A SKY-BLUE smokestack rises above an elevated section of the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway, sending swirling clouds of dissipating steam over the endless traffic. The stack marks the top of the Hamilton Avenue Asphalt Plant, which churns out much of the sticky, smoking substance that will become the surface of the city’s roadways.
This year, the Department of Transportation will resurface 900 lane-miles of the city’s roads, nearly the equivalent of a one-lane highway running from New York to Iowa. Almost a million tons of hot asphalt are required to accomplish the task, and about half of them are produced at this city-owned plant in Gowanus, Brooklyn.
“You see how interesting everything here is?” Manuel Matos, a lanky, wide-eyed worker with a striking fondness for making asphalt, said early one recent weekday morning.
Mr. Matos, a quality-assurance specialist, gazed through the opening of a chute as an oily river of new asphalt streamed past. He scooped two shovelfuls into a steel bucket and carried it back to his lab indoors.
“It looks rich,” he said as he eyed the product. “By looking at it, I can tell it’s good. But they say looks can be deceiving.”
The work of the plant proceeds day and night. Tractors load crushed granite, which is shipped by barge to the plant through the Gowanus Canal in thousand-ton piles, into a mazy network of conveyor belts. Hot, tarry liquid made from crude oil is then blended with the rock in a spinning, rust-colored drum about the size of an oil truck tank. Then dump trucks file into the plant, pausing under heated silos where they receive the steaming concoction in 20-ton doses.
As the new asphalt is hauled out to road crews, old asphalt is returned to the plant. Trucks carry in mounds of the stuff, which is milled from roadways under repair. It’s recycled into the mix and constitutes about 40 percent of the plant’s “new” asphalt. A street torn up in Canarsie during the day, for instance, could well become part of a newly paved street in TriBeCa by night.
Mike Spinelli, a worker who maintains the plant’s machinery, said he shared Mr. Matos’s love for asphalt production. He even built a scale model of the plant for his son’s sixth-grade class presentation about the facility.
“You know, people take it for granted,” Mr. Spinelli said as he watched Mr. Matos conduct his tests. “Do they ever think: How did the asphalt get there?”