Rose George, The Wasteland, Slate online magazine, April 24-27, 2006
Accessed at www.slate.com on 9-7-07

Night is the Best Time to Visit London's Sewers

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LONDON—In some of the great cities of Europe—Paris, Vienna, Prague, and Brussels—tourists bored with life above ground can descend below. All these cities have sewer museums and tours, and all expose their underbelly willingly to the curious. But not London, arguably the home of the most splendid sewer network in Europe. London's 30,000 miles of sewers don't have enough full-time workers to escort visitors. In 20 years, the number of "flushers"—now known as "wastewater operatives"—has shrunk from 200 to less than 40. I am privileged, then, to be able to tag along with an inspection looking for water leaks, on a dark London street around midnight. Night is the best time to visit sewers, because the businesses dispelling the most waste are closed, and the flows are calmer.

The street is quiet, and so are the men, in the manner of small groups of colleagues used to working together who must suddenly look after an outsider. So, they don't say much when, as I stand in the dressing compartment of the white Thames Water van (equipped with a microwave, a television, a basin, and lots of soap), they hand me thick woolen socks, white paper coveralls, crotch-high waders with tungsten soles (because tungsten grips but doesn't spark), a heavy belt holding an emergency breathing apparatus called a turtle (after the shape of its container), oversized rubber gloves, and a hard hat and miner's light. These are my lines of defense against hepatitis, rabies, methane, and other sewer scourges. But the men are my best defense, because they're the experts. Some have been working in the sewers for decades. They know them intimately. But with such a vast network, the men can't know every one. Some sewers haven't been visited for 15 years.

This one is the famous Fleet, the old river that gave Fleet Street its name; eventually it became an open sewer and then, built over with brick, an enclosed one. My guide for the night, an engaging sewer veteran named Rob, goes down the ladder first. The Fleet flow has been temporarily diverted to ease our entry, but I'm nervous, nonetheless, and I haul my legs inelegantly onto the ladder before descending slowly, my feet heavy with their tungsten load, waiting for the smell to hit me. It doesn't. People expect sewers to smell like their toilets, says Rob—like 3 million toilets—but the water content is rarely less than 90 percent, which dilutes most of the stink. At the bottom of the ladder, there is no stench, just a smell of damp and mustiness and the sight of bricks, bricks, and more bricks, stretching away in both directions for miles on end.

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It's a matter of taste, of course, but I find it oddly beautiful, even though I'm walking through a foot-high flow where the odd bloated tampon or polystyrene cup floats past. No one on the five-strong team knows how old this section is, but they don't think it's one of Bazalgette's. They say his name with respect, for Joseph Bazalgette is still the emperor of London's sewers, even though 150 years have passed since he was tasked with revolutionizing them, thus ridding the city of cholera and foul smells. In 1858, the amount of sewage discharged into the Thames was so great that the curtains in the Houses of Parliament, located right on the river's banks, had to be soaked in chlorine to mask the odor. The Great Stink, as it became known, catalyzed change, and Bazalgette spent 16 years and 318 million bricks building a vast network of interceptor sewers that carried London's waste away from its center to be dumped in the river farther east. Things have changed, though river and sea dumping stopped only in 1997; now most waste is treated and incinerated in massive treatment plants at Beckton and Crossness, on the banks of the Thames in east London, and at Mogen, west of the city. 

Except when it rains. Bazalgette's sewers, for all their genius, and despite Bazalgette having had the foresight to build in 60 percent extra capacity to account for growth, are a combined system for sewerage and drainage. Storm water can push the sewers over capacity, as in August 2004, when 8 million gallons of untreated sewage were discharged into the Thames, and condoms were seen floating at Kew, a part of London known for its gardens and chic streets. One of the men down the Fleet with me was in charge of wastewater operations at the time. He remembers being on television for three straight weeks, trying to defend the indefensible. "That's how the system is built," he says. It's not Thames Water's fault if people assume that things are better than they are; if they assume, as Jawaharlal Nehru once asserted, that the ceramic toilet bowl is the pinnacle of civilization and give not a thought to what happens after the flush.

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Down in the Fleet, Rob shines his helmet lamp on a pipe. It's encrusted with something. "Liquid concrete!" he says with disgust. "This is a throwaway society. Out of sight, out of mind." People will chuck anything, he says. Flushers—wastewater operatives got their name because they used to flush river water into the system to help it flow—have found gold, jewelry, even motorbikes. But mostly they find cotton buds, condoms, and fat.

