Shit Goes Down at the Water Treatment Plant: Facing Where It Goes After You Flush
Rob Alexson, a sturdy man with an impressive mustache, was the second to greet us upon emergence from our vehicles. The first to greet us was an overwhelming stench of shit. Not fresh, familiar shit like you might smell in your own bathroom, but thousands of tons of shit in all stages of processing and decay from tens of thousands of Connecticut residents. I cannot exactly describe the smell, only that it was like shit but worse, and everywhere. Each time the wind blew there was another variation of stench. We tried to inconspicuously cover our mouths and noses with scarves and sweater sleeves, not wanting to insult the workplace of the very congenial Rob, who didn’t seem to mind the smell at all. In fact he grinned, took a deep inhale of morning air, gestured around as if to comment on the beautiful weather, and said cheerily, “Well, gang, why don’t we get started.”
We were a group of fifteen environmental educators out on a Sunday field trip mandated by our boss (who opted not to come). The Water Pollution Control Authority (WPCA) processes 7 million gallons of sewage per day, and maintains about 163 miles of sanitary sewer lines and 14 wastewater-pumping stations throughout the city of Torrington, a small city in northwest Connecticut. It is financed by residents who pay sewer use fees, and by the occasional grant. We were there to understand the impact and incredibly high tech workings of the modern sewage system.
Our first stop was at a small concrete room inside of which there was a waterfall. A poop waterfall, if you will. This is where all the fresh sewage comes in after the good 35,000 residents of Torrington and portions of Harwinton and Litchfield flush their toilets. The waterfall culminated in a swirling frothy pool. Clumps of toilet paper and feminine pads floated to the top. In this room, solids are separated from liquids. The strangest thing Rob, a WPCA employee of fifteen years, has found at this stage of water treatment is a fetus, perfectly intact. He also frequently finds socks, condoms, toys, money, and pet fish – both alive and dead. The solids are sent to a thickener tank where they’re concentrated and get trucked off in bricks to be incinerated. Liquids move on to a settling tank where “floatables” are skimmed off the top and “settleables” are raked away.
The next stop was at long, moving pools – aeration tanks – where water is aerated and biological treatment begins. It still smelled horrible, but the long tanks were almost completely liquid, which was more aesthetically pleasing than a tank full of “floatables.” At about this stage in the process, my co-worker Aharon Varady recalled, “I remember the small birds which flew down and perched on top of the bars coated with poo. And I remember my fear that I would drop my phone through the grate we stood on.” Phones aren’t the only things that fall in the water tanks and get lost. Rob informed us that water treatment facilities have pretty high workplace injury and even mortality rates because there are so many pools to fall into, gears to get ground in, and machines to malfunction. But there are also small miracles. Rob recalled a goldfish that came floating in on the waterfall, and lived through all stages of treatment, migrating from pool to tank through hundreds of feet of piping along with the water. It made it to the last stage of treatment, where water is chlorinated, but was unfortunately ground alive in the motor that spits the treated water back into Connecticut’s Naugatuck River. So close.
Before the water is fed back to the river, chemicals are added to convert ammonia into nitrates and then nitrates into nitrogen gas and carbon dioxide. The water then moves through a clarifying tank, is sometimes chlorinated, and then in the end is fed back to the Naugatuck River. In one of the last tanks on the property, Rob finds about $400 to $500 dollars annually floating on top. Because the dollars are unfit for circulation, Rob bleaches them, heats them, mails them back to the bank, where they are destroyed. The bank sends him fresh bills.
After several more visits to tanks and pools, I couldn’t help but ask Rob what drew him to this line of work. “When I was a little boy,” he said, “I’d lie in my bed and look out the window. It just so happened that right outside of my window was a hydrant, and I’d often see a fireman or another municipal worker letting the water out or testing the water. I knew then that I wanted to work with municipal water.” Two days after graduating high school, he got a job working with municipal water, and has been at it ever since.
A few weeks after our visit I called the office to clarify some points. Rob wasn’t in, but I spoke with another WPCA employee, John, and asked him what he liked most about working at the WPCA. “The camaraderie!” I heard one of his colleagues shout in the background. John chuckled. “Well, it’s not much to look at from the outside, but there’s a lot going on biologically. I like the chemical work, the flood dynamics, electrical equipment, hydraulics, the various emergency skills I need to practice. It’s a good place for me as an engineer to spend the last five years of my career.”
I asked John about the goldfish who lived through each stage of treatment. He didn’t know about the goldfish, but he did tell me about a family of trout that lives in the clarifying tank. “They’re native from the river,” he said. “They seem to like the high aeration of the water. Hey, we’ll have to have you over for a fish dinner.”
In the days that followed I thought about flushing notes and fun toys in Ziploc bags for Rob and his colleagues to find, but I learned that where we lived our toilets flushed into our own septic system that stayed on our property. I was amazed, though, each time I flushed, to know how much work and how many resources goes into making my little bowlful of leftover burrito into something the ecosystem can handle. I also realized why poorer countries often don’t have sustainable systems for dealing with their sewage – the sheer money and technology needed for the chemistry, raw materials, property, equipment, and worker’s salaries for the WPCA was humbling – all to deal with something so elemental and mundane as the processed food that comes out of our butts.
If this plant served 35,000 people, I couldn’t imagine what a wastewater treatment for a place like New York City must look and smell like (actually, the 14 treatment plants that deal with NYC’s 8 million residents process 1.4 billion gallons daily, employ 1,900 people, and have an annual operating budget of $262 million. You can read more about it out here). Facing the work my flushes create made me appreciate the composting toilets that use saw dust and leaves to break down human waste, the outhouses at campsites which are simply pits that get full, are covered up, and are dug anew ten feet away, and all the times I’ve dug a hole in the ground and squat when I’ve lived in rural places, instead of taking good clean water, flushing it down with a little human waste, and laboring over and throwing money at separating the waste out of the water. It makes me want to dig a hole again.
Photos by Aharon Varady and Elissa Brown
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