Where the Sea Air Meets Its Match

February 12, 2009 at 3:16 pm Leave a comment

The M/V North River, a twin-screw tanker out of Brooklyn, steamed past Rikers Island, swung to port, then slipped into its mooring in Hunts Point, in the Bronx.

A deckhand tied the ship off while another hooked its hoses to a manifold. Above decks, in the bridge, the first mate took the signal, then gently depressed a switch. With a hum of quiet suction, the vessel began to shudder and the pumps began to offload what is commonly called “the cargo” — 85,000 inky cubic feet of human sludge.

Even the most earthbound landlubber knows that New York’s waterfront has been dying now for more than 40 years, the fruit piers and the coffee piers, the sugar trade and container ports having either gone to New Jersey or the way of the fedora. It has gotten so bad, in fact, you could probably walk from Conover Street in Red Hook around Gowanus Bay and barely find a dozen people who know a hawser from a Halston.

The one recession-proof commodity, of course, was the very substance being hauled that day in the North River’s malodorous metal tanks. As with tax preparation and the waging of war, there will be always be a market for removing human waste.

“There’s never a down day,” said Capt. Frank Bryn, an unassuming salt in a baggy hooded sweatshirt. Captain Bryn was standing at his wood-wheeled helm as the sewage was unloaded. The smell of old soup and methane gas rose from below and stained the air.

His vessel — a football field in length from stem to stern — is a unique link in New York City’s chain of municipal waste, a complicated process that begins at 14 pollution control plants, where more than 1.3 billion gallons of wastewater are treated every day. The bulk of the material removed by treatment is known, in the trade, as sewage sludge. For nearly a century, the primary means of getting rid of it was dumping it at sea.

That ended in 1988 with passage of the Ocean Dumping Ban Act, which not only put a halt to ruinous deep-sea dumps but slowly gave rise to the modern process of digesting sludge into a spongy liquid-less cake. The cake is often heated into fertilizer, then offered on the market. New York City sells the stuff — at healthy profit, one should note — to farmers in various agricultural states.

Decommissioned as a dumper when the ban was put in place, the North River now carts sludge from control plants to any of eight digesting centers that are spread throughout New York. There she goes, trafficking your bodily secretions, through Kill Van Kull or the Coney Island Channel, seven days a week.

Its nerve center is the captain’s bridge, which, despite the fragrant cargo, is as nautical a spot as you are wont to find on any deep-sea ship. At the helm, there is a NavNet GPS and a 30-year-old horizontal compass. Drawers on the stern wall hold the tide charts and the captain’s daily log.

An ocean man himself, Captain Bryn spent a decade in the merchant marine at every port imaginable before taking this job with the city nearly 20 years ago. His sludge boat may smell funny, but that is a complication to be looked at with a mariner’s stoic eye.

“It’s like any other cargo,” he explained. “Sludge, cars, oil, military goods. It’s all the same to me. All I do is take it from A to B.”

By ALAN FEUER
New York Times

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Entry filed under: Dive In, Get Wet, Working Waterfront.

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