Fat is the worst, as I see in the next sewer of the night. After the ladder, a brick staircase winds down into the depths. But the stairs are impassable because they are covered with blocks of congealed fat. "It's the bane of our lives," says my companion. Congealed fat, from fast-food restaurants and households, causes up to half of the 100,000 blockages a year and costs $10.5 million to remove each year. The flushers don't mind their work environment. One told me, "Someone says to me, 'But that's shit,' and I say, 'It might be shit to you, but to me it's bread and butter." The smell of human waste passes, but fat always stinks, they say. You get home and shower, and you smell OK, then the smell oozes out of your pores. "Disgusting!" But little is done to prevent it; above-ground authorities are lax about enforcing "fat-traps" or encouraging fast-food restaurants to let their grease solidify and have it removed. That costs businesses money. Flushing it down the drain is selfish, but free.

In the final sewer of the night, I don't go far, because the roof is low, and I don't like crouching, so I stand still and wait just long enough to see a rat. All the flushers have rat stories—like how to kill them with a shovel or a hard hat. Flusher men exaggerate like fishermen, one saying he once saw a rat as long as his forearm. But rats are rarer than above-grounders think: They don't like water and there isn't enough food down there. It's another myth that the men find infuriating, just as they despair of the lack of curiosity of Londoners who never think that their convenience and conveniences are dependent on men who wade through brown water in the midnight hours.

Above ground, we stand round the hole, a curious-looking group of people in white suits on a major London thoroughfare. But only one man stops to inquire what we're doing. "We're opening a nightclub, mate," says one flusher, with no trace of a smile. The man nods, waits a few seconds, and then ambles off, no more questions asked.

Smell Happens

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On a bend in the Thames, beyond the Millennium Dome and heading east from Thamesmead, past new developments and tidy houses, sits one of the largest sewage works in Europe. Despite its size, it's quite tricky to find, though there are helpful brown signs stuck on lamp posts along the highway providing directions to Crossness Engines. The engines are a tourist attraction, but only for a select few: The majority of Londoners—and most city dwellers—prefer not to think about where the waste ends up once the flush has been pulled.

Crossness Pumping Station has been on this site since 1865. It's open to the public a couple of times a month, though the pumps no longer operate. Built by the great sewer designer Joseph Bazalgette, who arranged for the pumps to slosh London's sewage into the river once a day, the engines and pumping house are now run by the Crossness Engines Trust, chaired by the great man's descendant, TV producer and Big Brother creator Peter Bazalgette. The trust rescued the dilapidated buildings in 1985 and has spruced up the spectacular ironwork and splendid engines. They can arrange for the pumps to operate for visitors, but otherwise Bazalgette's brilliant creations have been silent since the 1920s, when someone noticed that all that sewage was killing the river.

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After that, the waste was taken in barges and dumped at sea, until the enlightened noticed that the sea was suffering, too. It wasn't until 1997 that this practice was stopped (though around the world, it's still how 95 percent of sewage is disposed of), and the East London Sludge Incinerator was built. I'm more interested in ELSI than in the engines. The pump house gets the tourists, but ELSI is also magnificent, its wavelike silver roof soaring over the 400 acres of land, dozens of gritters, sedimentation tanks, and hurtling sewage flows. Bazalgette's engines may fascinate, but the mystery of how 2.2 million people's waste is disposed of is more to my liking.

Thames Water, which runs Crossness, used to allow members of the public to visit the working site (not just the engines), until a health and safety risk assessment stopped the practice. But I've been granted a tour with Brian Phelps, the Crossness Operation Production Manager and the man who used to run ELSI. He's still proprietarily proud of her and of Crossness as a whole. And why not, when this quiet, un-smelly place turns human waste, debris, and anything else that ends up in sewers or drains into cleaned liquid effluent and sludge burned by ELSI. The ash gets buried in landfill, which isn't ideal, and ELSI's capacity is less than they'd hoped—110 tons a day instead of 168—but she saves on energy bills, as heat in the incinerator is turned into steam and then into 3 to 4 megawatts of electricity—half of what Crossness needs to run.

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The tour begins at the fine-screening plant. This is the first filter for the sewage flow arriving through a huge outfall sewer hidden under a green embankment. The mesh screens remove plastics and large debris, though pesky Q-tips always get through. This is where, in the last six months, Crossness workers have been noticing increasing amounts of hospital waste. "We've found bandages, dressings, syringes. Even green hospital aprons." It's a mystery, says Phelps. Perhaps hospitals have stopped incinerating their clinical waste and turned instead to chucking it down the drain. But as with nearly all the waste that people choose to put into the sewage system, Thames Water has little chance of tracing it and prosecuting the culprits. They just deal with it.

