By Adam Levine
This story, about my walk through a Philadelphia sewer, first appeared as the cover story in the Philadelphia City Paper on October 9, 1997. I had been obsessed with the idea of creeks running in underground sewers for a long time, ever since I learned that Mill Creek had been piped underground and ran beneath 43rd Street in West Philadelphia, where I lived for almost 20 years. I approached the City Paper editor with the idea of doing a story about Mill Creek, but he suggested instead that I write about the entire sewer system. I still wanted to walk in Mill Creek, but the PWD sewer maintenance head wouldn't let me, asserting that the flow in that sewer was such that it might knock me off my feet. Since I didn't relish swimming in the creek/sewer, I journeyed instead to the tamer sewer described below.
The story turned out to be a positive look at a serious job, and Drew Brown and Ed Grusheski in PWD's Public Education Division loved it. The following year, they hired me to do research into the City's drainage system, helping me take my obesession and turn it into a new phase of my profession.
Several sensory perceptions are needed to fill out this version of my sewer walk.One is the smell,
The History of Philadelphia's Watersheds and Sewers
Compiled by Adam Levine
Philadelphia Water Department
but fortunately for you, smells are not yet transmissable over
the Web. Pictures, however, speak volumes about my experience, and while
I was unable to get the photos from the original City Paper story, I have
found similar images from similar articles in the library of Philadelphia Newspapers
Inc., which publishes the Inquirer and Daily News. To view a selection
of these images, click on the sewer photo below. Thanks to PNI for granting permission
for use of these photos here, and to Michael Panzer, PNI Library Supervisor, for
helping me locate them.
"Manholes like this give access
Click here to read a 1968 job description for the city position of "Sewer Crawler" (PDF, 150 kb) (Thanks to Joe and Milton Shapiro)
here to read instructions for sewer inspectors, from 1908, which include this
caveat: "No manhole or sewer is safe to enter in which a lighted candle will
not burn brightly."
I stood near the southeast corner of Tyson Street and Roosevelt Boulevard in Northeast Philadelphia a few weeks ago, suiting up for my big adventure: a journey into the literal bowels of the city.
"How do you feel?" someone asked.
"A little queasy," I answered. I purposely hadn't eaten much breakfast that morning, but suddenly it dawned on me: would anyone really care if I threw up down there? In the place that I was heading--down a manhole, to take a stroll in a sewer pipe--any bodily excretions I produced would end up right where they belonged.
Earlier that morning, Richard Goode, the city's sewer maintenance superintendent, had asked me twice, "Why do you want to go down in the sewer?" I tried to explain that I was fascinated by the subterranean maze of tunnels, pipes, conduits and wires that carry the utilities needed by the city up
above, and that the sewers, as the most disgusting feature of that underworld--the city's River Styx, in a way--attracted me the most.But Goode didn't care about my fancy explanations. He was just teasing me, and after asking the question a second time he didn't even wait for me to speak. He just let out a long, loud laugh.
Americans have an enduring love affair with the flush toilet, and why shouldn't we? Who wouldn't love an appliance that, with a simple flick of a handle, makes our foul-smelling bodily wastes disappear, leaving the water in the bowl clean enough, if not for human consumption, then for the dog or the cat to drink, at least.
Iit's not that simple, of course. What goes down the toilet doesn't really disappear. Except in a few thousand homes that still have septic tanks, the vast majority of Philadelphia toilets empty into the city's vast sewer system. When it works as designed, this system keeps the sewage just where we want it: Out of sight, out of nose.
Unlike other cities, where sewage and drinking water and sometimes even stormwater are managed by different departments, here all three are under the control of the Philadelphia Water Department. About 3,000 miles of sewer lines run under almost every street in the city. Ranging from 8-inch terra cotta pipes to giant 24-foot concrete conduits, the sewers collect waste and stormwater from about 500,000 homes and businesses.
Forty percent are connected to "separate" sewer systems, which have one pipe for stormwater flow and another for "sanitary flow" (which is a wonderful euphemism for sewage, even more palatable than the often-used "wastewater"). The rest of the system, which covers most of the older parts of the city, carries both types of flow in one pipe called a "combined sewer."
