NYC treatment plant fire

NYC treatment plant fire

As gallons of raw sewage escaped into the Hudson River and threatened to create an environmental disaster for New York City during its peak summer season, Xylem came to the rescue to restore operations at the wastewater treatment plant. 

On July 20, 2011, Manhattan’s main wastewater treatment facility, North River, was rocked by an explosion and a fire, knocking out the plant’s five 100-MGD (378.5 Mld) capacity pumps. This was a disaster for the New York City plant which processes around 125 million gallons of wastewater per day, servicing around 600,000 people.

As firefighters rushed to control the fire, millions of gallons of untreated sewage gushed into the nearby Hudson and Harlem Rivers. To make matters worse, the sewage leakage threatened to close four local beaches on Staten Island and in Brooklyn, crowded with New Yorkers trying to escape the soaring summer temperatures.

New York City Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) officials and contractors scrambled to restore power at North River and get the engines and pumps back in operation to avoid violating federal wastewater discharge rules.

Confronted with a potential catastrophe, one of the first calls the DEP made was to Pumping Services, Inc., the local distributor for Xylem’s Flygt-branded submersible pumps. John Corkery, Pumping Services’ regional sales manager, remembers the call. 

“After understanding the situation, I immediately contacted the Xylem team and determined that we had plenty of large Flygt submersible pumps available to help fix the situation – but they were hours away in Ohio and Georgia,” he explains.

After a briefing, Corkery enlisted the support of Ryan Booth, sales engineer with Xylem’s Godwin business. Both men were onsite immediately and Booth stayed there for two 36-hour stretches to deal with the emergency. 

Once the DEP authorized the emergency equipment, Corkery and Booth mobilized teams to get the equipment onsite to manage the job. Xylem trucks hit the road from as far west as Ohio and as far south as South Carolina and began arriving on site about ten hours after the orders had been placed for the Flygt and Godwin pumps. Corkery had ten pumps in Cincinnati and Atlanta that he pulled into action, including six 12-MGD Flygt submersible wastewater units. Additional Flygt submersible dewatering pumps were brought in from the Middlesex facility. These pumps were used to drain several feet of firefighting water from the dry pit room where the pumps were located.

“I’ve been in several emergency response projects, but I’ve never had to mobilize this much stuff so quickly,” recalls Booth. “We had equipment moving in from all over the country.”

With the plant’s five pumps out of service, Corkery recommended an emergency “pump-around” to transport raw sewage to the plant’s primary treatment equipment, a necessary but complex exercise. “We were asked to lift wastewater 65 feet, so it immediately became a submersible pump application,” says Corkery. 

Booth knew that “without pipes and a means to transport sewage, those pumps weren’t going to be worth a thing,” so he called in his lead pipe fusion technician, Bob Spinner Jr., who quickly got six technicians onsite. For over 72 hours, trailers kept coming and going like “freight train” deliveries to bring in additional pipe. Around 9,000 feet of high density polyethylene pipe (HDPE) was needed for the pump-around.

Within record time the pump-around was in full swing and a 24-hour operations center had been set up to provide information to the DEP and other contractors working at the plant. Inside the damaged engine room, it was around 125°F (50°Celsius) and the smell of sewage, fumes and burned equipment was overwhelming. Workers spent 20 minutes inside the plant and 20 minutes on buses, brought in to serve as break and meeting rooms, to recuperate.

“It was a pretty bad situation,” Corkery admits. “The level of hydrogen sulfide gas in the air was awful due to the stagnant water and temperature. There were hoses, lift equipment and cabling all over.”

The hard work paid off. By 9:30 p.m. on July 23, the DEP reported that the sewage was no longer flowing into the river. The Flygt pumps were operating smoothly and reliably, and each was performing at a rate of 10 million gallons per day. 

Summing up the response to the emergency, Steve Askew, DEP Plant Superintendent for the North River facility said, “It is really an impressive installation. The timetable that it took to get it here and get it up and running, from the thought process to operation, was literally just a few days.”

“I think the problem-solving ability and the sheer magnitude of the job was amazing,” Booth says. “Being there when the customer needs us with the right equipment at the right time has always been our backbone but the mobilization itself and how quickly we pulled it off was a feat in itself.” Agreeing with him, Corkery admits that it was “an amazing site for four days.” 

By a stroke of luck, this incident meant that the North River plant’s pumps were well prepared for the 5.8-magnitude earthquake that rattled the East Coast of the US in late August, and the flooding by Hurricane Irene, within weeks of each other.

by Alannah Eames, Photo: