The Poop Pipe To Third Avenue

February 21, 2019

A change of plan to the proposed Lincoln Park sewage treatment facility improves the project but angers a South End neighborhood

I’m starting to realize why past mayors of Albany have gone out of their way to avoid dealing with the problems with the City’s disintegrating drainage system, irresponsibly allowing those problems with the system to grow progressively worse until they have become a massive crisis.  These are chronically unglamorous problems, fixing them most definitely won’t help an incumbent get reelected.  You, the elected official in charge of the City, spend a fortune tearing up the streets annoying the taxpayers where they live, and when the big messy project is done you can’t point with pride at your accomplishments because, well, your accomplishments are out of sight underground.

It gets worse. Faced with a limited amount of time and money, and a limited amount of political capital, you, the mayor, propose a practical solution to that problem.  But then it becomes clear that solution creates another problem.  So you find a fix for that problem.  But then that fix causes an entire neighborhood that up until now has not been affected by the original plan to angrily object to your fix.  

So what can be done to please and placate the angry upset people who live in that now affected neighborhood, in this case the residents of Third Avenue, a long downhill street that leads right to the main county-owned sewage treatment plant that sits along the Hudson River?  Perhaps the residents of that long neglected neighborhood could use some visible upgrades to their street.  Perhaps the City officials could ask them what they want.  Perhaps the City could provide some long needed improvements that have been pointedly denied to them for half a century or more.  Just a suggestion.

Looking Down Third Avenue, A Dreary Day In Late February Looking Down Third Avenue, A Dreary Day In Late February

Let’s recap for a bit. The City of Albany has a little problem with its street drainage system.  The biggest drain line, actually an underground river confined to a pipe called the Beaverkill which runs through Lincoln Park and carries 70% of the surface runoff in the City, has also been collecting raw sewage from uptown buildings and dumping that sewage straight into the Hudson River. It’s not supposed to do that. This has been happening for quite some time because over a hundred years ago when the system was built the street drain system was designed to carry overflow sewage whenever the regular sewer system is overwhelmed with sewage.  And that seems to happen a lot.

Back then nobody gave a damn about dumping waste into the river. Now in the 21st Century the State of New York has been, for a couple of decades now, asking everybody in the upstream Hudson River communities to please stop dumping sewage into the river.  But lately the State has gotten fed up with inaction by the communities, and in the case of the City of Albany outright evasion.  So now the State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) is imposing deadlines and threatening sanctions, thus the Albany City government has got to deal with the drainage problems right now whether the taxpaying voters like it or not.

This crisis has been dumped onto mayor Kathy Sheehan’s lap. Faced with the periodic spectacular flooding across a wide swath of the City, the throat gagging stink in and around Lincoln Park, the basement backups both in uptown houses and in downtown homes near the river, the street and public park cave-ins, the sewage discharges into the Hudson making South End waterfront development impossible, and above all a furious DEC breathing down her neck, the mayor has been forced to come up with a plan to deal with this chronically unglamorous problem whether she wants to or not. 

Albany Mayor Kathy Sheehan Discussing The Planned Lincoln Park Sewage Treatment Facility At An AVillage Meeting Last May Albany Mayor Kathy Sheehan Discussing The Planned Lincoln Park Sewage Treatment Facility At An AVillage Meeting Last May

Ah, the price of being a responsible public official. The mayor has been forced to work with what she has available. The best and proper solution, digging up a whole lot of streets and constructing a whole new sewage and street drain system, would cost well over a billion dollars at least, construction would last long past the State imposed deadline, and probably lose her the next election.  Or, as she put it, “Cause too much disruption.”

In any case the State is not going to provide a billion or two billion dollars to help fix this problem, the amount they are providing is something on the order of tens of millions.  So to make a long story short that I have related in much detail elsewhere, the City is planning to build a secondary sewage treatment plant astride the Beaverkill drain line on one end of The Ravine inside Lincoln Park.  The State is satisfied with this plan, and to my surprise very few people living around the park have been objecting to it, in fact many have welcomed it.