Including the flow from neighboring suburban communities, 489 million gallons a day are handled by Philadelphia's three sewage treatment plants. The treated "effluent"--with most of the solids removed, and doused with chlorine to kill any disease-causing organisms--is discharged from the plants into the Delaware River, cleaner than federal regulations require.
Sewage disposal wasn't always so neat and clean and out of sight. Though sewers have been around for thousands of years, until recently all they did was carry wastes away from where people lived and dump them in rivers and streams. This barely worked in ancient times, when settlement was sparse; in modern cities it was a recipe for a water-borne stew of disease and disgust. Typhoid and cholera were rampant in Philadelphia even early into this century, when sewage readily mixed with drinking water supplies. "Interceptor" sewers that carried wastes downstream from the waterworks intake pipes, along with chlorination of drinking water, helped to vastly reduce death rates from such diseases, but these measures did nothing for the health of the rivers. By the 1940s, the city had 1,800 miles of sewers and just one small plant that treated only 15 percent of the sewage flow. The rest made its way into waterways, with the Delaware River bearing the brunt of this abuse. Essentially the Delaware became a giant septic tank. The water contained no dissolved oxygen needed to support fish or other aquatic life, and stank of hydrogen sulfide gas, which sickened dockworkers and discolored ships.
In the 1950s the two largest of Philadelphia's three sewage treatment plants, first proposed in 1914, finally came on line. Along with other plants in communities upstream, they helped bring the rivers back to life. Three dozen species of fish now swim in the once-dead Delaware, which stinks no more. People now flock to its waterfront, crowding into restaurants and nightclubs that would have been unthinkable, even laughable before. While only 11 species of fish were found in the Schuylkill as late as 10 years ago, surveys have now found close to 40. Besides all the fish, triathletes now swim in that river, too, and live to tell the tale.
Queasy or not, second thoughts or not, it was too late to back out of my sewer walk now, since a whole passel of Water Department employees--the main sewer maintenance crew and a few assorted supervisors--had gathered to help me take the plunge. Beyond the inevitable teasing and false assurances (one supervisor jokingly insisted that I picked up more germs while shaking his hand than I would ever get down in the sewer), it surprised me to see how seriously this group of men and one woman took their work. Similar to an army platoon that has survived a number of dangerous missions, the workers I met had a kind of "esprit de sewer" that I imagine is uncommon among city employees. Like Ed Norton, the sewer worker played by Art Carney in 1950s Tv sitcom, The Honeymooners, they seemed proud of their smelly, often risky occupation.
"We're doing a job that most people wouldn't do," Said sewer inspector Isaiah Austin, my tour guide that morning--an understatement I would amplify by saying that most people would rather do any job than Austin's.
Until the name was sanitized in the 1980s, sewer inspectors were called sewer crawlers, which is more descriptive of their actual work. "I don't know anybody who wakes up and says, 'I think I want to go crawl in a pipe,'" Goode told me. "You have to psyche yourself up to go crawl in a sewer pipe. You had to psyche yourself up, didn't you?" I admitted that yes, I had; and I was going into one of the larger sewers, a 7-foot-diameter pipe large enough to stand in. Experienced inspectors, Goode said, sometimes have to crawl through old brick "egg-shaped" sewers only 18 inches across and 27 inches high.
Goode started in the department as a semi-skilled laborer 28 years ago, and while not an official "sewer crawler," he often did the work of one. "Sometimes we would draw straws to see who would go down in the sewer," he said. "Me being the youngest and the smallest, I'd usually end up doing it anyway." A distant cousin of former Mayor W. Wilson Goode, the superintendent insisted that, despite his managerial position, he still managed occasional trips back into his old haunts."This suit and tie doesn't mean a thing, man," he told me. "I'd go in the sewer in a heartbeat."