The tour continues past the primary sedimentation tanks, past the storm drains that hold excess rainwater in summer storms, past the aeration tanks where the water is being agitated by machinery to create the oxygen that microorganisms need to survive so they can munch at—and purify—the organic matter in sewage. It all looks mighty complicated, with plenty of tripping hazards, though Phelps says the only casualty he knows of was a young boy who fell down a manhole, was swept down the sewer, and retrieved from the screening section. Apparently, it's less complicated than it seems. "Guess how many staff it takes to operate this?" asks Phelps. I shrug. A dozen? Two dozen? "Two." One to operate the computers that run everything and another to walk around the site and check that the computers are running everything. Telemetry and other clever software means that the basest of human products is dealt with by the cleverest of human ingenuity. But it can still be done manually. Before the millennium, Thames Water developed contingency plans in case of system failure. "The site could be run manually by four staff, probably," says Phelps. "All you're controlling is the number of pumps."

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But things don't always run smoothly. Sewage works that serve big cities run into trouble when the cities grow up around them. The residents of Belvedere, which abuts Crossness, have fought several battles over the incinerator and over the smell. The site smells fine the day I visit, but several court cases show that's not always true. In 2004, the local council took Crossness to court over "odor nuisance." Residents testified that the smell made them sick, that they had to have multiple fans running in their homes because they couldn't open the windows, that they were embarrassed to have guests in their houses. Thames Water was served with an odor-abatement order, though it pleaded special circumstances: The glamorous, glittering ELSI wasn't performing as expected. The sludge it was supposed to burn was arriving wetter than planned, and the special high-tech panels that should have squeezed it dry were getting overloaded. The excess sludge had to be stored on-site, some of it in open tanks. It stank.

Things are better now, says Phelps, as we sit in view of the incinerator and a green tarp structure nearby. This houses—temporarily—the liming process, which turns excess sludge into sludge cake, which is then given away free to farmers.

It's an expensive process for Thames Water, but it causes less odor, and it bothers residents less. Phelps is sympathetic to complaints about bad smells, up to a point: "By its nature, sewage smells. Unless we cover the whole site in a bubble, it will smell." Residents may resent the fact that their borough deals with the waste of dozens of other London boroughs. "But it's been here since 1865. Anyway, it's not always us that's at fault. When we get a complaint, we check the wind direction and the location of the complaint, and sometimes it physically can't be us. But we usually get the blame." Phelps has braved the lion's den of residents' meetings a couple of times, but he thinks Thames Water could do more, such as publicizing the Crossness nature reserve located behind the site, which the company set up as a condition of building the incinerator. Now it houses water voles, marsh birds, all sorts of flora and fauna, but "we should promote it more. People don't know." At social occasions, when he tells people what he does, most ask questions. "The most common one is, 'Does it smell?' But some people literally step backward."

Soon, though, more people will be unavoidably confronted with Crossness. There'll be no stepping backward, because the nearby river banks will hold the 120,000 houses and apartments promised by the Labor government to solve London's housing problem. Already, says Phelps with resignation, "People flush loos and don't think anything of it." More loos will bring more waste. No one at Crossness expects it to bring more understanding.

Schoolchildren Learn Not to Flush and Forget

Class tourThe class tour begins with a look at the incoming sewage.

In a small car park, in countryside outside Solihull, an affluent town in England's Midlands, a yellow box has been painted on the tarmac, next to a sign saying, "Visitors here." This would not be unusual in a museum, but this is Barston sewage-treatment works, which cleans the foul water of three towns and villages, and where visitors usually have hard hats and trucks, not Size 4 feet and school lunchboxes. But beside the yellow box is a trailer housing a classroom. Every day of the academic year, this sewage school is open for business.

There are five such trailers—"education centers"—like this one, in five water- and sewage-treatment facilities run by Severn Trent Water company. Five teachers have been loaned from elementary schools and spend their days, every day, teaching the same lesson about how dirty water is made clean and what happens after we flush and forget. Last year, 22,000 children went to sewage school entirely at Severn Trent's expense.

Barston's teacher is Malcolm Smith. He usually teaches 10-to-11-year-olds in a nearby school, but he volunteered for this assignment three years ago, and the topic fascinates him still. He's an engaging teacher. After the children arrive, noisily, Smith points to a truck trundling past. "That's a poo truck," he says, and though these children are 10 or 11 years old they are young enough to giggle at the word. Their nervousness abates.

Smith runs through a short lesson on the water cycle. But what the children want, and what they will now get, is a tour of a working sewage-treatment plant.

