Hurricane Earl was a no-show in NYC this past Labor Day weekend, foiling worst-case predictions that had coastal Brooklyn underwater. But it’s not just water we need to worry about. It’s human shit. Especially in Williamsburg and Greenpoint.
Every time most New Yorkers flush a toilet, take a shower, wash a dish or hose off a sidewalk, every time snow melts or rain falls, that water ends up in the sewer system. Along with it go urine, fecal matter, litter, trash, and toxic chemicals.
Under ordinary circumstances, this is not a huge problem: every day, 1.3 billion gallons of this toxic sludge—the equivalent of more than 800 million toilet low-flushes—makes its way to one of the city’s 14 wastewater treatment plants, which remove contaminants and release it back into the environment.
But sometimes the sewers overflow, and sewage is sent directly into the city’s waterways. And it happens a lot more often than you think.
The problem is usually rain. Even though overall capacity has improved since the 1980s, the city’s sewers often can’t handle their usual wastewater load in addition to the storm water run-off. Raw data is hard to get—the city’s Department of Environmental Protection ignored our requests—but a city report from 2008 includes data from sewer overflow models.
Even in these hypothetical scenarios (the reality is certainly worse) overflows would occur 69 times a year, almost once every five days on average, releasing 20.8 billion gallons of untreated sewage into the East River, Hudson River, Newtown Creek and other local bodies of water.
There are 14 overflow sites along the East River in North Brooklyn alone, plus at least another half a dozen along Newtown Creek. The problem is as bad in Williamsburg and Greenpoint as anywhere else—but not for long.
“It’s only going to get worse and worse,” says Evan Thies. “We’re already suffering.”
Thies, who once served as former Councilman David Yassky’s chief of staff and as the chair of Brooklyn Community Board 1’s environmental committee, tells me that the sewer system in North Brooklyn was built to accommodate an industrial neighborhood, and that it’s “woefully inadequate” to handle the stress from the residential neighborhood that uses it now.
The issue of updating North Brooklyn’s sewer system arose during the 2005 rezoning process, but has still gone largely unaddressed. For now, the city has implemented a stopgap measure by installing “bladders”—essentially, balloons that remain empty until times of excess. But, Thies stresses, this is not a long-term solution. The bladders alone won’t be enough to accommodate the coming throngs.
The last five years have brought thousands of new people to Williamsburg, and “it’s going to double in size,” Thies says. “It’s the hottest neighborhood in New York.” The Domino development alone could bring 6,000 new residents. It would stand to reason, he says, that the Bloomberg administration would want to invest in infrastructure there. For now, though, the mayor seems content to dump raw sewage into the East River.
But dumping seems so 19th century, Thies continues. Aside from the environmental hazards, releasing our shit and whatever else straight into the East River risks spreading disease: it can wash back on shore, come up through grates in the street, or be brought to land by the creatures who live in it, all of which increases the risk of potential contact with people. Not to mention it’s really fucking gross.
“It’s just an unsustainable system,” Thies says. And that’s putting it politely.