Jun 6, 2010

And Now For a Word about Sewage, er Biosolids

On a recent Saturday afternoon (yesterday), the excellent Radical Cartographer (and friend) Lize Mogel was up in Harlem's Riverbank State Park, an incredible landscape built on top of one of the city's biggest sewage treatment plants, for a picnic and talk sponsored by the Whitney Independent Study program and the Design Trust for Public Space. She baked a (delicious) chocolate cake plotting out the locations of the city's sewerage infrastructure and recounted the exciting and harrowing tale of the movements of the city's emanations--from the private sphere of the individual through the public water treatment system, into the arms of private companies, and from there to the various states that allow the sludge to be spread upon the land as "biosolids" for fertilizer.

I live blocks from the Newtown Creek plant (seen here in a view from George Trakas's blossoming Newtown Creek Nature Walk), and one of my first news stories for Metropolis in 2001 was about the Polshek Partnership's redesign and the accompanying park, educational exhibit, and public art installation by Vito Acconci. (This was also NOT a page, needless to say, that the magazine's advertisers were clamoring to be placed opposite.)

The takeaway from this perhaps is that humans have been living in a terrain composed of recycled biomass since the beginning of time, but we have only been introducing man-made chemicals, heavy metals, biological agents, and manufactured compounds into the water cycle since the modern age. Nobody really knows what the consequences are of combining, concentrating, and growing vegetables in these industrial products. Luckily we have reason to be 100 percent confident that federal regulations and government agencies would never let a man-made catastrophe destroy the ecosystem of an entire region and threaten the sustainability of life on earth.

There's also a story here about the extent to which landscape architects are now theorizing about and beginning to be actively involved in creating large-scale infrastructures that remediate the effects of human activity on the environment, which I will report on in greater detail in another place.  - STEPHEN ZACKS


  1. Your 100% confidence in the US Environmental Protection Agency's rules governing the use of biosolids on farmland is sadly misplaced. The latest National Academy of Sciences report warned that the US rules are based on very weak science, or no science at all. For decades the EPA has worked with the industry that profits from sludge/biosolids spreading to ignore and cover up the serious health and environmental problems linked to this controversial practice.
    Biosolids is most likely the most pollutant-rich waste produced by modern society. Every month every institution, industry, hospital, business in New York and in the rest of the country is permitted to discharge 33 pounds of hazardous waste into waste water treatment plants. Here, these pollutants, together with thousands of other man-made chemicals are REMOVED from the waste water and CONCENTRATE in the resulting biosolids. This is why the Federal Clean Water Act defines biosolids as a pollutant. Hundreds of sludge-exposed rural people have become sick from sludge, much of which was generated in NYC. Cattle have died after ingesting forage grown on land treated with biiosolids, wells have become polluted.
    Most major food companies do not accept produce grown on land treated with biosolids.
    This complex mixture of industrial and human wastes does not belong on our farmland and gardens. The practice is neither beneficial,safe, nor sustainable. For science-based information about the many risks of land applying biosolids, visit www.biosolidsfacts.org

  2. Many many thanks for the valuable information and for your comment. Did my joke about the Gulf oil spill and the failure of energy legislation not come off at all?

  3. Stephen: at first I thought you were being sarcastic. But then there are many bloggers and others who DO believe that current federal legislation protects our health and environment, and that the agencies that are supposed to regulate industry are NOT in bed with the industries they are supposed to regulate--that I was not sure.
    I am glad the 100% statement was meant to be a joke.

  4. Thanks, I have added a link for clarification.