Armed with bright flashlights, sewer inspectors look for cracked pipes, places where pipe has subsided, spots where groundwater is seeping into the sewer, and "choked" sewers that have become clogged with various kinds of debris. When bad chokes or cave-ins are discovered, a TV camera might be slid into the pipe to determine the extent of the problem, or an excavation might be ordered. But in most cases, Goode said, an inspector goes in first. "Most of the crawling is done on their hands and knees," Goode said. "We don't like them to go in on their stomach. For health reasons, we don't want a person to get wet with sewage. We have what we call body boots, big waders that come up to your chest, but you can't stop sewage from getting in them if you're laying down, and once it gets in it goes right down to your feet."
If this brief job description sounds tempting, you should know that Goode is looking to hire new sewer inspectors, at a starting annual salary of $24,665. Be advised that, for obvious reasons, you should be neither claustrophobic nor afraid of heights, since some manholes have no ladders. It also helps to be built thin, like a snake, so you can slither through the narrower sewer pipes. "During the interview I would look a person over and say, 'Oh, you'd make a nice size crawler!'" Goode said with a laugh. Health coverage, by the way, is excellent, not a bad benefit, considering what you'll be working in.
Sewage, I learned from several sources, is "99.9 percent pure water," which is a bit like saying that a chicken leg contaminated with salmonella is 99.9 percent pure chicken. In both cases, it's the one-tenth of a percent that'll get you. Exactly which disease-causing organisms reside in sewage depends on who uses the system. "For example, our sewers accept wastes from hospitals," said C. Drew Brown, the Water Department's manager of public education. "So if a person with hepatitis uses the toilet in the hospital, you can potentially have hepatitis in the sewage." For sewer inspectors, the first line of defense against these microbes is common-sense personal hygiene: keep the sewage off the skin, away from eyes or nose or mouth. Workers with open wounds are not allowed to go down, and if cut on the job they get sent for a tetanus shot. Vaccinations for hepatitis A and B are now required. Because of these precautions, Goode said that no one he knows of has caught any disease from working in the sewer.
Based on the sewer inspector's damage reports, sections of sewer may be cleaned or repaired or completely rebuilt. In the past three years the Water Department, whose budget is completely funded by water and sewer user fees, has spent about $45 million rebuilding about 18 miles of sewer, at an average cost of $473 per foot. The sewer maintenance department employs 151 people, with about 30 inspectors, which means that each section of sewer cannot possibly be inspected every year. "We're a complaint-driven unit," said Maintenance Supervisor Joe Ferrero. "People will call us complaining of a smell, or an opening or a depression in their yards or the street, and we'll check it out. "But 99 percent of the time," Ferrero added, "the problem's in the lateral."
Laterals, the pipes that connect each sewer user to the city sewer under the street, are the responsibility of the business or homeowner to maintain. "That's a hard part of the job for our foremen," Ferrero said. "They have to go knock on the door and say, 'Thank you for calling,' and then give them a notice of violation." The Water Department offers no-interest loans, payable in three years, to help owners of single-family homes pay for the required sewer repairs, which can run to $1,500 or more.
Wearing Water Department-issue coveralls over my clothes, yellow rubber hip boots strapped to my belt, a hard hat, rubber gloves and a safety harness, any passerby would have thought I was just another sewer crawler. I sat in the sunshine on the edge of the manhole, the next in line to descend into the gloom.
I had also been offered a raincoat to wear, complete with a snap-on hood. But someone--I wish I remembered who--said it might make me too hot and that I really wouldn't need it. I didn't take much convincing: I hate to sweat as much as anyone. It didn't occur to me that there might be other, viler ways to get wet down there. I left the raincoat up on the street.
"Your turn," someone said, and I took a deep breath, wondering if it would be the last fresh air I'd taste for a while. A sturdy safety tripod straddled the manhole, and someone took the rope and cable that hung from it and snapped them into the back of my harness--these to stop my fall if I slipped on the way down. "Take it slow, don't rush," said a voice. "I will," I said, and I did. I wasn't in any hurry to get to the bottom; but too soon, there I was: down in the pipe, 15 feet below the street, a stream of raw sewage about 8 inches deep flowing over my boots.
