New York City’s Largest Wastewater Plant

The Newtown Creek Water Resource Recovery Facility provides clean water to upwards of 1 million people

By Brian Alvarado

Built in 1967, the Newtown Creek Water Resource Recovery Facility serves over 1 million people in New York City, providing citizens with clean water. Recognizable by its giant silver “eggs,” the wastewater plant is the largest of New York City’s 14 wastewater facilities.

As Father Time waits for nobody, the time finally came for needed renovations. Owned by the New York City Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), the wastewater facility was finally due for its upgrades in 2000, with an overall cost near a whopping $5 billion.

This project took the original treatment facility built in the 1967 and upgraded it from 36 to 53 acres with improvements to the treatment capacity both in terms of hydraulic loading and organics removal.” Andrew Olesh, Acting Chief of Staff, NYC DEP

“The plant upgrade provided a substantial improvement to the water quality in the area as intended,” said Andrew Olesh, acting chief of staff for the NYC DEP. “This project took the original treatment facility built in the 1967 and upgraded it from 36 to 53 acres with improvements to the treatment capacity both in terms of hydraulic loading and organics removal.”

Opened in 1967, the facility received upgrades that cost close to $5 billion.

The massive rehabilitation and expansion project, which took close to 15 years, has been named the American Infrastructure Magazine Wastewater Project of the Year.

The facility has a design capacity of 310 MGD and has drainage areas that cover 15,656 acres in the south and eastern midtown sections of Manhattan, the northeast section of Brooklyn and western section of Queens.

The project was a result of the need to comply with the US the Clean Water Act. The act requires that wastewater be treated to the point that is at least 85% of certain pollutants are removed before it can be discharged into surrounding waterways, according to the DEP.

The Clean Water Act was the driving force requiring the upgrade of the Newtown Creek plant with minimum treatment standards going from 70% removal of Total Suspended Solids (TSS) and 60% removal of Biochemical Oxygen Demand (BOD) to 85% removal of TSS and 85% removal of BOD,” Olesh said. “At the same time, the peak hydraulic capacity was increased to over 700 million galls per day (MGD) to help mitigate combined sewers overflows from the City’s sewer system.”

To remain with the relatively small footprint, the design of the upgrades eliminated the use of primary settling tanks, instead utilizing a fine secondary screen with 1/4th inch clear openings to obtain the necessary preliminary treatment. These secondary screens were housed in a central residuals building which contained the processes necessary to handle secondary screenings, grit and floatables so that they could be transported off site.

The facility has a design capacity of 310 MGD and has drainage areas that cover 15,656 acres in the south and eastern midtown sections of Manhattan, the northeast section of Brooklyn and western section of Queens.

Along with the New York State consent orders to drive compliance, the Clean Water Act also included and funded a requirement for community involvement. The Newtown Creek Monitoring Committee (NCMC) was formed to serve this purpose.

“Community concerns were heard in monthly meetings and responded to insofar as possible,” Olesh said. “Meetings were contentious at times but in the end, NCMC made positive contributions to the program and the community feels that the upgrade was a win for the neighborhood with much improved odor control, a nature walk, and an architectural design that is pleasing to the eye.”

To help bring the upgrades to life, clear communication and coordination needed to occur between Wick’s Law contracts as practiced in the State of New York and with the different major construction contracts.

“During the peak of construction in 2010 there were some 1,000 laborers on the job site,” Olesh said. “Often, there was not enough room for major contractors to occupy the space they needed until another contractor’s work was done. Daily meetings and coordination were routine tasks for DEP’s construction managers on site.”

During the peak of construction in 2010 there were some 1,000 laborers on the job site.

One challenge of the facility upgrades was dealing with the fact that the wastewater flow from the 25 square mile collection area cannot be stopped. To maneuver this, the DEP had to maintain the operation of the plant throughout construction.

Temporary electrical and processing systems needed to be employed on several occasions. One example was three temporary buildings for grit removal were needed until the central residuals building was on line.

Additionally, there were many environmental issues involved with the construction program, as the work occurred within an area that was affected by one of the largest underground oil spills in the country—17 to 30 million gallons of oil under the Greenpoint section of Brooklyn.

Since completion, the plant has even generated an abundance of tourists looking to take advantage of photo opportunities, as the digester “eggs” illuminate on special occasions.

“Public tours, including Valentine’s Day and Earth Day tours, are sold out every year,” Olesh said.

The digester eggs can be illuminated in a variety of colors. This year, for example, in recognition and celebration of the 100-year anniversary of the passage of the 19th Amendment to the US Constitution and the continued fight for gender equality, DEP’s Office of Equal Employment Opportunity & Diversity and the Bureau of Wastewater Treatment collaborated to illuminate the renowned Newtown Creek WRRF digester eggs in purple from August 18 to Women’s Equality Day on August 26, symbolizing women, justice and dignity.

As water continues to be a precious resource for millions across the country, the Newtown Creek Water Resource Recovery Facility plays a vital role in maintaining the health of its surrounding citizens. With upwards of 1 million people to serve, the facility and its functions solidify its place as this year’s Wastewater Project of the Year.

Brian Alvarado is the editor of American Infrastructure Magazine. He can be reached at brian@builder.media.

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