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Everything in Queens has a cool story attached to it, if you care to look.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

My reason for coming over to the forbidden northern coastline of Queens on this particular day was to gather a few street side shots of the NYC DEP’s Bowery Bay Wastewater Treatment Plant. I know… who dares to spend a Saturday evening walking over to the local sewer plant? One such myself, that’s who dares!

According to the NYC DEP – “The Bowery Bay Wastewater Treatment Plant went into operation in 1939 and is designed to treat 150 million gallons of wastewater a day. The plant serves approximately 850,000 residents in a drainage area of more than 15,000 acres in northwest Queens,” and “At the Bowery Bay Wastewater Treatment Plant, there are four holding tanks that have the capacity to store a combined 550,000 cubic feet of sludge.”

– photo by Mitch Waxman

Bowery Bay is the fifth largest of NYC’s 14 sewer plants, and you’ll find it on Berrian Blvd. between Steinway and 45th streets in Astoria, on the forbidden northern coast of the borough of Queens. Check out that bas relief on the Art Deco building with curved walls and glass brick windows! More on that in a minute, after the sewer story. 

Long story short, by the beginning of the 20th century, NY Harbor was in essence an open sewer which was severely compromised by both industrial and biological waste. Remember, before cars there horses and oxen, and everybody and everything poops at least once a day. They used to just wash into all the sewers, which were open to the rivers and harbor. This is why the rich people lived on the central spine of Manhattan, rather than at the water’s edge where the poor people gathered in tenements. In 1909, a fellow named Dr. George Soper (who was also the guy who identified Typhoid Mary) led the first comprehensive survey of the harbor’s ecology. In 1914, Soper led the Metropolitan Sewerage Commission, which released an 800 page long “Main Drainage and Sewage Disposal Works Proposed for New York City: Reports of Experts and Data Related to the Harbor” document which made recommendations about curatives. 

By 1920, a plan had been drawn up, and in 1929 the Department of Sanitation was designated as the agency which would execute it – digging sewer pipes, connecting existing drainage systems in what was now the five boroughs, and building water treatment or sewer plants. They would also do what DSNY continues to do today, but what’s now the DEP used to be part of Sanitation. Then the Great Depression came along. 

– photo by Mitch Waxman

President Roosevelt created the Work Projects Administration (WPA) to jump start the national economy and put the talents of the jobless masses to work on vital infrastructure projects around the country. Hoover Dam, as well a good number of schools, libraries, parks, and post offices got built by WPA in this fashion. WPA didn’t forget about art, and made it a point of including public artworks on many of its projects. The WPA people worked with DSNY to build three new wastewater treatment plants in NY Harbor (between 1937 and 1944) – Wards Island in Manhattan, Tallman Island, and Bowery Bay in Queens. 

The bas reliefs adorning the Bowery Bay plant are by an Italian American sculptor named Cesare Stea.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

The Bowery Bay plant sits quite low to the water, and is in fact within the current zone you’d expect to flood due to coastal storms. Hurricanes Irene and Sandy did quite a number to the place, I’m told, and if current projections about sea level rise are accurate, the DEP is going to be experiencing a lot of problems at Bowery Bay in the coming decades. 

Two of Stea’s Bas Reliefs depicting depression era wastewater workers are covered (there’s four), along with an Art Deco entranceway to the plant, by plywood. Presumptively, the structure is still being repaired from the walloping it took during Hurricane Sandy. 

– photo by Mitch Waxman

Having hung around the more modern plant in Greenpoint has familiarized one with the shape of things, and the shot above depicts the settling tanks and high pressure air pipes which aerate the “honey” at the treatment plant. The stuff spends a bit of time in deep concrete tanks with pressurized air being forced into it from below. This causes solids to migrate downwards in the liquid column for post drainage collection, and oils and greases to migrate upwards for skimming. By modern day standards, there’s a lot left to be desired by the Bowery Bay Plant. It was designed with neighborhoods of two story homes and factories in mind, not city block sized fifty story residential towers. 

Given all the real estate activity in Western Queens in recent decades, and the sort of plans being bandied about by the powers that be in Manhattan for remaking the place in their own image… you’d think…

– photo by Mitch Waxman

It just isn’t the way people think anymore, I’m afraid. 