Along with sewer inspector Isaiah Austin and City Paper photographer Julia Lehman, I was joined by Joe Cerrone, a supervisor from the Water Department's Industrial Waste Unit. Unlike most of the people gathered around the manhole that day, Cerrone actually wanted to go down in the sewer. "I always learn something on every walk," he said. "It's an adventure, one you have to be prepared for and educated for." A master plumber with a bachelor's in biology from Penn State, Cerrone is uniquely educated for his job.
Back in August, it was Cerrone who had given me my first glimpse of raw sewage, when he fished a mugful from the Mill Creek Sewer to show a school group I was with. The liquid didn't look brown or black, as the kids had predicted. It was cloudy gray, with a layer of suspended solids at the bottom, which Cerrone insisted was simply dissolved toilet paper. "Sewage," he assured us, holding the jar carefully in his gloved hands, so as not to spill any on himself or anyone else, "is 99.9 percent pure water."
The kids, from Sulzberger Middle School in West Philadelphia, had spent part of the summer studying the Mill Creek watershed, which their school sits in the middle of. The creek still flows above ground outside the city limits, but once it crosses City Line Avenue near 63rd Street this former watershed has become, instead, a "sewershed." Badly polluted by the 1880s, the creek was one of many of the city's smaller streams to be buried deep underground in giant brick sewers. Typical of these "sewerization" projects, the Mill Creek Sewer mimics the old Mill Creek and its tributaries almost exactly. In fact, sewers, even when built outside such natural watersheds, are purposely structured like real streams: small pipes feeding into larger and still larger ones, all flowing gradually downhill by gravity, until this modern "99.9 percent pure waterway" finally reaches its highly engineered mouth: the sewage treatment plant.
Cerrone once went down in the old Mill Creek Sewer, and from the way he raves about it, a walk in that 20-foot-diameter brick pipe must be the plumber's version of a pilgrimage to Mecca. He said the fancy arching brickwork, where branch sewers intersected the giant main pipe, put him in mind of loftier things than the sewage he was walking in, or the oil spill whose source he was searching for that day. It made him think of a cathedral. "It's a beautiful thing," Cerrone said.
The first thing I noticed, standing in the sewer, were the strands of toilet paper draped head-high on the rungs of the manhole ladder. As Cerrone explained it, since we were in a combined sewer that carried both stormwater runoff and sewage, the toilet paper was a high tide marker of sorts, indicating how high the flow had reached in this pipe during a recent storm. In combined sewers during a heavy rain, all the pipes can run full to the top, and even at that the system isn't large enough to carry all the runoff to the treatment plant. At these times, the combined sewers "relieve themselves," sending stormwater and sewage through "outfall" pipes directly into rivers and streams.
"It's the case in any city anywhere in the world: when it rains, the sewers relieve themselves into the rivers," Cerrone said. Without this relief, he said, stormwater and sewage would back up into basements; the sewers would blow off their manhole covers and overflow into the streets. The relief system isn't ideal, admits Drew Brown. But the cost and space requirements of a system designed to handle the heavier rainstorms would be astronomical. "Such a sewer would completely consume the streetscape, there wouldn't be room for anything else under the street, houses would have to be moved back," Brown said.
The department is looking for ways to divert less of the combined sewer flow to the outfalls, but has come up with no definitive solutions yet. If it worries you, as it does me, to have even highly diluted sewage flowing directly into waterways, think of it this way: better that it gets carried away by the river than have it flowing, like a smaller river, down the street where you live.
On our sewer walk under Tyson Street, we first slogged upstream toward the underside of Roosevelt Boulevard, sliding our boots along the curved sewer bottom in a cross-country skiers' motion that Cerrone said would make us less likely to slip. It didn't smell nearly as bad as I had expected. A garbage bin in a Center City alley I passed later that day actually smelled far worse. In some ways this disappointed me. I had almost hoped to be overcome by the odor while down there. I was only slightly appeased when Austin and Cerrone both assured me that the city didn't lack for stinking sewers.
