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Love stinks (in a good way), and other lessons of the Valentine's Day sewage tour

Nina Agrawal, Los Angeles Times on

Published in News & Features

NEW YORK -- Becky Van and Kale Novalis knew exactly when and where they were going to tell each other "I love you" for the first time.

It would be just before Valentine's Day. They would visit a landmark with a view of the Manhattan skyline. It was a place that fascinated them both but where neither had been, and which delivered a crucial service to millions of New Yorkers. And it would offer them a particular, er, aroma.

The couple had signed up for a Valentine's Day tour of the Newtown Creek Wastewater Treatment Plant, the largest of 14 wastewater treatment facilities in New York City.

Aside from being located next to Newtown Creek, a federal Superfund toxic waste site, the plant's claim to fame is eight stainless-steel-clad, egg-shaped sludge digesters, which only a few other cities have. (It has also been the filming site for TV shows, include "Blue Bloods," "The Americans" and "The Good Wife.")

The city's Department of Environmental Protection has been offering an annual Valentine's tour of the eggs since 2012. It's free and open to the public.

The idea was mere coincidence, former plant chief Jim Pynn said. He received an email from someone who pointed out that the plant's regularly scheduled monthly tour would fall on Valentine's Day in 2012. She asked what he planned to do differently, Pynn said.

"I said, 'I'm going to give everybody a kiss who shows up,'" Pynn said, not quite thinking it through.

Word quickly spread, forcing Pynn to come up with an idea. He called Hershey Co., which donated thousands of chocolate kisses so that he could keep his word, Pynn said.

Ever since then, the tour, which doesn't always fall on Valentine's Day, has remained popular. The four time slots offered this year filled up within four hours. (The city also offers public tours around Earth Day, in April, and as part of New York's annual "Open House" events in the fall.)

"I was on 15 minutes after it became available," said Renae Widdison, 30, a recent urban planning graduate who got the tour as a present for her girlfriend, Ash Sanders.

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