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PEP Oct 2014
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Public Employee Press

Local 2906 Marine workers sail
New vessels for a cleaner New york

By DIANE S. WILLIAMS


Piloting the MV Port Richmond into Whale Creek: Capt. John Pawlowsky.




Mariner Ibrahim Taha


Engineer Thomas Lyons

The proverbial conundrum about threading a camel through the eye of a needle is answered daily by the members of Mariners Local 2906 as they navigate a huge city Dept. of Environmental Protection sludge boat under a low drawbridge and through the impossibly narrow Whale Creek to remove waste from the Newtown Town Sewage Treatment Plant and aid the clean-up and redevelopment of Brooklyn's long-neglected waterfront.

The MV Port Richmond is one of three new state-of-the-art sludge boats - the Hunts Point, the Rockaway and the Port Richmond - designed by Rolls Royce and built by Bollinger Shipbuilders. The union Engineers and Mariners sailed the first of the new ships from Louisiana to New York City in January, underwent weeks of training, tweaked the vessels to the city's needs and specifications and put them into service. In March they began sailing the East and Hudson rivers.

"Each vessel costs about $28 million dollars and hauls 140,000 cubic feet of waterlogged sludge, 50 percent more than older sludge boats in DEP's fleet," explained Local 2906 President Jon Bailey. "It was more cost effective than building a $1 billion pipeline."

Former Mayor Mike Bloomberg pushed through plans for a massive land sell-off to private developers that included revitalizing the city's dilapidated waterfront from Red Hook to Greenpoint in Brooklyn and into Queens.


First Mate Abraham Lutterodt


Mariner Chris Losi

Skilled crew

DEP now had a monumental task: to clean up Newtown Creek, one of the most polluted waterways in the United States; to satisfy community and environmental groups' concerns about toxins and disgusting odors from nearby wastewater treatment plants, and to resolve the traffic congestion created in gentrified Greenpoint whenever the Pulaski drawbridge is raised.

DEP employees in DC 37 Locals 2906, 1320, 375, 376, 983 and 1549 work around the clock to clean and maintain waterways and keep pure drinking water flowing to the people of New York City. The marine crews face the daily challenge of piloting the MV Port Richmond, a slow moving, flat-bottomed vessel with no keel, through Hell Gate - the East River's treacherous strait of rocks and turbulent currents - into the shallow creeks of Brooklyn and Queens.

"Everyone is professional and knows his job," said Sludge Boat Captain John Pawlowsky, who operates the three sets of controls spanning the vessel's width. The skilled seamen - Captains, Engineers, Assistant Engineers, and Mariners (Able Bodied Seamen), and Marine Oilers on land, are members of Marine Workers Local 2906. The specifications for their hard-to-recruit jobs demand 13-hour days, sometimes longer, and at times exceed the responsibilities of ocean-going merchant marine crews.

Each crew member goes through background checks by the FBI and the city to work at DEP's secured facilities and to comply with standards set by the U.S. Coast Guard. In addition, Oilers have other responsibilities that require permits and training with the city Fire Dept.

The crew sails around busy New York Harbor, traversing the East and Hudson rivers into cramped waterways and creeks to reach DEP plants that process tons of sludge. They collect the sewage skimmed from city residents' output of millions of gallons of wastewater processed at DEP's network of facilities. Their malodorous cargo can give off explosive methane gas.

The needle's eye

Shorter and wider than other sludge boats, the MV Port Richmond glides through the East River's obstacle course of tugboats, barges, yachts and even kayaks. The massive vessel slows to three knots, hangs a left and slips beneath the Pulaski Bridge, passing through the needle's eye with masts lowered to avoid opening the Brooklyn drawbridge as cars, trucks and bicycles rush by overhead without interruption.

The design elements that allow the MV Port Richmond to pass uneventfully through shallow and narrow Newtown Creek make it less agile and more difficult to pilot. Capt. Pawlowsky said, "This job requires a higher level of skill than I needed to pilot the Staten Island Ferry."

The crew makes the whole voyage through Hell Gate into the shallow waters of Whale Creek under the Pulaski look easy - but it's not. First Mate Abraham Lutterodt said, "We have no control over nature's critical variables - the winds and the currents - so every time we make this trip we must account for that and watch for smaller watercraft."

Unlike cars, boats don't have brakes. The sludgeboat Captain and crew carefully navigate the river, watching the waters and docks, calculating distances and clearances for the vessel's propellers to avoid running aground or other incidents the Coast Guard mandates they report.

"It takes operating with skilled precision and constant communication between the Captain, the crew on deck and the Engineers below to run this vessel safely. There are a lot of risks, a lot of moving parts," said Lutterodt of the stressful voyages. "This job can cause you to sprout gray hairs."

After navigating under the Pulaski, the Captain shifts the MV Port Richmond into reverse to back into narrow Newtown Creek and safely reach DEP's secured dock. Docking is no small feat as the crew must avoid three ever-present private barges that cramp the creek, two belonging to the scrap metal yard on the Queens bank and one on the opposite bank that hauls imported stone.

Safe waters

As the MV Port Richmond docks, two Mariners, Ibrahim Taha and Craig Losi, hustle to tie off the vessel and quickly maneuver its crane to hoist oversized vacuum hoses that load sludge from the Newtown Creek Wastewater Treatment Plant. The vessel's closed odor-controlled system meets high environmental standards and makes the operation practically odorless.

Once the sludge is safely loaded, the MV Port Richmond sails back to the East River, this time with the added weight of 140,000 cubic feet of sewage. Depending on DEP's needs, Local 2906 crews make two or more trips a day. Said Lutterodt, "It a Houdini-like feat to get this right each and every time."



 
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