As for me, I don’t like it one bit, sacrificing a good chunk of our venerable public park to site a secondary sewage treatment facility.  This facility would never have been accepted by anyone living around Washington Park, a place where it conceivably could be sited because the Beaverkill drain line runs the length of that park also.   However, I very grudgingly accept the practical and political realities that are dropping this thing within site of my front porch.  But I don’t like it one bit.

1994 Cave-In Of The Beaverkill Almost Swallowed A Grown Man, Remains Unrepaired To This Day 1994 Cave-In Of The Beaverkill Almost Swallowed A Grown Man, Remains Unrepaired To This Day

So progress on this project was going fine for the City, but there was one little sticking point in the plan that a few people started to notice.  Perhaps more importantly it appears to have dawned on the mayor and on the water department officials involved in the project that sooner or later this little created problem would stand out and become all too noticeable.  Even though the proposed facility solves several long-neglected problems, it was starting to look like this new problem would almost for sure become politically disastrous up the road, not to mention stinky and dirty and downright repulsive. 

The original plan called for “solids” that are extracted from the rushing waters of the underground Beaverkill drain line to be “stored on site” in an outbuilding next to the facility and periodically removed by truck.  We’ve been repeatedly told that this part of the operation would be low key and hardly noticeable.  But would it really be?  And, judging by the faces and voices of the City officials that were doing the explaining, did anybody connected with the project really believe what they were telling us?

The problem is that a large component of the “solids” to be removed from the Beaverkill water and stored in an outbuilding to be built next to the facility building would be plain old everyday human poop.  This is, after all, the reason the State is getting upset over the discharges into the Hudson at the South End. During hot summer months the dissolved fecal material and free-floating human intestinal bacteria that feeds off the fecal material ends up suspended in the water of the Hudson River off the South End and becomes outrageously abundant.  The State DEC is not freaking out over leaves and crushed coffee cups, it’s the health hazard and environmental degradation caused by raw human poop that they want to see removed from the drain line before it pours into the river.

The Stinking Aeration Grate In The Ravine In Lincoln Park The Stinking Aeration Grate In The Ravine In Lincoln Park

Human poop, as we all know, stinks a bit when it is fresh.  But when it has been festering inside a drain line for a while it gives off hydrogen sulfide gas (H2S) generated by anaerobic bacteria.  This is why that aeration grate was installed on the Beaverkill drain line in The Ravine in Lincoln Park in the late 1930s, so that the H2S would not build up to dangerous levels inside the Beaverkill and explode.  And that is why The Ravine, which used to be a tourist attraction, was abandoned and allowed to get overgrown, because the H2S stink pouring from that aeration grate will gag a maggot, especially during warmer months when it tends to rise from the ravine and from manhole covers and waft across the park.

Just so you know, hydrogen sulfide is a full spectrum poison that rapidly corrodes iron and in concentrated form can kill you in a variety of ways besides explode.  You don’t want to breath it and you don’t want it on your skin. It is the gas that made the bomb trains that used to roll through the South End so dangerous for so many years, and why it was quietly removed from the train cars as public awareness of the irresponsible deadly behavior of the fossil fuel corporations began to spread. 

To be fair, concentrations of H2S inside the Beaverkill drain line never gets anywhere near the concentrations that were packed into the bomb trains when they were rolling through Albany. In my opinion, the fossil fuel corporation executives responsible for loading those trains with H2S, putting us all in serious danger (Lac Magantic) and causing an untold number of serious respiratory problems to those Albany citizens that had to inhale the fumes from those trains, I say those suits and ties responsible should all be locked up in solitary for life and several of them executed. I’m quite serious.

Albany March Against The Bomb Trains, May 2016 Albany March Against The Bomb Trains, May 2016

But even the low levels of H2S that have been emanating from that aeration grate in The Ravine and from various manholes since before World War 2 must have caused subtle respiratory problems to citizens who live and use Lincoln Park. (I think that for a while I was one of those citizens.) Thus mayor Sheehan is to be commended for bringing to the City water department engineers such as Mr. Joe Coffey and Mr. Bill Simcoe who have designed this facility to eliminate that aeration grate and presumably also the emanations of H2S.  It may not be the ideal solution but it is a solution.

