The Newtown Pentacle

Altissima quaeque flumina minimo sono labi

apportioned excess

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At Brooklyn’s Unamed Canal, best described as a minor tributary of the Newtown Creek.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

Whenever possible, on days when I’m conducting a walking tour somewhere around the fabulous Newtown Creek, I like to get there early and scout ahead. The Creeklands are full of surprises. If it’s one of the long ones, I’ll usually try and walk the route a day or two before the event, but for the shorter ones I like to “do it on the day.”

Last Sunday, we did a relatively short one revolving around Newtown Creek Alliance’s “North Henry Street Project.” The group encountered me and my pal Mai first, and I recounted the story of oil in Greenpoint, segued into the whole “CSO” or “combined sewer outfall” situation on the Creek, then talked about the sewer plant. At the end of Kingsland Avenue and what is theoretically North Henry Street, the group was handed over to my pal Will Elkins, NCA’s Project Manager and the fellow who is in charge of this whole North Henry Street situation.

Click here for NCA’s page describing the project.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

So, that’s why I was wandering around behind the sewer plant on Sunday morning at 9:30 in the morning. The first shot is from just three hours later, at the end of the tour when the weather had taken a dramatic turn for the better. It’s kind of lonely spot back here on Kingsland Avenue, although there’s actually quite a bit of activity – industrial wise – that happens back here.

Metro Fuel, Luna Lighting, Allocco Recycling, and a couple of others including the Department of Sanitation and the DEP are all buzzing around like busy little bees in this little cul de sac found in a part of Greenpoint which I refer to as DUGABO – Down Under the Greenpoint Avenue Bridge Onramp.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

The star of the show in this section of the Newtown Creek heartlands is – of course – the Newtown Creek Wastewater Treatment Plant and its stainless steel digester eggs. One of those digesters is going to be diverted from Municpal sewerage duty due to “Waste to Energy” project which the DEP has initiated with the National Grid company. Like a lot of “big green” projects, the devil is in the details with this thing.

The digester eggs are pretty incredible bits of technology, and purpose built. Within the eggs, the same micro organisms found within your own viscera are at work on an industrial scale. Said critters digest and sterilize the sewage sludge via biological processes. There’s a few byproducts to this process, one of which is a mephitic and combustible gas commonly called Methane.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

Currently, the DEP uses some of this methane byproduct in pursuit of maintaining the temperature range required by the micro organisms within the digester eggs. The vast majority of it is burned off, however, making the plant an immense manufacturer of greenhouse gases. That’s where National Grid comes into the picture.

The National Grid people have partnered with DEP, and will be building a mechanism by which this excess Methane will be added to their own Methane Natural Gas network. Sounds great, right?

– photo by Mitch Waxman

It seems that sewage doesn’t have the yield for viable commercial exploitation of the gas. Accordingly, one of the eggs is either now, or soon will be, offline for sewage duty, so it can be fed “food waste.” To guarantee that no pesticide or preservatives can addle the powers of the micro organisms, a preference has been stated for organic food waste.  This organic waste is collected by trucks operated by the Department of Sanitation, which will converge from all over the City of Greater New York on Greenpoint’s hazy eastern border with Williamsburg and Bushwick. How do they know the food waste is organic? Let’s just say I know somebody in the school lunch lady Union that mentioned to me that their people were mandated to start separating food waste from the other trash recently. This mention was an angry one, as the City has provided no funds to facilitate the extra work.

The food waste will be “macerated” (chopped up), semi liquefied, and then pumped into another truck. That truck, which will be the sort of big tanker rigs you observe filling the underground tanks of gas stations, will then drive to the sewer plant and pump the stuff into the egg.

One year into the program, DEP and National Grid expect twelve of these tankers to be crossing through Greenpoint on a daily basis. They haven’t projected the number of truck trips through Greenpoint for the second year of the roll out yet. The “waste to energy” program, which seeks to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and the amount of compostable organics headed to landfill, has inadvertently added hundreds if not thousands of heavy trucks a year to the already heavy flow of traffic through Greenpoint and the Creeklands as a whole.

Upcoming Events and Tours

Saturday, May 21st at 3:30 p.m. –
A Return to The Poison Cauldron of the Newtown Creek,
with Atlas Obscura, in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. Click here for more details.

Thursday, May 26th at 6 p.m. –
Brooklyn Waterfront: Past & Present Boat Tour,
with Working Harbor Committee. Click here for more details.

“follow” me on Twitter- @newtownpentacle

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