What Goes Down Drain Eventually Bobs Up Here

April 24, 2009

Wash a street or flush a toilet on the East Side and the wastewater goes here, to the Manhattan Grit Chamber on 110th Street at the F.D.R. Drive. Come visit.

By COREY KILGANNON
Published: June 23, 2006

The best places to see the celebrated products of New York — its Broadway talent, its skyscraper architecture — are well known.

But the best place to see Manhattan’s byproducts — what is stuffed down its sinks, flushed down its toilets and washed from its gutters — cannot be found in tour guides. There is perhaps no better vantage point than the Manhattan Grit Chamber, which strains solids from much of the borough’s sewage as it flows underground to the Wards Island Wastewater Treatment Plant.

“This is where it all winds up,” said John Ahern, who oversees the chamber, a large building at the eastern end of 110th Street in Manhattan, next to Franklin D. Roosevelt Drive.

The Manhattan chamber handles sewage from much of the Upper East Side and Upper Manhattan, which makes up about a third of the city’s total. From the baby’s bathwater to the dead rat washed down a curbside storm drain, from a slop sink at Gracie Mansion to a Washington Heights bodega bathroom, it all goes into the street sewers, which, in their intricate latticework, are laid out so that the sewage flows by gravity to one large main bound for a tunnel running under the East River to the plant on Wards Island, surrounded by Manhattan, Queens and the Bronx. There it is cleaned of toxins and released as purified water into the river.

To keep the tunnel clear, grit and other solid materials must be strained before the sewage enters. That’s where the chamber comes in. It was opened in 1937 along with the Wards Island plant and the city’s other grit chamber in the Bronx and strains sewage from the west Bronx. It also feeds the Wards Island plant.

At the Manhattan chamber, sewage enters through a 12-foot-wide main and flows into a basement room, where it is split into four canals, slowing its flow so that solids settle to the bottom. The sediment is collected by an arm that sweeps the bottom of the canal and empties into buckets that automatically rinse the grit and lift it up to the ground floor, where it is deposited in metal bins.

The detritus floating in the channels — yesterday, this included cigarette butts, bottle caps, plastic bottles, candy wrappers and plastic spoons — is skimmed out by a rake and pulled up an incline called a screen climber, which resembles an escalator, and is also deposited into bins.

They sit at the foot of the elegant columns gracing the building’s Art Deco lobby, one of the aging Art Deco features in the building that are being restored. The refined architecture is at odds with the omnipresent stench.

The strained waste water proceeds along the canals and through sluice gates, then drops several hundred feet down a shaft into a nine-foot-wide tunnel running as much as 500 feet below the East River to the plant.

The bins of accumulated solids, called “screenings,” are frequently dumped by forklift into larger ones for transport to Wards Island and are held there until they are shipped to landfills out of state. The whole process is costly, and might be less so if people paid more attention to what they flush down the drain, city officials say.

The containers each hold 10 cubic yards. “We fill about two or three of those on a busy day,” Mr. Ahern said.

A busy day comes when it rains. The chamber handles about 100 million gallons of sewage a day — more than double that when it rains and the storm drains and street sewers are flooded. The flow increases enormously, and the whole operation goes into overdrive. The sewage treatment workers head for higher ground upstairs.

Yesterday, everything in the cavernous basement room was spattered with dried rags and detritus, reaching up to a high-water mark on the wall about eight feet up.

“We haven’t had any rain in a few days so the flow is a little slow,” he said. “But when it rains, this whole room can get flooded out. It comes in like a deluge.”

John Ahern, superintendent of Wards Island treatment plant, with debris at the Manhattan Grit Chamber.

Mr. Ahern is the superintendent of the Wards Island plant, which, after Newtown Creek, is the largest of the city’s 14 treatment plants. The list of things he has seen and seen strained from New Yorkers’ sewage provide enough fodder for a one-man show.

For starters, he pointed into a bin of screenings. There were mostly rags, soiled paper towels, condoms, rubber gloves, MetroCards, dental floss and tampon applicators — that and a dead rat. There is no demure way of describing other contents.

“Sometimes you find money,” he said, looking into the bins. “We get a lot of stuffed animals, anything kids throw down the toilet. We don’t get much feces or toilet paper because it gets dissolved into the flow.

“We get a lot of turtles and fish. We got a carp this big,” he said, holding his hands 15 inches apart. “We’ve had a canoe come in here; it got caught on the screen. We’ve had pieces of telephone poles, Christmas trees. Oh, you name it — mattresses, dead dogs. We got a live dog once.

“Once we got this thing: it was a wire that started gathering rags and stuff in the sewer and just grew like a snowball and came washing in, a big ball of garbage,” he said. “We called it the Volkswagen.”

He stood on a catwalk between the canals and looked down at the dark gray waters, pocked with bubbles.

“That’s from the methane gas released by the sediment,” he said.

And yes, the sewers sometimes become a grave for the unfortunate.

“We’ve had a few dead bodies,” he said. “We got a homeless woman, but it’s mostly men. Once we had a guy who was shot. The last one we had was a homeless guy, a few years ago in the Bronx. They go into the manholes to look for jewelry and money, and then they get overcome with gas, go unconscious and die down there. When we get a dead body, we shut down the operation and call the cops.”

From: http://www.nytimes.com/2006/06/23/nyregion/23garbage.html

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