Classic sewer odors come from two gaseous byproducts of sewage decomposition: hydrogen sulfide, a central nervous system poison that smells like rotten eggs; and methane, which is explosive and smells, for lack of a better description, like rotting garbage. Chemical vapors may also be present, especially around businesses or factories where those materials may find their way, intentionally or by accident, into the sewer. Carbon monoxide, which is odorless, can also be a problem. And in areas of the sewer where one or more of these dangerous gases abound, oxygen levels might also be dangerously low.
Before anyone goes down a manhole, a gas detector is lowered to the bottom to check the atmosphere. Even if the air is clear, workers often can carry small five-minute oxygen tanks and gas detectors that emit piercing squeals if they detect dangerous gas levels or the oxygen level drops. The detector threshold is low enough to allow workers plenty of time to escape to the street, and so sensitive that cigarette smoke--or, in the the case of a nervous worker who hung the detector right under his mouth, heavy breathing--will set them off.
While not downplaying the importance of modern safety technology, Goode mentioned an old-fashioned method of gas detection, a sewer worker's version of the canary in the coal mine. "If you see a rat or a roach in the sewer," he said, "you can almost bet that the air is good."
I'm somewhat of a hypochondriac, which made my journey through the sewer even more of a worry. I imagined blaming every illness I came down with for the rest of my life on this ill-advised hour-long walk.But once I got down there and grew accustomed to the place, I began to feel exhilarated, as if I were finally confronting my greatest fear by slogging through this man-made valley of death. I faced no obvious threat, of course: no cannon to the right or the left of me, volleying and thundering (my apologies to Tennyson)--only billions of pathogenic bacteria flowing past my feet. And with every step, safe and sound inside my hip-high yellow boots, I was kicking their microscopic butts.
I flashed my light here and there, checking out all the smaller pipes whose flows joined our main one."You all right?" someone shouted down the manhole we'd entered. Isaiah Austin shouted back, "We're all right!" Goode told me that the department had yet to find any form of wireless communication that allowed workers on the street to talk to those down under, so they use a simple "shout and response" system. "All we want you to do," Goode said of the man in the pipe, "is to make some noise. When you stop making noise, that's when we start panicking, and a man will come down after you."
"Isaiah, you all right?" the man up top shouted again.
"We're okay!" Austin shouted.
Flashing my light up a foot-wide pipe I surprised a small rat, which disappeared so quickly that nobody else saw it. This was the only rat we saw on our walk, but I was assured that they abound in other areas underground. Crew Chief William Stewart told me that so many rats reside in the pipes around Ninth and Washington, under the Italian Market, "You don't even want to go in the sewers down there." Austin said that sewers in newer neighborhoods, where the houses have in-sink trash disposal systems, attract more rats because of the ground-up food. "And they don't even have to chew," Cerrone joked.
"Rats are good swimmers, pretty good swimmers," Goode said. "They don't like to swim, but they can. And they can climb anything."
Crew Chief Charles Johnson, with more than 20 years experience in sewer work, said rats are basically shy creatures that run away when they're discovered. "The only time a rat might not run," he said, "is when a worker crawling in a tight pipe gets between a mother rat and her nest. In that case, we tell them they should duck their head and let the rat run right over your back."
Goode told a story about kneeling at the bottom of a manhole with a co-worker, facing down a rat that, for some reason, refused to run away. They whistled, threw stones, but the rat wouldn't budge, and then Goode happened to look behind them and discovered they were almost sitting on the rat's nest. "My foot was in one of the burrows," he said. "It was this mound of dirt at the dead-end of the sewer, and there must have been 15 burrows and about 25 rats." That particular sewer inspection was never completed. "We hauled ass out of there!" Goode said.
The biggest rat Goode ever saw was about 10 inches long, without the tail, and Stewart claimed to have seen rats that were "as big as a cat." But Cerrone observed, "Rats always look a lot bigger when they're alive than when they're dead."
I saw spiders in the sewers, and Stewart said he once found a few snakes, and that he was once scared witless by the sparkling eyes of a raccoon, staring at him from the end of a pipe. Goode related a similar story, about the sparkling eyes of a cat that a crew rescued from a sewer pipe and brought back to life at the maintenance yard, where he supplemented his diet of kibble by sneaking bites out of untended hoagies at lunchtime. But no one I spoke to had ever seen an alligator, not even a baby one. "No, no; that's a New York fable," Johnson told me. "As far as we know it's urban legend," asserted Drew Brown. "Maybe in New York, but not in Philadelphia."