What we’re doing, municipal plan wise, is akin to cooking a large holiday meal, not setting up the table with plates and silver wear, and just flopping the food onto the table. You then tell your family and guests to just lick it all up, and that probably next year you’ll go out and buy plates. Or at least, we will leave that to the next Mayor to deal with. 

Dr. George Soper would probably be angry, if he hadn’t died in 1948.


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Written by Mitch Waxman

September 19, 2018 at 1:00 pm

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I like when the DEP brings the show to me, saves a lot of walking.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

The neighborhood is abuzz at the moment, here in Astoria, over a water main replacement project which has been going on for a month and change now. There’s been a tearing and a wrenching, lots and lots of noise and activity involving heavy equipment, and a somewhat random series of notices taped to the front door promising that DEP water service will be temporarily interrupted. My block’s turn for the latter occurred yesterday, and just down the street from HQ, the DEP and their contractors (Tully) finally opened up the hydrants and got busy with the underground stuff. 

I was hanging around the home office yesterday, developing shots from last weekend’s Tugboat Race on the Hudson, but found an interval when it wasn’t raining to grab the tripod and get a few shots of the flowing water.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

The actual construction is “up the pipe” from HQ, thank goodness. You should see what the next block over looks like, they’ll be repaving that for months. 

Ever notice the way that significant road work and infrastructure repairs only seem to happen when Election time nears? I’m told by those whom this tsunami of backhoes and construction workers have already washed over that a second wave of Con Edison gas main contractors followed the water people, and there’s been a protracted occupation by the NYC DOT nearby as well – who seem to be grinding down and then resurfacing the roads. The Zero Vision people can’t be far away, but it suddenly makes sense as to why the Department of Buildings forced all the local property owners to replace their sidewalks in the last couple of years. 

– photo by Mitch Waxman

It was a bit difficult to actually lock down on actual government sourced numbers on this, as the DEP continually treats its most mundane capabilities and public facing infrastructure as a state secret. 

There’s approximately 109,000 fire hydrants in NYC which are maintained by the NYC DEP for the FDNY’s usage. There’s also an uncountable number of hydrants maintained by other entities both private and public, and notably the NYC Parks Dept. has a large number of them installed on their property which are connected to DEP’s pipes but are Parks’ problem to maintain. DEP’s system uses two basic types of hydrant, the kind pictured above which is an “O’Brien Style Model, Series S,” and the “Dresser 500 Style.” 

– photo by Mitch Waxman

The reason that the hydrant above was left open was to allow the construction crews to bleed out the water flowing through the water main they were replacing. The maximum flow of one these O’Brien models is about 1,000 gallons an hour, I’m told. The water in the hydrants is the same stuff delivered to residences, good old NYC drinking water from the Croton Resovoir system. 

There’s two pipe fittings on the hydrants, one is for normal water hookup by FDNY, the other is for use by their pumper trucks. Since the 1980’s, when DEP shut down the old “High Pressure” network that dated back to the dawn of the 20th century, the hydrants have been installed with a street level flange that intersects them to the main. Prior to this, were a car or truck to back into the hydrant (which was directly connected to the buried pipe) it tended to damage the underground pipe and necessitate a messy and expensive repair job that involved opening the street. The flange connection instead allows the hydrant to get knocked about without the buried main pipe getting damaged. 

– photo by Mitch Waxman

That 1,000 gallons an hour flow was pouring out all day, or at least from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. with a couple of coffee breaks and a lunch hour thrown in. Since I had the camera mounted on the tripod anyway, and my block here in Astoria was closed to traffic because of the construction so I could stand in the street without getting squished by trucks, I decided to follow the flow down to the corner where it was all pissing into the drain.

As a note, DEP doesn’t like to use the word “sewer” ever. They call these bits of their system “street drains.” It’s also not “sewage,” it’s wastewater, they say. I’ve been lectured by one of the high muckety mucks over there about this, being told that the word “sewer” or the term “sewer plant” is offensive to modern day “Wastewater Management Engineers.”

I fear that Louie the garbageman is going to want to be called a “solid waste collection executive” or something soon. 

