This story was originally published on October 23, 2015.
Damon “Hop” Hopkins only needs three words to tell you about the grossest thing that’s ever happened to him working in Pittsburgh’s sewers. That—and a lengthy, well-timed pause between words two and three.
“Chest high. Feces.”
Hop, who works with a maintenance crew for ALCOSAN, Allegheny County’s sewer authority, has plenty of war stories. His co-workers do too. Supervisor Charles Simone’s best/worst is the time he was working down in the hole, tugging and pulling at a stuck control gate whose metal claws were like a beacon for tampons, condoms and drowned rats. When the muscle he was putting into it finally paid off and the gate suddenly broke free, he was rewarded with a “big condom right in the face.”
Ask Darryl Smith for his, and he simply shakes his head. Searching for the right euphemisms, he finally relives a few foul moments when he was in the “mud.” The mud that isn’t really mud. The mud that, based on its smell, is clearly something else. Although, ask this crew of men and women about the smell that’s a constant backdrop to their work day and they’ll just tell you: “It smells like money.”
LISTEN: “The Men and Women of Pittsburgh’s Sewers”
Crew supervisor Mike Altimore simply calls their existence a “necessary evil.” His crew no doubt feels the evil of it more days than not. Every day, they feel the necessity: “I save the world,” one worker says. “If it wasn’t for me, this whole county would be flooded in piss and sh*t.”
In fact, you don’t have to look very far back in history to find a time when everything Pittsburghers flushed down their toilets went directly into the rivers. In the 1950s, the city finally built a system of riverside “intercept” structures to divert the raw sewage into deep tunnels, which fed everything back to a wastewater treatment plant. But crews have to constantly keep an eye on these structures, which can clog or jam, causing untreated sewage to overflow into the river.
In fact, in big storms, the system is engineered to actually encourage overflows. In Pittsburgh, stormwater and sewer water share a single system. So in heavy rains, waters rushing in from street-level storm drains mix with sewage and quickly overwhelm the system—triggering the gates at the intercept structures to open and release the excess into the rivers. That’s also a necessary evil of the system—the alternative to which is raw sewage backing up into homes and onto streets. At least in this scenario, only those who signed up for the job have to muck around in the mud that underlies urban life.
Top left: Vac truck operators Damon “Hop” Hopkins and Shanda Kelley. Top right: Crew supervisor Charles Simone. Bottom: Left to right—Darryl Smith, Charles Simone and crew supervisor Mike Altimore. Photos: Lou Blouin
Even at more than 60 years old and considered antiquated, Pittsburgh’s sewers are still something crew supervisor Charles Simone marvels at. For one, the entire system, which collects wastewater from more than 80 communities, is almost entirely gravity fed. “These guys designed all this with just basic surveying tools. No GPS, no computers, no nothing,” Simone says. Now, the federal government is requiring ALCOSAN to modernize the system in order to minimize overflow events that dump raw sewage in the ever-improving waters of the Three Rivers. Just how that will happen and how much it will cost is still getting sorted out. But residents’ sewer rates will no doubt go up: A new necessary evil of an era in which the public is no longer morally comfortable with treating its rivers like sewers.
For now, the system hovers between its past and future. Pittsburgh’s Three Rivers are still needed as a last line of defense. But the goal of these crews is to minimize the times when the waters are called on to shoulder this duty. Today, that means 6’4”, 200-and-some pound Don Smith will disappear into a manhole that’s just barely wide enough to accommodate his shoulders. Before he slides into the darkness to do some preventative maintenance, he calls for somebody to hold his wallet. “If you fall in, you might save the twenties,” his spotter explains. “But you won’t want to bother with the ones and fives.” Then, even the smell of money can’t trump the smell of money.