Some cool purified water images:
1937, FDR Drive
Image by CORNERSTONES of NY
June 23, 2006
What Goes Down Drain Eventually Bobs Up Here
By COREY KILGANNON
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
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."
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
"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."
Image by pennstatelive
Jonathan Nelsen, a freshman, demonstrated the water still that his team came up with. The project provided a method to purify water for disaster victims that was simple enough that children could do it.
What about you? What are your thoughts on this subject?