2013-10-04 / Top Stories

Do You Smell What The Rock Is Cooking?

By Katie McFadden

Did you smell that? Residents made a big stink over an overly foul odor on Tuesday. The Rockaway Water Pollution Control Plant, while never smelling pleasant, was in need of some extra deodorant this week as those neighboring the facility found it unbearable.

The New York Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) was bombarded with calls from Rockaway residents through 311 on an unseasonably warm October Tuesday as the sewage treatment center was giving off an odor that some described as bad as the smell of a dead body. The smell was so overwhelming that an email alert was sent out on Tuesday to parents of students at Scholars’ Academy on Beach 104th Street, advising them to call 311 to complain about the stench as it had entered the building.

“We have noticed that the smells from the water sewage treatment plant at B108 and Beach Channel Drive have been increasingly foul as of late,” the email read. “Today, the odors are actually penetrating the school. Please call 311 to help motivate the DEP to address this matter.”

DEP was certainly motivated. The agency received several complaints from residents and local politicians including Councilman Eric Ulrich and Assemblyman Phil Goldfeder. Feeling the heat, Vincent Sapienza, the Deputy Commissioner for DEP, showed up to inspect the site early in the day.

In a letter to a concerned resident, Sapienza says that “Councilmember Ulrich’s staff and a Department of Education representative visited the plant yesterday, expressing concern about odors.” The smell was so strong that parents claim that some students were sent home after becoming sick. Yet a DEP spokesperson claims that it was “not a public health issue.”

The plant was inspected and operational adjustments were made on Tuesday. “Our process-control team put in place a few changes which should begin to improve things starting today,” Sapienza said. Goldfeder kept residents updated through Facebook, saying DEP used additives to clean the plant and reduce the smell. There was a noticeable difference within a few hours.

Although there’s no doubt that the plant has always produced an unpleasant smell, some residents say that the problem has gotten worse since Sandy. “There have been a number of challenges at the plant since Sandy, which we are still working through,” Sapienza admitted.

Sapienza further explained the situation, saying, “One issue that we’ve had to deal with this past year has been the reduced flow rates coming into the plant since Sandy. The intercepting sewer system was built to deliver 90 million gallons per day of sewage from the Rockaway Peninsula and Broad Channel, but since Sandy, only 14 to 19 million gallons per day is being generated by residents and businesses. This means that sewage moves very slowly and takes a longer time to get to the plant. And the long stretch of dry weather we’ve had during September obviously hasn’t helped. It’s been challenging to achieve required treatment levels at these flow rates while keeping odors in check.”

Although the plant was treated on Tuesday, Sapienza noted that Rockaway won’t be smelling like roses immediately. “It is unlikely that odors will be completely abated soon. We’ll continue to take odor readings along the perimeter fence line to track progress,” he said. Politicians have acknowledged that the plant’s pungent odor has been an ongoing issue since Sandy and even beyond. A day before the plant was causing noticeable problems, Goldfeder, along with U.S. Senators Charles E. Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand and Congressman Gregory Meeks announced that more than $8 million in federal funding for Sandy-related repairs will go towards the stench spreading culprit. Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) funding is being provided to the DEP to fix up the damage Sandy caused.

“The Rockaway Water Pollution Control Plant serves nearly 100,000 and is critical in making sure that our wastewater is free of contamination,” Schumer said in a press release. “Superstorm Sandy seriously damaged the facility, flooding its pipes with sea water, and so repairs are needed to move forward. I am pleased to announce this federal funding so that the Rockaway Water Pollution Control Plant can properly treat our wastewater in the future.”

The plant treats wastewater from a combined sewage collection system and drains storm water flow from an area of approximately 3,500 acres.

“Access to clean water is essential in ensuring the health and well-being of our families in southern Queens and Rockaway,” Goldfeder said. “Especially after Sandy, it is imperative that our families know their water sources are safe, protected and do not pose any potential health risks from the damages occurred during the storm.”

Like most of the peninsula, the Water Pollution Control Plant was flooded with roughly several feet of water during the storm. The plant contains a series of piping galleries and tunnels that inter-connect at the main processes of the facility. All of these parts were filled with saltwater during the storm, causing extensive damage. The damaged components included motors, lighting, pipe insulation, electrical components, instrumentation, gas detection equipment, pumps, structural components, boilers and generators.

There may be a more friendly fragrance in Rockaway’s future. The award, announced on September 30th, will go towards repairing these Sandy-related problems. Local politicians are not planning on giving up until proper steps are taken to fix the problem thoroughly.

“There is obviously a larger problem at this plant that I will continue to work to address,” Goldfeder said, addressing residents’ claims that the plant has always been a problem for Rockaway.

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