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A yellow line representing the designated tour route has been painted onto Barston's paths and roads, past the gritter and the compactor, round the sedimentation tank, up to the bacti-beds, and ending up at the brook at the back of the works that discharges cleaned effluent into the River Blythe. Four million gallons of sewage arrive here daily, via the poo trucks and three sewers. There used to be 20 full-time workers to run the place, but in the age of computers, there's only one, a tall blond woman named Debbie. The plant is old, by sewage-works standards. It has been modernized, but if there is high technology in use, it's not obvious to the class from Balsall Common, who peer down into the gushing brown flow of the initial screening section, in a seemingly low-tech big hole, and gaze at the compactor, two huge tubes that are expelling toilet paper and other easily filtered matter. "Why isn't it switched on?" says one child, but it is. It's just glacially slow. The children are disappointed by the lack of action, but they perk up when Smith says he's seen a £20 note in there—and a dead rat. They move in single file to the gritter, which removes grit—and also thousands of kernels of undigested corn. "You'll see peas, too," says Smith. "Any vegetable that you don't chew enough, and that you don't have time to digest ends up in the gritter." The grit ends up in an open Dumpster, so that happy birds can pounce and peck at their everlasting corn supper.

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We move to the sedimentation tank. Smith points out the layer of fat—pale beige, disgusting—floating on the surface of the sedimentation tank, where a scraper is constantly stroking the 13-foot-deep walls, so that the sludge settles. That's what happens when you pour oil down the sink, says Smith, hoping the children's obvious distaste will make environmentalists of them. He ignores a condom lying on the surface of the tank. "Adult balloons," he says later, out of the children's earshot. "You see them all the time." Then, it's the bacti-beds: eight flat circular tanks filled with stones that are covered with bacteria that eat the deposits in the wastewater. They are eaten in turn by microorganisms that are eaten by the happy crows perched on the glistening stones, and on the long mechanical arms spraying wastewater, powered by their own momentum. The system is Victorian and still works perfectly, but bacti-beds can stink. Some works have had to set up special odor hotlines so irate customers can call in their complaints.

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At Barston, there's no smell, but there are flies. Clouds of them, bigger than gnats, dive-bombing our heads. In summer, it's worse, says Michaela, who has worked for Severn Trent for years and who, when given a choice between retirement or moving into the education department, jumped at the latter chance. She's proud that, of England's 10 water authorities, only Severn Trent Water has poured money into education. The water companies are required in their operating license to have an educational component, but only Severn Trent Water spends $250,000 or more each year on teachers' salaries alone. The CEO thinks elementary-school children might work for the company after they graduate from college. Certainly, the children of Balsall Primary School show none of the usual bored-on-school-trips symptoms. They troop when asked to troop, they listen when being educated, they peer at the canal taking the cleaned effluent into the river system, and they have enough curiosity after an hour in the cold to ask questions.

This isn't to say they're enlightened. They may know what a microorganism is and does, but the concept that No. 1s and No. 2s, as they call them, carry on existing once they've left the toilet bowl is a revelation. There is still plenty to be learned back in the classroom in the form of sewage soup.

Smith has had to leave, and Derek, the boss of the education department, has stepped in. He's going to make "sewage soup." In this exercise, a tank full of tap water gets dirtier and dirtier as the children think of things they've put down the drain and toilet that day and add them to the tank. Shampoo, soap, toothpaste, washing powder, rice, salt. "A No. 1," says one child, before grimacing as she pours what she thinks is urine into the tank (it's diluted lime juice). Toward the end, someone finally volunteers "a No. 2," plopping it into the tank with cries of distaste from the class, who think it's real (it's Weetabix soaked in water). When it's the turn of Nelson, a preposterously good-looking 10-year-old, he suggests a chocolate bar wrapper, because he flushed one down the toilet that morning. "You did what?" says Derek. "I don't know whether to let you have a go or to clout you."

Nelson's ignorance is only normal. He does what most of us do: He flushes and forgets. He didn't know before today that a hosepipe uses two and a half gallons of water a minute, or that oil clogs sewers, or that chocolate wrappers shouldn't be flushed. He's a child of his throwaway time.

Before the class leaves, I ask Nelson if he'd still throw a candy wrapper down the toilet. He says yes. I tell him I've been down a sewer and that it's not very nice, and how would he feel if he had to go and fetch the wrapper and clean the water? The admonishment sinks into Nelson's brain like oil into a sedimentation tank. He grins like an imp. "I'd send my brother."

Rowers Against Thames Sewage

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From the exit of Kew Gardens underground station in West London, there are wonders in both directions. To the right, a bridge leads to Kew Gardens, a horticultural marvel. To the left, a road leads to the River Thames, the great artery of a great city. "Sweet Thames," wrote the 16th-century poet Edmund Spenser, "run softly till I end my song." The Thames still runs, but it's often not sweet, which is why I turn left out of the station and head for an unassuming boathouse painted blue. This is the Putney Town Rowing Club, but it's also the headquarters of Rowers Against Thames Sewage, a vocal lobby group founded by PTRC member and graphic designer Anatole Beams.

