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Keeping smells at bay near the creek

Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) officials have been working to reduce odors from three distinct sources inside the Newtown Creek Wastewater Treatment Plant.

When questioned by community members at a Newtown Creek Monitoring Committee (NCMC) meeting at the Plant’s 329 Greenpoint Avenue operations headquarters, DEP officials and plant operators said that the causes of the odors have been found and remediated.

“This doesn’t happen often. Rarely do the [waste containers] overflow from the grit chambers. It was cleaned up on the same day,” said Jerry Fragias, a DEP employee at the wastewater treatment plant, referring to a recent odor-causing event.

This past summer, odors have come from three locations at the wastewater treatment plant site: an overflow of an outdoor garbage unit, also known as a grit chamber, containing wastewater residue, the excavation of oil contaminated soil on the plant’s grounds, and an eruption of a bacterial foam growing inside the plant’s egg-shaped digester units. Each produces its own distinct smell, making it easy for DEP employees to trace the cause of the odor when a community resident registers a complaint with the city agency.

“Grit gives a sewage, sulfite smell,” said Christine Hollowacz, NCMC Community Liaison to the NCMC. “Oil gives off a petroleum smell. Nacardia makes a lot of foam. It doesn’t smell as much as the grit. The grit is very strong.”

Community residents filed complaints during an event on September 1, when waste from the grit chambers overflowed and leaked onto the grounds of the plant. DEP officials determined that the odor was the result from an independent contractor arriving late to haul away the 26 cubic yard metal waste bin. The contractor did arrive and removed the bin after cleaning up the waste that had overflowed.

Earlier this summer, DEP workers recorded several eruptions of nacardia bacteria, which breeds in a brown foam-like substance that emerges from the sludge inside the digester tanks. If the sludge is not cleaned on a regular basis, the foam can expand, resulting in a noxious nacardia bloom.

“You can kill it almost immediately, but the skeleton is still there,” said Carmine Marra, of the Construction Management Joined Venture (CMJV) and the DEP.

Community residents, including NCMC member Maria Chambers, speculated that low morale among plant employees, who have not received a raise on their contracts for several years, and a shortage of workers at the Wastewater Treatment Plant may have contributed to a high number of odor eruptions in Greenpoint this summer.

“These are odors that not only residents of the community suffer, but also merchants and businesses and residents of Long Island City,” Chambers said.

DEP officials, while acknowledging that there was a shortage of workers at the Plant denied that low morale or lack of manpower contributed to the odors not being handled as quickly as community residents would like.

“Morale can be a problem, but the guys do their job. They work hard and they all pitch in,” Fragias said.

As the DEP continues to upgrade the plant’s digester eggs and other operational facilities, odors may reemerge. Assemblyman Joseph Lentol, who wrote a letter to the DEP in May concerning odors emanating from the digester eggs, hopes that future odors will be controlled in a timely manner without community members having to make complaints.

“No one should have to live with the kind of smells that come out of the sewage treatment plant,” Lentol said. “The DEP has made commitments to my office and this community that no expense would be spared when it came to odor control but that seems to be enough. I think everyone here in Greenpoint is holding their breath until the new treatment plant is fully up and running and the old one is shut down.”

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