simply, the human mind filters out environmental stimuli to create a sense of “normalcy”. If you live on a noisy street, your brain filters out most of that noise and you become inured to the environmental background level. The brain functions in the same way with smell, something I know to be accurate. When I encounter the smell of the Newtown Creek, or of any sewer plant, no reaction is displayed while others openly gag.

My brain has become adapted to Newtown Creek.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

He asked us not to make fun of the devices name, which was a “Nasal Ranger”.

It allows calibrated measurement of smell based on a concentrating chamber which lies behind an aperture dial. The dial allows ever smaller samples to be inhaled into the device, which can then be graded on a subjective and numerical scale. Good science, don’t forget, is all about measurement and objective recording. The Nasal Ranger removes personal interpretation from data records, as its operators are trained according to an empirical standard.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

We three accompanied Dr. Ostojic on his walk through of the plant, and his duty this day was the inspection of the settling tanks which allow sewer borne debris to drop out, or be be skimmed from, the wastewater flow before it enters those famous digester eggs which distinguish this plant and betray its location on the skyline of New York City.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

Several times has your humble narrator been allowed to enter and record the grounds of this facility, found along the Newtown Creek, but this side of things has always been off limits because of extreme danger.

One of the curious facts related to me that day was that , were one of us to slip and fall into the highly aerated water and sewage in the tanks surrounding us, the liquid would not display much buoyancy. Because of all the dissolved gas in the liquid, neither would it slow your fall much and you would plummet- as if through air- some two stories to a hard cement floor.

In no uncertain terms, I was told, you would die. This was confirmed by one of my union buddies, who works at another plant in the DEP system.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

This is somewhere around midway through the sewage treatment process, after the larger bits of solute and debris carried in the flow have been removed. When the raw flow hits the plant, it carries wood and boxes and all sorts of garbage and debris with it. This gross matter is removed mechanically at another part of the plant. Next up is grit, which can be sand, soil, or just plain old coffee grounds. The rate of speed at which the wastewater races through the system makes even such innocuous contaminants hazardous to the works, and is removed by more specialized machines housed in separate “grit buildings”.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

Of course, nothing is perfect, and the job of these settling tanks is to skim off any floatable material which has evaded prior filtration. Fats, oils, and a surprising number of cigarette butts, tampon applicators, condoms, and other floatable material is seen at the collection side of the tanks. As they are open to the air, this is one of the spots which Dr. Ostojic regularly inspects and pays a great deal of attention to. He was constantly checking his readings and observations against the prevailing winds.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

Dr. Ostojic wasn’t alone for the inspection and was working with the fellow pictured above, who introduced himself as Gary Grumley. Mr. Grumley was working with a different detection device than Dr. Ostojic, a hydrogen sulfide detector.

Hydrogen sulfide, of course, is a colorless gas which is infamous for the fecund smell of decay commonly referred to as “rotten eggs”. Such emissions are responsible for a lot of community complaints, and are unfortunately part of the complex chemistry which accompanies the disposition of sewage.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

The device itself seemed sturdy, and Mr. Grumley arranged it neatly for photographing. He had begun work several hours prior to our arrival and began transmitting his findings and observations to Dr. Ostojic.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

A graphic map of the plant with its multitude of buildings, service areas, and zones was on Dr. Ostojic’s clipboard.

A running tally of various areas where an unexpected or intense odor was encountered had been kept, and each occurrence was registered with a numerical value or rating. We didn’t encounter anything truly horrible btw.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

An example was offered later in the day by the DEP’s Superintendent of the Plant, Jim Pynn, of Dr. Ostojic’s contributions.

It seems that a problem had developed around the hatches leading to an underground tank, cylindrical in shape, which had been located in a rectangular shaped shaft. An onerous odor was regularly emerging from the shaft, and Dr. Ostojic was called in. He determined that as wind passed over it, a venturi was forming in the space between the cylinder and the right angled walls which suctioned the tainted air from it’s enclosure and into the open air.

Dr. Ostojic’s simple solution, adding chevrons to the sides of the tank which would abort the formation of a vortex, saved the plant a costly redesign of the affected area. The smell stayed where it was meant to, as well.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

Dr. Ostojic was gracious and quite patient with us. A loving nickname for him, which is offered with wide smiles and a wink by those who work at the plant, is “Ned the Nose”.

Usually, when one is invited to attend a meeting at an industrial site in Greenpoint, Brooklyn- with someone named Ned the Nose- the encounter seldom turns out to be as pleasant as this was.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

Newtown Pentacle, we go these places so you don’t have to.


Your humble narrator will be narrating humbly at this year’s Obscura Day event on April 28th, leading a walking tour of Dutch Kills. The tour is already a third booked up, and as I’m just announcing it, grab your tickets while you can.

“Found less than one mile from the East River, Dutch Kills is home to four movable (and one fixed span) bridges, including one of only two retractible bridges remaining in New York City. Dutch Kills is considered to be the central artery of industrial Long Island City and is ringed with enormous factory buildings, titan rail yards — it’s where the industrial revolution actually happened. Bring your camera, as the tour will be revealing an incredible landscape along this section of the troubled Newtown Creek Watershed.”

For tickets and full details, click here :

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