What not to flush

A magical mystery tour - and a cautionary tale - of Juneau's sewer lines

Posted: Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Your correspondent urges anyone who has ever flushed a little dental floss to please consider the uncivic consequences.

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Michael Penn / Juneau Empire
Michael Penn / Juneau Empire

Are you aware of the rags that mysteriously appear in the sewer pipes, whether out of malice or ignorance, the underwear and paper towels, the candy wrappers and Swiffer rags, or the "flushable" wipes that aren't really? One little piece of dental floss can tie all of these up, cut off a four-inch sewer pipe and cause those who watch over Juneau's sewer system anguish and overtime.

Two floors underground, at a lift station that takes sewage from the town of Douglas, lifts it up and sends it toward the treatment plant across the channel, city collections worker Mark Mow is doing a little something his job description calls "other duties as required."

The pipe is clogged.

He shuts down the valves and unscrews an opening in the pipe; wastewater spurts out and hits the floor. It is 98 percent water, according to the city Web site, and most of the solids have collected in wet-wells like the one this pipe leads from, but that doesn't mean it smells like daisies.

He dons a rubber glove like an arm wader and shoves it as far as he can into the pipe, to his forearm. He pulls out a few gray bits that look like wet lint. Surely these can't be what is making his whole body shake with the effort. Bracing the one arm with the other, he soon tosses aside the gloves to get a better hold on whatever is down there. He cannot get it. A crewman joins him and relieves some water pressure from a connecting pipe.

Twenty minutes into this, Mow pulls out a thick, gray, waterlogged wad of crud. It's hard to see how it fit in the skinny pipe, because the wad nearly fills a five-gallon bucket.

It is now obvious why Mow wore his Xtratufs on a sunny day.

"We all have our hep(atitis) shots," he said.

This is a near-daily task. And according to the crewmen, this is neither a special problem in Juneau nor a recent problem. It is what they have always done.

We pause now to enlighten readers who may be suspecting that these men have the worst job in Juneau, or maybe the world. If turnover is any indication, the department hired a new guy this year, but before him, the last new guy arrived nine years ago. These workers tend to mention that the pay and benefits and colleagues are good, and that each day brings a different challenge.

It is not just the clogged parts. Sewer is an interesting input-output problem, because unlike the water system just about anything could be an input. And unlike water, it never stops, so any bottleneck in the system must be solved on a tight deadline. Juneau has 125 miles of sewer lines and 8,350 customers, none of whom want to be reminded of what they've sent down the line. Maintaining the system is a complex, specialized trade. Plus it's a bit of an art: Each of the 38 pump stations is a little different, but after 14 years Mow can tell when any pump has a problem just by how it sounds.

Lacking seniority on this fine day, the new guy, Mike Dunayski, was suited up with headlamp, orange rain gear, an atmospheric monitor, a respirator and a harness. Dunayski was on his way into the wet well, where solids from the wastewater accumulate, to clean it out with a shovel, a rake, and a large vacuum pipe leading to a city truck.

Dunayski, asked how he liked his job as he was about to climb down a crusty ladder into the dark well, responded, "I'm loving it."

Mow took the bucket containing his big find to the surface, where he examined its contents for your correspondent's sake. Mostly cloth, elastic, hygiene products, rags, heavy-duty towels, dental floss. None of this was surprising. They have seen pill cases, sheets, Fruits of the Loom and once a blue long-sleeved flannel shirt with all the buttons intact.

"How they get there, I don't know," said collections supervisor Tom Trego, who has worked on Juneau's sewer lines for 28 years.

They speculate but rarely find answers.

Except in a few cases, such as when years ago cloth that appeared was marked as the property of Lemon Creek Correctional Center or Johnson Youth Center. The sewer crewmen suspected that inmates or youngsters flushed them out of malice. They told the institutions, which fixed the problem somehow.

Perhaps more widely spread than angry flushing is the ignorant or lazy kind. Your sewer line workers wish for a public that's well aware of its sewer pipes, one that would never dream of flushing its chicken-frying oil.

Your correspondent has seen where the oil ends up and wishes to assist.

Fact: Running hot water down the sink simultaneously with the frying oil does not keep it from solidifying in the pipes. It's already cold by the time it hits the larger system and can plug pipes completely, as an Auke Bay restaurant managed to do once this year.

Fact: "The toilet is not a wastebasket with water in it," to quote utilities superintendent Joe Myers.

Fact: The more weird stuff we flush, the higher our wastewater rates, since somebody gets paid to spend time unclogging the pipes.

Myers' take is that people often take sewer service for granted. But he counts it as a good thing.

"When people don't notice us, we're doing our job real well," he said.

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