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Beams began rowing five years ago, when foot-and-mouth disease curtailed his passion for rambling. He loved it, until one day in August 2004 when he and his wife had rowed three miles upriver to Mogen, the huge sewage-treatment works that takes the waste of West London. Then, says Beams, leaning on the clubhouse balcony overlooking the river, "We noticed that our oars were in sludge. The river was like thick brown soup. It was like rowing in a sewer." Beams knew that there are outflow pipes all along the river—63, in fact—that are used to slosh excess flow into the river when the sewage system is overloaded during storms. He knew, for example, that there were six outflow pipes just near Richmond, "because you can tell from the seagulls. They love it." But he'd never seen anything like this, with the waters "covered with grease and debris." He's being polite: By "debris" he means condoms, sanitary napkins, and visible human feces. He was shocked enough to decide to investigate. First he formed RATS, and then he set up a Web site to publicize his findings. By November 2004, RATS had enough members—from 30 or so boat clubs—to organize the Thames Turd Race. Held on the same stretch of river that hosts the Oxford-Cambridge boat race, the Turd Race saw two boats—Gashaz and Biohaz—tow giant inflatable feces for 800 meters, with the rowers all clad in gas-masks. Biohaz stormed to victory.

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Beams is mostly driven by shock. Like most people, he thought sewage didn't end up in rivers anymore. Like most people, he assumed that in these days of ceramic toilets, heated toilet seats, and automatic flushes, progress has brought us sensible ways of removing human waste, safely and cleanly. He thought that dumping it into the river was what the unenlightened did; the Victorians of old or developing countries that can do no better. Hadn't the Thames been cleaned up? Once one of the most polluted rivers in Europe—by the 1970s, industrial waste and filth had killed off most fish and wildlife, and anyone falling into its waters was advised to have their stomach pumped—it had been cleaned and regulated. The wildlife had returned. Today, London's authorities can legitimately boast of herons, kingfishers, and abundant fish. They just don't mention the sewage that swims along with the river life.

"I realized that the whole system is creaking at the seams," says Beams. Joseph Bazalgette's great sewer system can be overloaded by a sudden storm in a dry season. The sewage-treatment plants don't have the capacity for the extra sewage or water, and their Combined Sewage and Stormwater Outfalls discharge sewage into the Thames so that they don't flood streets and houses. The floods of August 2004, Beams discovered, were just a particularly bad version of what was happening at least once a week. What's more, Thames Water has a virtual free pass to dump sewage into the tideway. The company is regulated by the European Union's Urban Waste Water directive, but sewage outflows remain at the discretion of the water authority. The consequences aren't hazardous just for fish. There are always pathogens present in the river, but "they definitely increase around outfall pipes." Rowers are advised to use water bottles with covered tops, to immediately wash all scratches, and to always, always shower after an outing.

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We take a walk along the river path. It's not long before we spot plastic hanging off a branch, near to the outflow pipe that links Kew sewage works to the river, a few hundred meters away from the clubhouse. The Kew facility is operating only at partial capacity, since Thames Water transferred its sewage treatment to Mogen, then sold off the prime riverfront land to developers. There's a heron sitting on the river bank, and the water is calm. "It's quite a placid stretch here anyway," Beams. "Good for rowing." The river is pretty clean these days, so RATS hasn't been active. But the "river condition" warning system on the RATS Web site flashes continually at amber, signifying "regular sewage discharge."

Things may have been quiet, but RATS won't give up. Beams is keeping a close eye on the case being brought by European MP Baroness Ludford against Thames Water, which has never been fined for the events of August 2004. He's also following the progress of the Thames Tideway Tunnel, the $3 billion storm drain that Thames Water and the Environment Agency think is the only solution to the overloaded system's problems. Beams thinks it's a solution that doesn't address the causes of the problem. He'd prefer to separate storm and sewage drainage. It's been done in the London borough of Acton, but the Environment Agency says it would take years and require too many roads to be excavated to do it here. The public already complains when water mains are being repaired. So, the tunnel is the most likely next step.

Meanwhile, Beams will continue his research and will continue to row, with an eye out for feces. He doesn't expect RATS to fold any time soon. He's calm but determined. "I don't consider Thames Water the enemy. The guys at the coal face live for their work. It's just that the more you find out, the worse things seem to be. And until things get worse, they won't get better."


 


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