You have probably heard of the Circle Line and the Staten Island Ferry, but what about the sludge boat? Yes, it's an actual vessel that cruises the waterways of New York City.
We took a ride on the Port Richmond, one of five tankers in the City Department of Environmental Protection's fleet. The 290-foot-long vessel is used by the DEP to transport sludge, the organic material removed during the wastewater treatment process, between some of its 14 wastewater resource recovery facilities. On board the boat we hitched a ride on, the liquid sludge was headed to a plant in the Bronx that turns it to solid sludge.
For years, sludge was just dumped in the ocean. That was the original purpose of the DEP boats, but that has now changed.
"Starting in the early 1990s, that process was prohibited and now we have facilities that take this material and actually dry it out, make it into a cake, and that gets transported off site," said Vincent Sapienza, the DEP commissioner.
It is taken to landfills, or better yet, used for fertilizer, mine reclamation, or even energy pellets.
New Yorkers produce 1.3 billion gallons of wastewater every day. That includes everything that goes down the drain, toilet, and into the sewers. The crew of six on the Port Richmond, named for one of the DEP facilities on Staten Island, is part of the team that's mission ultimately leads to cleaner waterways around the city.
"It's the only place I know in the world that uses boats to transfer sludge between facilities like this," said Pam Elardo, DEP deputy commissioner for the Bureau of Wastewater Treatment.
The newest mission for the Department of Environmental Protection is testing wastewater for coronavirus.
This could provide valuable information for city health officials as they try to detect outbreaks in different neighborhoods around the city. Deputy commissioner Elardo said the RNA, or viral genetic material, of COVID-19 is detectable in sewage.
"The key is, yes ,it's there, but what does it mean? And that's where we have to really get the epidemiology engaged," said Elardo.
Elardo added that lab techniques need to be refined as they move forward with the process, and the DEP is growing that capability.