For the first half of our walk, since we were out under Roosevelt Boulevard, we saw no laterals, the connections from homes or businesses that lead directly into the sewer. The place seemed so sanitary that for a time I almost forgot where we were. But when we turned around and headed downstream, back under Tyson Street, I was snapped quickly back to reality. Up above, the street was lined with houses, which meant down under, every 20 feet or so, we passed an active lateral. The less offensive pipes simply had filthy stains fanning out beneath them. But on the sewer floor under some of them sat small piles of toilet paper and feces, waiting for the higher flow of the evening to wash them away.
I heard a rush of water behind us. "A flush," Austin said. I flashed the light but it was over before I could see it. As we walked I flashed my light on each ugly pile, grateful that I was wearing boots and gloves, that I was protected from the messes. I heard a flush ahead, and flashed a light as it poured out, chest high, splashing down onto the sewer banks, its dregs dribbling down the wall. Another flush behind us, hit with a spotlight; ahead of us, too. It reminded me, in a perverse way, of the Longwood Gardens fountain display, and suddenly I was filled with a hot flush of creative inspiration:
I imagined positioning sewer inspectors with colored flashlights at selected points along the block to highlight the various lateral flows, which I would choreograph to appropriate music, maybe Michael Jackson's "Ben." I would be hailed as the creator of a brand new form of underground art, my work elevating the sewer to a higher place in the modern consciousness while proving to the world that American culture was indeed scraping the bottom of the barrel. I imagined receiving an NEA grant and inviting Jesse Helms to view the show--but, of course, I would forget to provide him with a raincoat.
"How was it?" somebody asked, as I emerged, blinking, from a manhole at the other end of the block, near the corner of Tyson and Brous.
"Not as bad as I thought it would be," I said, standing in the sunshine, wondering how I was going to get out of my hip boots without touching them. I pried my left boot off with my right one, and my sneaker came off inside it. I reached inside, pulled it out, and stood on the street in one sock, one dirty boot. Joe Ferrero suggested folding the sides of the boot down, so the clean insides were facing out, and pushing it off that way. I tried it, but ended up brushing the sewery skin of the boot with my sock. I wondered how long it would be before I could wash my feet.
I sat on the curb, put on my sneakers, and watched as Isaiah Austin, still suited up, opened a fire hydrant, filled a bucket with clean water, poured in a good dose of disinfectant, then used a long-handled brush to scrub down his boots and his raincoat before taking them off.
So that's how they do it, I thought.
Joe Cerrone came by and offered me a swig from a bottle of disinfecting mouthwash. After a second's hesitation I took it, deciding the mouthwash would kill more germs than I might get from putting my lips on the mouth of the bottle. I heard Charles Johnson say to William Stewart, "He's the one who's worried about germs" as he waved me over to his truck. Johnson pointed out a dispenser of disinfectant mounted in the cab. I gratefully smeared gobs of the goop on my hands.
"Did you get flushed on?" someone asked me, and I smiled and said I hadn't been. "That's why we wear the raincoats," he said, and the smile slid off my face. Now they tell me.
Later, I asked Richard Goode if raincoats were a required part of a sewer worker's protective gear. "The raincoat is definitely required," Goode said. "I don't know if anybody flushed on you when you were down there." I told him that, for the most part, all had been quiet on the lateral front.
"If you went down there around dinnertime you'd see some action," he said with a chuckle. "When we're working on a block we let the homeowners know and we ask them not to use the water, but still some people'll flush their toilets. If I'd have been there, you would have been wearing a raincoat.
"It's a pretty horrible feeling," Goode said, "getting flushed on by somebody's toilet."
What could I do--what could anyone do--but agree with the man, and be thankful it didn't happen to me, and promise that I'd wear my raincoat if anybody ever dragged me (I'd probably be kicking and screaming) down into a sewer again.
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