– photo by Mitch Waxman

Gazing into the abyssal “street drain” in the shot above, one wondered how much of this flow was going to the somewhat archaic “Bowery Bay Wastewater treatment Plant” on the forbidden northern shore of Queens and how much of it was traveling down Astoria’s Broadway to 43rd street where an underground intersection is found that feeds directly into the Dutch Kills tributary of my beloved Newtown Creek over in LIC.

Hey, at least it’s clean water flowing into Dutch Kills for a change, a thousand gallons an hour worth. 


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Written by Mitch Waxman

September 12, 2018 at 11:00 am

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It’s National Martini Day, in these United States.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

One of the things that we, as in the environmental and activist community along Newtown Creek, have been asking officialdom about for years is about why there is zero signage advising the citizenry about not fishing or crabbing in the Newtown Creek. I know this might strike you as odd, but folks actually do fish and crab hereabouts. Observationally, these are people who were born overseas, so the signage issue becomes a bit complicated given the legendary “diversity” of Western Queens and North Brooklyn. The Albany people have always questioned as to why you’d need signage, as it’s illegal to fish without a license, and every NYS licensee has been advised about the environmental conditions encountered on the inland waterways of NYC – which is one of the most “Albany people” things I’ve ever heard.

Luckily, the Feds at EPA realized what we’ve been asking for is necessary and have begun the process of creating advisory signage, and the PRP (Potentially Resonsible Parties) consortium which styles itself as the “Newtown Creek Group” volunteered to manufacture the placards, which EPA would in turn design and install. The signage is pretty close to its final design iteration, and the latest version looks like this. As to where the signs should be placed? Who has carefully documented every little pocket and corner of the streets surrounding the Creek? Who can tell you where people commonly fish? That’s a Newtown Creek Alliance job, anyone can tell you that.

Let’s face it, who ya gonna call?

– photo by Mitch Waxman

Accordingly, one found himself in Greenpoint recently at nine in the morning as the EPA team assembled. Civilians cannot ride in Government vehicles (which is an odd rule, as we technically own them) so the third party contractor who will do the actual installation of the things did the driving. We hit every little corner of the Newtown Creek where people can find access to the water, even the hidden spots where the “utes” of Greenpernt like to experiment with cannibinoids.

It was actually quite a beautiful morning, and the light was fantastic, so while the Feds got busy with the tape measures and GPS’d the various locations we visited, I waved the camera around a bit.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

We did encounter an “enforcement situation” in Brooklyn alongside the Metropolitan Avenue Bridge. There’s a protocol for “who’s responsible for what” along the Newtown Creek. Short version is this – EPA is in charge of Superfund, which is specifically related to the sediments under the water. New or ongoing pollution entering the water is the provence of the NYS Department of Environmental Conservation.

The NYC DEP is responsible for absolutely nothing anywhere or anytime, it’s not their fault at all, and they have no idea why they were named as a PRP in the first place as it’s all Exxon or National Grid’s fault.

The fellow from EPA I was on the bridge with confirmed my belief that “I should call this in” and the NYS DEC Spill Response hotline was called. If you spot oil slicks, plumes of floatable contaminants, or as in the case of the shot above – hundreds of gallons of milky white mystery juice exiting one of DEP’s open sewers – the protocol is to first photograph it, as documentation, and then to call 1 (800) 457-7362 to let DEC know about the situation so they can investigate.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

We were, as mentioned above, visiting every conceivable spot that the citizenry could find their way to the water.

That included “off limits” locations like the Montrose Avenue Rail Bridge over the English Kills tributary. As you can see from all the interesting graffiti on the bridge, which carries lead tracks of the Bushwick Branch LIRR, trespassing is pretty common back here. This is the reason that EPA asked Newtown Creek Alliance to send somebody along with them, as there’s the “official story” and a “real story” found along the water.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

This family of Canada Geese were encountered at the Maspeth Avenue Plank Road, and were being predated by a feral cat who was anxious for breakfast. Momma and Poppa Goose were just out of frame to the left, so the cat made a brilliant decision and continued on into the brush to look for some easier prey. We encountered a couple of broods of Geese over the course of the morning. Geese can be ornery, as a note, and will smack you up if they’re annoyed.