But there was that problem with their original design, the storing of solids on site. Not cool.  Periodic removal of the poop infused crud would involve loading it onto honey trucks that would exit the park either on the north side, or more likely on the south side which would mean they’d be rolling practically past my own house. Totally not cool.  Presumably these honey trucks would head across the City to be dumped at the Rapp Road “Landfill” in the Pine Bush, which the mayor has been trying to shut down ever since she first got elected.  Majorly not cool.

So at the end of November another public meeting was called to explain a whole new plan being added to the proposal, a major modification really.  Like most of the other public meetings it was held at the public elementary school inside Lincoln Park next to the site of the proposed sewage treatment facility that has the grandiloquent name Thomas O’Brien Academy of Science and Technology, or TOAST.  About a hundred people showed up for the presentation, along with a crowd of elected officials including mayor Sheehan and Albany County executive Dan McCoy.

The Lincoln Park Sewage Treatment Facility, Showing the pipeline to Third Avenue (Click on image to see larger) The Lincoln Park Sewage Treatment Facility, Showing the pipeline to Third Avenue (Click on image to see larger)

The new plan is to eliminate storage of poop solids on site. The proposal is to lay a 30 inch pipe underground across the park to carry the solids.  The pipe will go along the high ground on the southern rim of Lincoln Park, cross Morton Avenue at Hawk Street, travel down Hawk and hook up with an existing underused 30 inch pipe about a third of the way down Third Avenue.  From there the solids, flushed with plentiful excess water from the Beaverkill, will travel down that long steep hill to the County owned sewage treatment plant situated on the waterfront between the Port of Albany and Island Creek Park.

The new plan does not involve spending more money, rather it involves shifting funding from one thing to another.  Since poop solids no longer need to be stored on site the proposed outbuilding no longer has to be as big and elaborate, all it needs is to be used for storage.  Also, if I understand correctly, some of the internal workings of the main facility need not be as elaborate.  Thus the money saved can be applied to the new pipe.

Mike Miller Of CHA Engineering Explains The Change Of Plan At TOAST In November Mike Miller Of CHA Engineering Explains The Change Of Plan At TOAST In November

According to the presentation at the meeting conducted by Mike Miller, the vice president of the engineering firm CHA which is coordinating the project, the pipeline to Third Avenue will be laid mostly by tunneling and will involve digging only at a few points.  Thus there will be no long, deep trenches and minimal disruption to the park and to the roadways.  Which does not mean no disruption.  For example, auto access to Third Avenue and to Osborne Street, both one-ways that run downhill from Hawk Street, will be completely cut off during the tunneling.  We did not hear how that will be dealt with.

This change of plan means that the existing full sewage treatment plant on the waterfront, which is run by Albany County, will be getting a pretty big new source of concentrated sewage pouring into the facility. Since tunneling the pipeline across the park to Third Avenue, amazingly, is quite a bit less expensive than constructing that originally planned storage building in the ravine, there is a fair sized pile of money left over.  That spare cash will be given to the County to upgrade the waterfront sewage treatment plant so it can increase capacity and install better screens, also for several other improvements that will increase capacity and efficiency. 

The County has been wanting to do these upgrades for a long time anyway.  County executive Dan McCoy indicated that he is more than happy with this deal. City officials are pleased with themselves for proposing this change and coming to this arrangement. Everyone is happy.  It’s a win-win all around, everything tied together with a neat bow.

Some Of The Creighton Storey Apartment Complex Overlooking Third Avenue Some Of The Creighton Storey Apartment Complex Overlooking Third Avenue

Well no, not everyone.  In January City officials met with about thirty people at the meeting space at Creighton Storey Homes on Third Avenue, located about where the new pipeline will meet the existing pipe under the street.  Most attending lived along the street, the rest of us who attended lived nearby.  The mood of the residents of the street was not accommodating.

