The timing could not have been more “serendipitous,” using that word with a properly heavy dose of East Coast irony, if not sarcasm. The night of the day before the “heat bubble” was predicted to burst upon New York City on Friday with record-setting three-digit temperatures, a crucial pump engine in a sewage treatment plant caught fire. This happened Wednesday night and plant managers had no choice but to divert tons of raw sewage from the city into emergency pipes that go directly into the Hudson and Harlem Rivers.
In other words a massive amount of, well, malodorous sludge poured into the rivers adjacent to New York City, resulting in the closure of four beaches (in Brooklyn and Staten Island) and both rivers. As a result, on a hottest-ever 104 degree day, city residents were barred from a major crucial means of cooling off.
The Herculean, or rather Augean — Augeas being a mythical king who forced the ancient Greek hero to clean out his horse stables — task of fixing the plant fell to over a hundred city workers and out-of-state contractors doing what the New York Times appropriately described as a “job dreamed up by an especially sadistic boss” (words that do indeed describe Augeus):
… stop a multimillion-gallon torrent of raw sewage that is flowing into two rivers, fouling beaches and ruining weekend plans. Every minute counts, and it is the hottest day of the year. Now get out there!
Workers came from as far as Ohio to repair two engines and reattach pump lines. Due to the heat — which was far hotter than 104 degrees inside the plant — they worked in 20 minutes shifts round the clock. By 9:30 pm Friday night, the sewage of flow into both rivers had stopped.
Due to the nature of the flow and, again the weather, the smell on the river was “like a dead rat,” as 18-year-old Mendez said to the New York Times. Workers acknowledged that the job was among the most “sweltering” and “rancid” they had done:
“We’re out here in 103 degrees, and then they’re like, ‘What’s taking so long?’” said one worker, who declined to give his name. But he said a job he worked on once in Arizona was even hotter.
“That’s nothing,” said his colleague, as sweat pooled beneath his hard hat. “Let me tell you about Vietnam.”
John Lipscomb, the manager of water quality sampling programs for Riverkeeper, an environmental advocacy group, noted that on Tuesday, a day before the fire in the sewage plant, city waters had been rated as “excellent” in quality and fit for swimming. On Thursday evening, after going out in a boat to take samples of the Hudson River, he noted that, without a doubt, “contamination levels in the river were high,” says the New York Times. Lipscomb also commented:
“This is giving us a picture of what it was like four decades ago. It’s going to show us how important the money we spent on North River has been to quality of life on the river for humans and other critters.”
The sewer treatment fire is a potent reminder of how much we need our rivers and waterways, and of how much we need to protect them. In ancient Greek mythology rivers were thought to be divinities — if there is a god of the Hudson, he must be in a literally very foul mood.
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Photo of Pier 40 on the Hudson River in June 2009 by calamity sal