Hidden Washington: Inside A Sewer Tunnel (Transcript) | WAMU 88.5 - American University Radio

Transcripts

Hidden Washington: Inside a Sewer Tunnel

MR. SABRI BEN-ACHOUR

13:08:58
Those were local residents speaking with "Metro Connection's" Tinbete Ermyas earlier this week. So while he was above ground talking to you, I went below ground to speak with David E. Young. He's a sewer inspector and he has one of the most important jobs in town.

MR. DAVID YOUNG

13:09:17
We are on 22nd Street in between M and N. We are actually 35 feet underground right here. We are in a combined sewer.

BEN-ACHOUR

13:09:27
So that water that's showering down on us is…

YOUNG

13:09:30
That would be raw sewage coming down.

BEN-ACHOUR

13:09:31
That is raw sewage?

YOUNG

13:09:34
Yeah, actually it got heavier since we've been standing here. That just means more people at lunch, more people using the bathroom right now so you've got a heavier flow coming out than you would, let's say, at 12 o'clock at night when there's nobody at work.

BEN-ACHOUR

13:09:48
Oh, wow, I can start to smell it a little bit.

YOUNG

13:09:50
Yeah, the smell can -- the smell can get serious.

BEN-ACHOUR

13:09:54
For somebody that can't see, David, can you describe what it looks like?

YOUNG

13:09:59
Remember the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles? It puts you in a mindset of that with the tunnels that they actually lived in and travelled through. You know this is the early bit of what, a twelve-foot sewer? It's like a street with a sidewalk on both sides of it. The street would resemble the water and the environment you actually walk on would resemble the sidewalk.

BEN-ACHOUR

13:10:19
And this is your workplace, this is where you work. What do you do down here?

YOUNG

13:10:21
Yeah, we come down here, inspect and maintain. If the sewer was to get clogged up, we would have to come down here and unclog it either manually or we would have to call in another truck called Jetvac, which is like a big water truck with jet holes on the front of it and they would have to -- we would actually have to feed it through and relieve the problem. So, you know, we just inspect all of the sewers in the city. Even during inauguration, we inspect the sewers underneath the Capital for the Secret Service.

BEN-ACHOUR

13:10:52
Every day all day, Young and his team search the sewers for problems, usually cracks and clogs.

YOUNG

13:10:56
Rags, toilet paper, you'd be surprised at how strong toilet paper is once it travels through this system. It would actually wrap around that stick and wrap around that stick until the flow can't even go through it anymore. Grease is the sewer's worst nightmare. When grease get together in the sewer and lock up, it's like bricks, you know. It can clog. It can clog a whole sewer.

BEN-ACHOUR

13:11:21
And this here, this thing -- it looks kind of like a big water bed or a bulging pillow sort of covering the whole -- this entire sewer on this side. What is this thing?

YOUNG

13:11:31
Right. It's called an inflatable dam. It actually deflates and inflates. The purpose of it is to keep the sanitary in the sanitary and the storm in the storm.

BEN-ACHOUR

13:11:37
So there are two types of sewer waste. There's the sanitary...

YOUNG

13:11:42
The sanitary is everything that comes through your toilet system.

BEN-ACHOUR

13:11:45
And the storm water…

YOUNG

13:11:49
Storm is anything that's like rain, people washing their cars outside, that would come down through the storm sewer, too.

BEN-ACHOUR

13:11:55
In about a third of the city, the two are mixed together like they are here and they get treated by a waste water plant. But when it rains too much, the pipes back up and the mixture of sanitary and storm waters spills throughout and falls into Rock Creek and the Potomac. The inflatable dams help limit that.

YOUNG

13:12:13
On that side of the dam, it's all raw sewage.

BEN-ACHOUR

13:12:14
What's the most unusual thing you've found down here?

YOUNG

13:12:19
Shoot, all types of dead animals, just like raccoons, live raccoons. They used to find bodies in it underneath the jail over in Northeast, but we don't have -- we don't see too much of that anymore.

BEN-ACHOUR

13:12:33
Young's colleagues have found human skulls. They found a dead cow. They say an entire construction once abandoned their equipment and left because they saw the ghosts of little children. But nothing fazes these guys. If no one was doing your job, what would happen to this city?

YOUNG

13:12:48
You'll probably have raw sewage all over the place, all on the streets. It would probably look just like this up top instead of down here because once that water builds up, it's going to find its weakest point to release it and that's going to be up top.

BEN-ACHOUR

13:13:04
This is a dangerous job, isn't it?

YOUNG

13:13:06
Yeah, it's pretty dangerous. Actually, the sewer that we're standing in now collapsed, like, what, five years ago.

BEN-ACHOUR

13:13:12
Collapsed is just one of the many dangers in the sewer. Possibly one of the most dangerous parts of this job is invisible. It's in the atmosphere. Decomposing waste consumes oxygen and releases CO2 and hydrogen sulphide. Hydrogen Sulphide smells like rottenness, like rotten eggs. But if it builds up, the human nose stops smelling it. CO2, of course, is odorless and both are deadly.

YOUNG

13:13:34
The lead man that was on the truck, when I first got on the truck, he had a scare. We lowered him down in a hole and he actually passed out for like 30 seconds to a minute to where he wasn't even responsive to us at all. We still had him hooked up. We couldn't even -- I mean, we couldn't even pull him out because he was slumped over. He was like in a dead state and then he came back through and was like, man, I couldn't talk. I couldn't do nothing.

YOUNG

13:13:59
But me -- personally, me and him was in the sewer one time and the water went from maybe two feet to four feet deep in less than a minute. So that was pretty scary.

BEN-ACHOUR

13:14:10
Do you think the public has any idea what it takes underground to keep life above ground possible? Do you think people take this for granted?

YOUNG

13:14:21
Pretty much so. Man, I know even before I started working here, I used to throw anything in the toilet. Now, I'd be very careful what I put in my sink and my toilet because I know how bad it can make it down here.

BEN-ACHOUR

13:14:32
Well, David, thank you so much for letting us come down here to share your job with us.

YOUNG

13:14:41
I appreciate you all for coming, man.

BEN-ACHOUR

13:14:43
If you want to see photos of the sewer and the SAM team or to learn more about how the sewer system works, just go to metroconnection.org. I'm going to take a shower and then another shower.
Transcripts of WAMU programs are available for personal use. Transcripts are provided "As Is" without warranties of any kind, either express or implied. WAMU does not warrant that the transcript is error-free. For all WAMU programs, the broadcast audio should be considered the authoritative version. Transcripts are owned by WAMU 88.5 FM American University Radio and are protected by laws in both the United States and international law. You may not sell or modify transcripts or reproduce, display, distribute, or otherwise use the transcript, in whole or in part, in any way for any public or commercial purpose without the express written permission of WAMU. All requests for uses beyond personal and noncommercial use should be referred to (202) 885-1200.