Stinky subway station highlights New York’s grease problem

How a “big ball of oil” might have led to a sewage leak in a Brooklyn subway

All photos by Joel Wolfram unless otherwise indicated.

The rank smell at the Myrtle-Wyckoff Avenue L train station in Bushwick has faded, but a recent sewage leak that was responsible for the odor is a symptom of a citywide problem that won’t be going away anytime soon.

Greasy gunk is clogging up the sewer system

One worker for the city’s Department of Environmental Protection said “a big ball of oil,” was implicated in the subway station’s hygiene problem.

Fats, oils and grease — known as FOG to wastewater authorities — are a well-known menace to sewer systems everywhere, clotting up pipes and causing gross and unsanitary backups of sewage into homes and city streets. And now, it appears, you can add subway tunnels to the list.

62 percent of New York City sewer backups in 2013 were caused by grease.
DEP workers clean the sewer from above at Wyckoff Avenue and Linden Street.

The DEP worker was working to break up the blockage in the sewer line west of the station below Wyckoff Avenue three weeks ago. He said the grease ball somehow sent sewage flowing into the subway system, which, in turn, led to the unmistakable stench of human waste that haunted local subway riders for months.

A spokesman for the DEP, which maintains the city’s sewer system, confirmed that the agency has flushed the sewer and that it is now flowing normally.

Is the smell is gone?

Not quite, but it improved — at least for a little while.

“It’s died down a little bit,” said Carlos Vargas, 23, who was waiting for an L-train a week ago. “It used to be a lot worse.”

On Sunday, there were signs of a relapse: the distinctive sewage odor was unmistakably present. This time, subway workers pointed out, it was coming from the opposite end of the platform. Before, the Canarsie-bound trains carried the stench into the station. Now, the Manhattan-bound trains appeared to be doing so, suggesting an entirely new problem.

A train enters the station at Myrtle-Wyckoff on the Canarsie-bound track.

If grease is to blame, how could a clogged sewer line cause sewage to flow into the Myrtle-Wyckoff station?

This is unclear. The DEP spokesman said that an investigation it is conducting with the MTA has found no leaks or cracks in the sewer line itself.

There are still other ways that the backed up sewage could infiltrate the subway, said Robert Paaswell, a professor of civil engineering at City College and the director emeritus of the University Transportation Research Center. Spilled sewer water could have seeped through the subway walls, Paaswell said. Or, it was possible that the sewage backed up through the subway’s storm drains, some of which pour into the city’s sewer system.

The DEP spokesman said the department was still working with the MTA to determine exactly how the sewage got into the subway. Previous leaks — on the 6 line in the Bronx in 1997; on the G in Brooklyn in 2006 — suggest that pinpointing the source can take time. A contemporaneous article from The New York Times reported that a month into the investigation, the cause of the Bronx leak was still unknown.

How widespread are grease-related backups in New York City?

Fats, oils, and grease are the number one cause of sewage backups citywide. According to the city’s most recent State of the Sewers report, 62 percent of sewer backups in 2013 were caused by grease. The New York Times has reported that in the same year, it cost taxpayers $4.65 million to clear grease-clogged pipes.

How does so much grease end up in the sewers?

Grease gets washed down the drain in any kitchen that uses it for cooking or produces it as a by-product. The city requires restaurants that generate FOG to have working grease traps installed in their wastewater lines. The traps catch grease before it enters the building’s sewer pipe and reaches city sewer mains.

Diagram of a grease trap. (Courtesy NYC Department of Environmental Protection)

Once in the sewers, other objects that also shouldn’t be there, such as wet wipes and feminine hygiene products, can get caught in the grease and form a growing, solid mass that blocks sewer pipes.

What is being done about this?

“Utilities have no authority to regulate what happens in private households,” said Cynthia Finley, director of regulatory affairs for the National Association of Clean Water Agencies.

The DEP conducts inspections of some 24,000 restaurants across New York City to make sure they’re complying with grease trap regulations. Violations can be costly: up to $10,000 per ticket. The number of violations the department has issued has steadily decreased since implementing its program to combat the problem, the agency says. In 2015, DEP issued 557 violations, according to the city’s open data portal, down from 717 in 2010. DEP says it targets enforcement in areas where it notices chronic grease problems.

Getting people to stop putting grease down the drain in their homes, however, is not so straightforward.

“Utilities have no authority to regulate what happens in private households,” said Cynthia Finley, director of regulatory affairs for the National Association of Clean Water Agencies.

Instead, they have to get creative with their outreach efforts to make sure the message is heard. Finley pointed to Dallas’ “Cease the Grease,” program, which she said uses humor, social media, community events, and school programs to raise awareness.

In New York, DEP has conducted outreach efforts to raise awareness among residents in areas with grease problems. The efforts have included workshops, door-to-door outreach, and other events to inform the public about the importance of proper disposal. Their main recommendation is simple: pour cooled oil and grease into a non-recyclable container and place in the trash.

DEP’s program, too, is called “Cease the Grease.” As far as naming goes, it’s seems there’s room for more creativity yet in cities’ anti-grease campaigns.

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