Thursday, December 15, 2005

Here's the Place to Look for Those Things You Drop Down the Drain by Mistake

When I first started working as a newspaper reporter and writing about Long Island Sound, about 20 years ago, my beat included the sewage treatment plant in Mamaroneck. The treatment technology back then was amazingly primitive. Wastewater would pour into the plant through a huge pipe. It would be filtered through a couple of screens, one coarse, the other somewhat finer. It would then empty into a big tank, which reduced the rate of flow, like a brook running downhill and settling into a pond. This would allow some of the solid material, about 30 percent, to settle to the bottom. Then the wastewater would be doused with chlorine and emptied into the Sound outside the entrance to Mamaroneck Harbor. When the tide was low you could go out there in a boat and see a big circle of water welling up from the bottom – the “boil,” as they called it, the place where the 18 million gallons of sewage that the plant treated each day would pour from the pipe into the Sound.

Those were the bad old days, the days when, as someone told me only half in jest, the primary qualification for getting a job at the sewage treatment plant – at any treatment plant along the Sound – was to be the cousin of somebody in town hall.

They told me back then that when they cleared the screens they’d find all kinds of weird stuff – money, rocks, tree limbs, condoms, the occasional shopping cart. Just about everything has changed at the Sound’s treatment plants now, and for the better – except for the junk that the screens catch. Here’s a good account of what it’s like to work at a treatment plant, from the Greenwich Time.

A couple of things caught my eye: at least some of the technicians now have masters degrees and presumably more qualifications than being a blood relative of someone in a position to dole out patronage jobs. And the workers feel as if it’s their responsibility, ethically, professionally, and legally, to keep the plant working well and to avoid sewage spills. This might help explain why the kind of sewage spills we saw so commonly in the 1980s are relatively rare these days.


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