New York’s “Sludge Boats”

Mar 17, 2014

by Johnathan Thayer, Archivist

Have you ever wondered what happens to New York City’s endless flow of sludge, the residual gunk leftover from sewage and industrial treatment processes? The city has a lot of it. Sludge disposal—like many of the city’s invisible inner-workings—depends on ships and the merchant mariners who work on them.

Given the city’s enormous output of waste (both human and industrial), disposing of New York’s sludge has posed a serious logistical problem for the city’s public administrators over time. Initial solutions turned out to be dangerously shortsighted. Before the city used ships for disposal, treatment plants would drain off sludge directly into the harbor and rivers that surround the five boroughs. This system caused significant environmental damage—not to mention the health risks imposed on New York City residents.

By the 1930s, the city figured out a slightly better idea. Funded as part of the Federal Work Projects Administration, new “sludge boats” transported waste out to sea, dumping it further away from shore. George Ilse, veteran merchant mariner of World War II and a member of the New York City Edwin J. O’Hara chapter of the American Merchant Marine Veterans Association, worked on sludge boats for twenty-five years:

You had either the 8:00 – 4:00 or you had the 4:00 – 12:00 shift. The boats would be loaded [at the sewage treatment plants]. When we’re all there, we’d take off, we’d go out, twelve miles out in the ocean to the dumping area. We usually took two to three hours, sometimes more if the boat was one of the older boats, then we’d dump over.

The odor of the sludge boats’ cargo constantly accompanied crews. But George never seemed to mind it:

You got used to it pretty quick. To me it always smelled like a bunch of crude oil. It was a distinctive smell. Even now when I go by a sewage treatment plant, I say, “You know, that smells almost like the sludge boats.” And they had some kind of a perfume; I have no idea when they put it in, just to give it a little different smell.

The steady nature of the work made it an attractive option for mariners with families who preferred not to be on long voyages out to sea:

That was a fairly good system we had, because a trip was a day’s work. So if we finished at 2:00 in the afternoon (a six-hour trip) that was the end of our day usually. We would just pack up and go home.

While the sludge boats were an improvement on the city’s original plan for disposing of sludge, in 1971 Congress put much needed revisions in place with the Marine Protection, Research, and Sanctuaries Act of 1972. The Act included stricter permit requirements for ocean dumping and created designated dumping sites, with the intention of placing firmer controls over the disposal of environmentally hazardous materials. Since the enactment of the 1988 Ocean Dumping Ban Act, New York City’s sludge boats primarily engage in transporting waste to treatment facilities.

Thankfully, much has changed in how New York City deals with its sludge. What has not changed is the fact that merchant mariners continue to be the human face of this invisible sector of the city’s public works management.

For more information, see Walter Goyzueta, John Chen, et al, “Marine Vessels Serving New York City,” Clearwaters 31, no. 2 (Summer 2001). | Link