Known the World Over

Valentine’s Day tours at Brooklyn’s Newtown Creek treatment plant bring a record crowd and international publicity
Known the World Over
Jim Pynn, superintendent at the Newtown Creek Wastewater Treatment Plant, promised visitors a Hershey’s Kisses chocolate and a spectacular view of Manhattan’s east side with plant tours on Valentine’s Day.

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Jim Pynn never dreamed a single email about a tour of his treatment plant would lead to publicity across the nation and as far away as New Zealand.

But that’s what happened when word got out that he was leading tours of the Newtown Creek Wastewater Treatment Plant on Valentine’s Day. Pynn, superintendent at the plant in Brooklyn, N.Y., promised visitors a Hershey’s Kisses chocolate and a spectacular view of Manhattan’s east side.

On the Friday before Valentine’s Day, Pynn did 14 interviews with local and national media. Comedians Jay Leno and Jimmy Fallon mentioned the event in the monologues on their programs. Best of all, the day’s tours drew 250 visitors — about five times as many as usual.

“It was really a very fun time,” says Pynn. “People enjoyed being interviewed by the media that were there. All the reactions were positive. You would expect some sly comments or silly off-color jokes about wastewater treatment, but that didn’t happen.”


A happy accident

It all happened mostly by luck. The treatment plant runs public tours on the second Tuesday of each month, and in February it happened to be the 14th. A woman signing up for the tour asked what would be done differently in honor of Valentine’s Day. “I answered that we were going to give out Hershey’s Kisses,” Pynn recalls.

He suspects the woman shared that information with The Brooklyn Paper, a local weekly. On Feb. 9, the New York Daily News carried the story with a picture of Pynn before a large window overlooking the plant. From there the story hit the news wire services and was picked up almost everywhere imaginable — on local radio and TV, on the Today show and other network programs, in USA Today and newspapers all over the country and overseas.

The highlight of the tours was a walk to the top of the plant’s egg-shaped digesters. “The eggs stand 130 feet above grade, above all the other buildings in the area, and we have a clear shot of a beautiful view of Manhattan,” Pynn says.


Great opportunity

Pynn didn’t waste the chance to preach the importance of wastewater treatment. “I think a lot of people are generally interested in our facility, and I think more people are becoming environmentally aware,” he says.

“When people come and we’re able to explain how the water is delivered, treated and taken away, they leave in a sort of amazement. Once we had them as a captive audience, I did my normal routine. We have a PowerPoint presentation, and I went over the history of the city infrastructure, dating back to the late 1600s when the first Dutch and English settled.

“I told how we progressed from wells and privies in the backyards, to sewer systems emanating out to the shoreline, to collecting the sewage and conveying it to our 14 treatment plants. We have diagrams explaining the processes. They were very interested groups of people. I think everyone would say they had a great time.

“There were lovers holding hands. People were dressed up a little bit fancy. A lot of folks wore red for the occasion. They got up on top of the eggs and looked at the view. They were holding hands. People were smooching and kissing. The Hershey Company donated 4,000 of its chocolates, and people were taking one, two and handfuls of them.

“Some of the visitors were senior citizens who remembered the neighborhood and the old plant and how it stunk. They were very pleased to see the new facility. They praised the architecture, they praised the technology, and I got a little bit of praise, too. They were impressed that we have a well-run organization and that we were able to portray the department in such a positive way. I think the people were surprised to be treated so nicely and informed so well.”


Lessons learned

Pynn believes there’s a lesson in his experience for clean-water operators anywhere. “We provide a hidden service, and the more the public knows about what we do, the better,” he says. “If there’s any kind of enticement to get the public in — whether it’s an environmental fair, an event where you open the plant to future young scientists, or any kind of gimmick — that’s a good thing.

“Once you have them there, you need a good, structured program to inform them about what you do. I think the public will really appreciate coming through and seeing what their tax dollars or the money from their water meter bills has allowed your city to do for them.”


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