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It Happens

So, when was the last time you shit in the Hudson River?

Never, you say? Youíd never think of engaging in such a disgustingly crude and irresponsibly polluting act.

Well, your unprocessed shit may be ending up in the river a lot more often than you think, especially if you live in one of the riverside municipalities that depend upon sewage plants along the Hudsonís banks.

Iím sure Iíve shit in the Hudson many times over the years. I never did it with intent or by dropping my drawers at riverís edge. It might have been the result of forces outside of my direct control, but it was my shit, nonetheless, that went floating downstream.

So how is it that our shit gets rolling down the river without our knowledge? Perhaps if we took a moment to follow the journey of a typical turd through the Albany sewage system youíd have a much better idea about how this might be possible.

We have to start first with water, for no turd will be going anywhere without plenty of water to speed it along. Our local sewage-treatment systems are dependent upon large amounts of water. It has been estimated that for every ton of excrement flushed it takes another 1,000 to 2,000 tons of water to propel it along its waste-treatment journey.

The water that I use in my house is from the Alcove Reservoir, a body of water that is located in the Town of Coeymans on the Hannacroix Creek, a tributary that eventually flows into the Hudson. It has recently been under heightened security due to terrorist threats. This water travels more than 20 miles to fill my toiletís reservoir for each flush. Itís strange that we defend clean water against terrorists so we can defile it with excrement.

Now, turds donít just appear in thin air. Turds are made up of that matter remaining after the body has processed food into energy. Theyíre post-nutritional. They reflect the bodyís preferences and inefficiencies in utilizing food, resulting in a rich mix of unused nutrients passing through our digestive systems and out into the world. As much as 80 percent of this human manure is water. The remaining matter contains up to 55 percent carbon, 5 to 7 percent nitrogen, 4 to 5 percent calcium, 3 to 5 percent phosphorus and 1 to 2 percent potassium. We shit this rich waste into a porcelain bowl filled with water and spend millions of dollars trying to get it to disappear.

With each flush, I let loose about one-and-a-half-gallons of water (though many U.S. toilets use up to 5 gallons). The water rushes down the toilet, driving the turd along plumbing that eventually leads through the front basement wall of my house. There, it enters plastic piping and runs in a straight line under my front yard and into the city sewer line, just below the sidewalk.

When the turd leaves this plastic pipe and enters the city sewer, it has left my jurisdiction in the sewer pipeline and become the responsibility of the city-owned part of the system. The turd then progresses across town, twisting and turning through a maze of progressively larger pipes, heading east toward the river.

Eventually the turd enters a final length of large piping that delivers it to the South Wastewater Treatment Plant at the Port of Albany, where it is processed and chemically treated under the jurisdiction of the Albany County Sewer District. The more solid constitution of our traveling turd settles into sludge that is eventually incinerated and then trucked off to a landfill. The liquid aspect of this bit of shit is released into the Hudson via a diffuser located out in the middle of the river near the portís shed No. 5. This is how things normally flow.

When heavy or persistent rains hit the area, the flow changes. Like many older cities in the United States, Albanyís storm sewers that collect runoff from the streets (including all the toxic contaminants swept up in the flow) empty into the same sewer system as the flushes rushing down from my toilet. When a flash flood hits the sewage collection system in conjunction with, for example, a summer thunderstorm, runoff pours into streetís storm sewers. This can cause the entire system to flood, with unprocessed shit discharged directly into the river. It is in this way that I have made unplanned contributions to the Hudsonís feculence as have many unsuspecting Metroland readers.

The Capital District Regional Planning Commission wants to conduct a three-year study to find ways to prevent your shitting in the river. While separating street runoff from the rest of the sewage system would provide one costly option to cut down on the untreated excreta flowing down river, the magnitude of this environmental problem should warrant some reasonable foresight. With a growing population, it should be expected that the ability to waste good water to float our shit around town will be seriously reduced while the amount of shit produced will inevitably rise. With all the growing concerns we have about the quality of the foods we eat, shouldnít we show at least a little concern for the quality of the shit we leave behind?

Perhaps what is needed first is to try to adopt a different view of our shit. In The Humanure Handbook (free downloadable copies at humanure), Joe Jenkins provides another important perspective on dealing with our dung. He examines it as a potential resource for composting and applying to soil building. He reviews the research on how humanure can be safely used in domestic agriculture. He suggests that as a culture we need to become less fecophobic (shit fearing). Perhaps instead of relying on massive engineering and construction projects that will provide only high-cost short-term solutions, we need to focus on simpler approaches that better integrate our shit into the environment over the long run.

I donít want to shit in the river anymore, how about you?

óTom Nattell

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