One of these illegal alien avian bullies, at Maspeth Creek, actually hissed at us as we neared, and stuck its tongue out at me.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

The reasoning behind the signage is based around science rather than good humored politics, incidentally. When you’re chatting with environmental officials, they don’t refer to oysters or mussels as shellfish, rather they call them “bioaccumulators.” Animals that are high up in the food chain have internal organs – livers in particular – and muscular tissues which have amassed dangerous levels of whatever pollutant is found in the sediments of the waterway, which they’ve attained by consuming all the prey critters who are below them in the food chain hierarchy. In the case of crabs, in particular, you can encounter a fantastic amount of chemical concentrates due to their particular niche and occupations.

Newtown Creek is – of course – a Federal Superfund site. The sediment beds hereabout are a goulash of petroleum and petroleum byproducts, organocopper compounds, volatile organic compounds, PCB’s, coal tar, sewage, and everything else that has ever been dumped or spilled into the water. The sediment is referred to as “black mayonnaise” and it’s where the crabs live. It’s also where most of the invertebrates that form the bottom of the food chain for the fish population live. Itty bitty critters eat the decaying organics of the black mayonnaise, and slightly less itty bitty critters eat handfuls of the little guys, and the larger critters eat hundreds of them – you get the idea.

You don’t want to eat fish or crabs that you catch in the Newtown Creek. Really.


Upcoming Tours and events

Newtown Creek, Greenpoint to Hunters Point, walking tour with NYCH2O – June 29th, 7-9 p.m..

Experience and learn the history of the western side of Newtown Creek, as well as the East River Parks Hunters Point with NCA Historian Mitch Waxman details here.


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– photo by Mitch Waxman

After the event at the Newtown Creek Wastewater Treatment Plant on Friday the 26th, Newtown Creek Alliance Executive Director Kate Zidar and I had to hurry over to another location on the troubled waterway for a second event.

This one was taking place at the Maspeth Creek tributary in Queens.

from newtowncreekalliance.org

The New York State Department of Environmental Conservation and the Newtown Creek Alliance  invite you to a special event to celebrate New York’s wildlife and Earth Week!

– photo by Mitch Waxman

The NYS DEC have released a new book as part of the “watchable wildlife” initiative, which seems to be a state wide effort to promote eco tourism. The administrative head of the NYC region 2 is Venetia Lannon, who is actually a very cool person in real life, and she was there to speak to the gathered bird enthusiasts, Newtown Creek Alliance members and Creek devotees, as well as members of the local press.

from dec.ny.gov

Whether it’s the spectacle of a soaring eagle or a glimpse of a river otter, here you’ll find what you need to plan a great wildlife viewing experience in New York State. DEC’s wildlife experts help you learn where to find wildlife, what sounds to listen for, or when to look for your favorite animal. Find a full list of wildlife viewing sites in New York State with many new locations just released and see our full list of wildlife species.

Have you checked out the new New York Wildlife Viewing Guide? In it you’ll find more than 100 of New York’s best sites to see wildlife near home or while on a trip. New York State has millions of acres of state parks and forests, preserves, and wildlife management areas (WMAs) each offering tremendous opportunities for wildlife and nature viewing. Take along the New York Wildlife Viewing Guide on your next outdoor adventure! Available soon for your E-reader and electronic devices; purchase a copy on the web, in bookstores, or at watchablewildlife.org.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

In addition to the DEC’s watchable wildlife book, a lushly illustrated guide book which details opportune spots around the state to observe and experience the splendors of nature, NCA was also premiering our “Birds of Newtown Creek” poster. A bunch of my photos are on the poster, and it discusses the various fauna which have been documented by our group in the last few years.

from newtowncreekalliance.org

Newtown Creek has its fair share of un-sung heroes…tug boat captains maneuvering barges piled high, sewer plant operators and garbage handlers doing the invisible work of processing mountains of waste each day… come out with us to explore the un-sung heroes of Newtown Creek’s WILDLIFE.  Each day, spindly-legged egrets and herons work the exposed, fetid sediment mounds in the upper tributaries looking for a hot lunch, and ever-stylish cormorants display their wings as they air-dry on the floating booms that corral waste oil and trash.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