As several Third Avenue residents put it succinctly, “We get the shit.”  This refers to more than just the sewage extracted from the Beaverkill being sent to their street, it’s all about the neglect that the City has visited upon their neighborhood and upon so many other neighborhoods in the South End.  For at least the last 50 years the South End has been treated like a sacrifice zone, a place that is compromised by design, Third Avenue having received a fair share of this political policy of downgrading as a result of intentional neglect.

People were very suspicious that this new source of waste running under their streets would back up into their homes at some point. This has happened from time to time, particularly on the lower part of the street.  Next time they had to deal with backups, they wanted to know, would they have to from now on deal with this concentrated sludge imported from Lincoln Park?

Water Commissioner Joe Coffey Explains To A Third Avenue Resident While Deputy Water Commissioner Bill Simcoe Listens Water Commissioner Joe Coffey Explains To A Third Avenue Resident While Deputy Water Commissioner Bill Simcoe Listens

Water Commissioner Coffey assured everyone that the water department plans to run cameras down the street drain line to make sure no houses are hooked up to the drain line carrying the poop from Lincoln Park, and if they find any hooked to it they will switch them to the proper sewer line.  Such anomalies have been found, for example, the five story Argus Building at 512 Broadway was discovered to have never been properly hooked up to the sewers back in 1913 when they were installed down there.  Instead, some 30 apartments and a ground floor retail space inside the building have been dumping sewage directly into the Hudson River for over 100 years.

Third Avenue residents complained that bad odors have been periodically wafting out of the storm drains, their quite understandable fear is that running sewage down the drain line will only make this problem worse.  Mr. Coffey was ready with an answer, the plan is to rebuild the drains so that the gas traps under the street drain grates, which are basically the same as the traps underneath household sinks and bathtubs that prevent sewer smells from rising out of drains, will be carefully inspected and rebuilt.  He told us that this has been standard procedure on recent street rebuilding projects such as at Dana Avenue and Madison Avenue.

In addition there will be high tech flow valves monitoring the line.  The valves “literally send emails” when the flow is over capacity. In fact, the City water department was recently lauded for their use of such cutting edge devices. We were assured that except under the most extreme circumstances, flow would remain well below the capacity of the pipes and it was unlikely these devices would be triggered.

Chuck Houghton, Chairman Of The Albany Water Board And Joanne Morton, President Of The South End Neighborhood Association At The Creighton Storey Meeting Chuck Houghton, Chairman Of The Albany Water Board And Joanne Morton, President Of The South End Neighborhood Association At The Creighton Storey Meeting

The residents remained skeptical.  None of this sounded to them like improvements, they continued to view this plan as an imposition, which indeed it is.  They can look forward to their street being torn up and completely blocked off for a while, along with numerous diggings along the length of it.  When all is done they will see new potholes in the pavement and nothing visible to benefit them.

So maybe it would be a good idea for the City to find out from the residents of Third Avenue what they would like to see done for their street, what improvements would benefit them the most.  Paving?  Sidewalks? Lighting? Facade improvements? Greenery and parks?  Low interest loans and grants?  How about constructing a connecting road halfway down the street along the City owned right of way to the next street over? How about something that someone like me who doesn’t live on the street would never think of?

Considering how long Third Avenue has been deliberately left to disintegrate by previous City administrations it would be right and fair to turn some City resources toward their neighborhood.  While the current administration is to be commended for keeping the residents informed about the plans to divert Beaverkill sewage in their direction, something past administrations would not have bothered to do, that is not enough.  As many of the attendees at the meeting pointed out, they were not being asked if they wanted this but were being told to accept it.

Street Sign At Third Avenue And Hawk Street Street Sign At Third Avenue And Hawk Street

Really, the residents of Third Avenue don’t want sludge diverted to run under their street any more than I want a secondary sewage treatment plant in the Park outside my door.  But the facility in the park is being sited along with a package of improvements to the park to make it palatable to those of us who live nearby.  It is only fair that if the residents of Third Avenue have to play host to a river of sewage under their feet that they too get some tangible benefits that could help make their street a much more desirable place to live.