Why New York has the most valuable muck in the world

As pro­gress on the much-delayed Sec­ond Avenue sub­way line creeps along, one ques­tion has undoubt­ed­ly occurred to the many New York­ers who wit­ness the queues of dump trucks arriv­ing and depart­ing every day: “What do they do with all the rocks and dirt that are exca­vat­ed from the site?”

Col­lo­qui­al­ly known as muck, hun­dreds of thou­sands of pounds of this stuff are to be exca­vat­ed by project’s end. To give an idea of the scale of the project, just the planned 72nd Street sta­tion alone, which is being exca­vat­ed from solid rock, is esti­mat­ed to yield  375,000 cubic yards of muck. This amounts to 40 to 70 truck­loads a day, with each truck hav­ing a car­ry­ing capac­i­ty of about 20 tons. What does the city do with all this stuff? Well, as it hap­pens they can do quite a bit with it.

In fact, the New York that we know and love today is the result of gen­er­a­tions of recy­cled muck being put to good use.

New York is a city known world-wide for its ver­ti­cal expan­sion. The fact that Man­hat­tan is an island, and that its bor­ders were reached gen­er­a­tions ago, means that the city has no where to expand but up. Well, actu­al­ly this isn’t entire­ly true. It might sur­prise some peo­ple to learn that the island of Man­hat­tan has itself expand­ed to accom­mo­date the demands of an ever increas­ing pop­u­la­tion and this expan­sion was made pos­si­ble by using the muck from mas­sive con­struc­tion projects like our sub­way sys­tem.

For exam­ple, from 1896 all the way through to 1964, his­toric Ellis Island was con­tin­u­al­ly expand­ed by land­fill. What used to be a tiny five acre island now mea­sures thir­ty-two acres, due pri­mar­i­ly to the muck from the con­struc­tion of the let­tered sub­way lines in the 1930’s.

Governor’s Island, orig­i­nal­ly 90 acres, was enlarged to its cur­rent 172 acres by muck from the con­struc­tion of the Lex­ing­ton Avenue sub­way line deposit­ed on its south­ern end in the ear­ly 1900’s. The exca­va­tion for the foun­da­tion of the World Trade Cen­ter cre­at­ed enough land­fill to not only expand Bat­tery Park fur­ther into the har­bor, but also cre­ate all of the land now known as Bat­tery Park City, one of the most expen­sive and high­ly devel­oped res­i­den­tial dis­tricts in the city, bring­ing in mil­lions in tax rev­enue from land that was lit­er­al­ly cre­at­ed from noth­ing. Land­fill is even used in build­ing great mon­u­ments and works of art through­out the city. The Cathe­dral of St. John the Divine on the Upper West Side of Man­hat­tan is large­ly built from rock exca­vat­ed from the con­struc­tion of the #1 line in 1904.


So with such an illus­tri­ous pedi­gree of prof­it­ing by reap­pro­pri­a­tion one would expect noth­ing less from today’s mod­ern engi­neers and city plan­ners. Unfor­tu­nate­ly that doesn’t seem to be quite the case. Or at least not on the same scale as past projects.

There are actu­al­ly three major rail projects under way in the City right now: the Sec­ond Avenue sub­way line, the LIRR tun­nel under the East River, and the exten­sion of the 7 line to the far West Side. By their com­ple­tion the­se projects will have pro­duced hun­dreds of thou­sands, if not mil­lions of tons of muck, which has to be dis­posed of some­where.

In the case of the LIRR tun­nel some of this muck was used to con­struct the land­scap­ing in Brook­lyn Bridge Park. Though the project is ongo­ing, the parts that have been com­plet­ed are an amaz­ing tes­ta­ment to the pow­er of dynam­ic urban design.  In the case of the Sec­ond Avenue sub­way line, some of it is being used in the con­struc­tion of the new Fer­ry Point Golf Course in the Bronx. Both of the­se projects add eco­nom­ic val­ue to the city’s real-estate, gen­er­ate rev­enue through busi­ness and tax­es, and provide much need­ed pub­lic space for rest and recre­ation. Not to men­tion the aes­thet­ic val­ue that care­ful­ly designed green space with its rolling hills and mean­der­ing paths adds to the aus­tere rec­ti­lin­ear­i­ty of the city’s land­scape.

Some of the muck is also crushed and sold for fur­ther use as build­ing mate­ri­al in con­struc­tion and land­scap­ing, but the city does not direct­ly prof­it from this busi­ness, as it is all con­duct­ed by pri­vate enter­prise. Dis­ap­point­ing­ly, it doesn’t seem as if any of the muck is being used to add to the over­all land mass of the city and it’s envi­rons, as in the past, but it is being used for land recla­ma­tion in some sites in NY and NJ in addi­tion to the above men­tioned build­ing mate­ri­al. None of it is actu­al­ly wast­ing away in a land­fill. But con­sid­er­ing New York’s suc­cess­ful his­to­ry of recy­cling pre­cious exca­va­tion mate­ri­al, may­be new uses will be found before this round of dig­ging is through.