That’s NCA’s Kate Zidar in the shot above, who is one of the smartest people I know. Kate discussed the various species which we’ve documented at the Creek with our ornithologically inclined partners and friends.

from newtowncreekalliance.org

Kate Zidar (Executive Director) is an Environmental Planner with a professional focus on watershed management.  As Executive Director of NCA, she works to strike a balance between waterfront access, environmental health and economic development for the city’s most polluted waterway. Kate serves as Chairperson of the Steering Committee for the Stormwater Infrastructure Matters (S.W.I.M.) Coalition, an organization committed to ensuring swimmable, fishable waters around New York City through Green Infrastructure. Kate teaches graduate courses in Writing, Solid Waste Management and Green Infrastructure at Pratt Institute. Kate has experience in the public, private and non-profit sectors, consulting previously for the Planning Center at Municipal Art Society, NYC Housing Authority, Youth Ministries for Peace and Justice, Myrtle Avenue Brooklyn Partnership and Habana Outpost. Kate is a founding member of the North Brooklyn Compost Project, and a board member of the Lower East Side Ecology Center. She holds a BS in Biology from the University of Colorado, and an MS in City and Regional Planning from Pratt Institute’s Graduate Center For Planning and the Environment.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

Maspeth Creek has long been a source of fascination for me, given its significant historical importance and somewhat feral modern incarnation. The bulkheads on either bank of this tributary have been allowed to decay over the course of the 20th century, and as such, nature has reclaimed them. The “soft edges” allow cormorants and other birds to escape the mid day sun and the shallow waters are teeming with invertebrate life.

Unfortunately, an enormous CSO (combined sewer outfall) is here, which continually poisons the water with sewage and industrial runoff.

from dec.ny.gov

Combined sewer systems (CSS) are sewer systems that are designed to collect storm water runoff, domestic sewage, and industrial wastewater in the same pipe and bring it to the publicly owned treatment works (POTW) facilities.

During rain events, when storm water enters the sewers, the capacity of the sewer system may be exceeded and the excess water will be discharged directly to a waterbody (rivers, streams, estuaries, and coastal waters).

The untreated water may contain untreated sewage that may impact human health. For information about the general CSO wet weather advisory and links to the CSO outfall map visit the CSO Wet Weather Advisory web page.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

Kate Zidar has a few plans for this part of the Newtown Creek watershed which I’m not sure I’m authorized to discuss, but if she manages to pull even a fraction of them off, it will change things for the better around this waterway. Maspeth Creek is one of those rare spots where neighboring property owners, environmental officials, and neighborhood activists are on the “same page” and exciting stuff is in the works.

from wikipedia

Before the nineteenth century urbanization and industrialization of the surrounding neighborhoods, Newtown Creek was a longer and shallower tidal waterway, and wide enough that it contained islands. It drained parts of what are now the neighborhoods of Bushwick, Williamsburg and Greenpoint in Brooklyn; and Maspeth, Ridgewood, Sunnyside and Long Island City in Queens. During the second half of the nineteenth century it became a major industrial waterway, bounded along most of its length by retaining walls, the shipping channel maintained by dredging. The Montauk Branch of the Long Island Rail Road, mainly a freight line, runs along the North bank.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

A display table, pictured above, offered samples of both the NCA Bird Poster and the DEC Watching Wildlife book to the curious and interested alike.

For a free pdf of the NCA “Birds of Newtown Creek” Poster, click here.

Also: Upcoming Tours!

13 Steps around Dutch Kills Saturday, May 4, 2013
Newtown Creek walking tour with Mitch Waxman and Atlas Obscura, tickets now on sale.

Parks and Petroleum- Sunday, May 12, 2013
Newtown Creek walking tour with Mitch Waxman and Newtown Creek Alliance, tickets now on sale.

The Insalubrious Valley Saturday, May 25, 2013
Newtown Creek walking tour with Mitch Waxman and Atlas Obscura, tickets now on sale.

Hidden Harbor: Newtown Creek tour with Mitch Waxman – Sunday, May 26,2013
Boat tour presented by the Working Harbor Committee,
Limited seating available, order advance tickets now. Group rates available.

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