Following the Flush: What we Learned on the Newtown Creek Digester Egg Tour

Participants on a tour of the Newtown Creek Wastewater Treatment Plant march towards the digester eggs. Photo: Megan Penmann
Participants on a night tour of the Newtown Creek Wastewater Treatment Plant wear safety vests and march towards the digester eggs. All photos by Megan Penmann

The NYC Department of Environmental Protection is in Love! The municipal organization hosted a Valentines Day tour of the Newtown Creek Wastewater Treatment Plant on Saturday, and the complex’s iconic Digester Eggs (more or less affectionately known as Shit Tits) were all decked out in red for the occasion. Donning hard hats and reflective vests, we got a rare look at the inner workings of New York City’s largest wastewater treatment plant. From fascinating facts (did you know the DEP has its own Fleet!?) to  stunning views from the glass-enclosed pedestrian walkways that connect each egg, we picked up some exciting intel as well as some dope swag: I proudly display my NYC Sewer Manhole Cover pin.

Participants on a tour of the Newtown Creek Wastewater Treatment Plant, inside the digester eggs. Photo: Megan Penmann
Participants on a tour of the Newtown Creek Wastewater Treatment Plant, inside the digester eggs.

That pride and passion are evident at Newtown Creek! DEP personnel at the Treatment Plant brought a contagious enthusiasm to highlighting the Plant’s elegant engineering and environmental equity that made the tour’s amorous theme appropriate: for Deputy Commissioner of the Bureau of Wastewater Treatment Pam Elardo, this is a labor of love.

Elardo told us that her lifelong goal is to make sure people know what happens when they flush the toilet. Read on to find out for yourself! 

Equipment inside the digester eggs at the Newtown Creek Wastewater Treatment Plant. Photo: Megan Penmann
Equipment inside the digester eggs at the Newtown Creek Wastewater Treatment Plant.

Elardo explains that cleaning wastewater is part and parcel with cleaning the environment: What comes out of the plant is cleaner than what goes in to such a degree that Newtown Creek itself is cleaner than it’s been in over 100 years. A sewage treatment plant can clean the environment because the Plant is “a resource recovery factory.” It takes in waste and turns it into clean energy that can be put back into the system. Eventually, Elardo hopes to be putting back as much energy as the plant takes in, so that the system will run at total carbon neutrality.

But what actually goes into the plant? Lots of things that shouldn’t. Elardo explains that the only things it’s appropriate to flush are bodily excretions and toilet paper. Anything else, even if it’s marked flushable, is not flushable. The Department spends over 7 million dollars every year removing non-flushable items from the system, and that’s just at Newtown Creek.

Equipment inside the digester eggs at the Newtown Creek Wastewater Treatment Plant. Photo: Megan Penmann
Equipment inside the digester eggs at the Newtown Creek Wastewater Treatment Plant.

Newtown Creek is the largest of the city’s wastewater treatment plants, processing 310 million gallons every day. That accounts for Brooklyn’s wastewater as well as 1/5 of Manhattan’s flow and 1/7 of Queens’. When it rains, the Plant takes on more than twice that flow, contending with 750 million gallons daily.

Looking down one of the enclosed catwalks that connects one digester egg to another at the Newtown Creek Wastewater Treatment Plant. Photo: Megan Penmann
Looking down one of the enclosed catwalks that connects one digester egg to another at the Newtown Creek Wastewater Treatment Plant.

While Newtown Creek might be the largest treatment plant, it is not the City’s oldest. Brooklyn’s original sewers were built in the second half of the 19th century, and the first wastewater treatment plant in the city was established at Coney Island in 1892 to keep the beaches clean. Those municipal improvements coincided with the City Beautiful Movement, aimed at uplifting the populous through public health initiatives. Accordingly, the City’s original sewage treatment efforts were meant to help prevent disease from contaminated water, curtail the burgeoning sewer rat population, and rid the city of unpleasant smells.

In the early 20th century, the Metropolitan Sewage Commission found dead zones in the rivers, where fish and plant life could not live. At that time, the environmental role of sewage treatment started to become clear, but it wasn’t until the Clean Water Act of 1972 that those efforts began in earnest.

Looking out a rainy window at one of the digester eggs' catwalks. The digester eggs were lit up red for Valentine's Day 2018. Photo: Megan Penmann
Looking out a rainy window at the digester eggs and catwalks. The digester eggs were lit up red for Valentine’s Day 2018.
Pipes inside the Newtown Creek Wastewater Treatment Plant. Photo: Megan Penmann
Pipes inside the Newtown Creek Wastewater Treatment Plant.

Today, New York City has 7,400 miles of sewers, and the water that flows into the Newtown Creek Plant then goes through a six-step treatment process:

  1. Preliminary Treatment (removes large debris).
  2. Main Sewage Pumping
  3. Primary Treatment (removes heavy solids such as stones, rocks and sand).
  4. Secondary Biological Treatment (Here’s where aeration tanks keep bacteria alive to break down the sludge).
  5. Final Settling (turns sludge into fuel and new bacteria that will keep the cycle going!)
  6. Disinfection (they use a sodium hypo-chloride solution about 8 times stronger than Clorox).
Warning signage inside the Newtown Creek Wastewater Treatment Plant. Photo: Megan Penmann
Warning signage inside the Newtown Creek Wastewater Treatment Plant.

If you can’t make it into the Eggs themselves for a look, there are plenty of green initiatives spearheaded by the DEP you can see all around you. For example, you might catch sight of the Fleet! The DEP’s Sludge Barges transport fertilizers throughout the country. Alternatively, green infrastructure like green roofs divert storm water away from the sewer system so that it doesn’t have to be filtered for no reason!

The DEP gives tours of the Digester Eggs three times a year. The next one will be in April, for Earth Day!

Outside the Newtown Creek Wastewater Treatment Plant. Photo: Megan Penmann
Outside the Newtown Creek Wastewater Treatment Plant.
Outside the Newtown Creek Wastewater Treatment Plant digester eggs. Photo: Megan Penmann
Outside the Newtown Creek Wastewater Treatment Plant digester eggs.
The view of Manhattan from inside the Newtown Creek Wastewater Treatment Plant. Photo: Megan Penmann
The view of Manhattan from inside the Newtown Creek Wastewater Treatment Plant.
Signage inside the Newtown Creek Wastewater Treatment Plant. Photo: Megan Penmann
Signage inside the Newtown Creek Wastewater Treatment Plant.
Buttons inside the Newtown Creek Wastewater Treatment Plant. Photo: Megan Penmann
Buttons inside the Newtown Creek Wastewater Treatment Plant.

About Lucie Levine

Lucie Levine is the founder of Archive on Parade, a local tour and event company that aims to take New York’s fascinating history out of the archives and into the streets. She’s a Native New Yorker, licensed New York City tour guide, and freelance writer with a passion for the city’s social, political and cultural history.

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