MS. REBECCA SHEIR
We turn now from the road to the river, or 100 feet below the river, to be precise. Indeed beneath the Potomac, you'll find a tunnel that could very well change the way D.C. deals with its raw sewage. See, traditionally whenever a big rainstorm has hit the area, overflows of storm water and sewage have washed right into the Anacostia and Potomac Rivers, not to mention Rock Creek and smaller tributaries.
MS. REBECCA SHEIR
The Anacostia River Tunnel is part of a plan mandated by the Environmental Protection Agency to address that pollution problem, and the folks at D.C. Water were good enough to let our environment reporter, Jonathan Wilson, go down into the tunnel to see the progress they're making so far, and how the actual digging gets done.
MR. JONATHAN WILSON
Everything about D.C. Water's latest tunneling project is big.
MR. JAMES WONNEBERG
You'll see it -- you might get a little splatter here, but they're gonna, they're gonna dump a box, so.
That's James Wonneberg, resident engineer on the project, and as you might have guessed, the box he's talking about is huge, more like a shipping container. Right now, we're still above ground at the top of a drop shaft that measures 75 feet across and ten stories down. The box contains some of the mud that gets pulled out of the ground as the tunnel gets longer. In the end, the length will be 13 miles. To get to the tunnel, you head down into that drop shaft. Crew members make the descent in an orange metal cage.
This is what we call the Alimak, it's an elevator that's gonna take us down to the bottom of the shaft, then we'll catch the train.
Not much room in here, is there?
No, it's tight, but we can fit.
Intermittent horns and buzzers tell crew members at the bottom of the drop shaft when something is being lifted or lowered by the pulley and for good reason. The ten story drop means that even a falling clump of dirt could do serious harm. Turns out many of the crew have worked together before. Ray Hashimee, the assistant resident engineer, came with Wonneberg from another tunneling project in Seattle.
MR. RAY HASHIMEE
The tunneling industry is a very niche group, so we all go from different -- we're like gypsies, we all go from different places to places and we all know each other.
That includes Jeffrey Jenkins, who says he's been working on underground projects in D.C. since 1988. On this project, he drives the Loki -- that's short for locomotive. It's how just about everything from people, to food, to the ten ton concrete slabs that make up the wall of the tunnel, get where they need to be.
MR. JEFFERY JENKINS
Everything they get, I bring to them.
The actual tunnel, 26 feet in diameter, is being created by a giant earth-chewing, tunnel-boring machine, or TBM. As it digs through the earth, it lays the precast, ten-ton concrete blocks that form the walls of the watertight tube.
There's actually been a lot of these lately, in the U.S. right now there's probably 10 to 15 different tunnels being dug at any given time right now. Around the world, there's hundreds.
So far, this machine, named the Lady Bird, after President Lyndon Johnson's environmentally-minded wife, has tunneled north more than 4,500 feet. It still has a few miles to go before completing what's known as the Blue Plains phase of the tunnel which is four and a half miles long.
MR. GEORGE HAWKINS
A second phase of this huge tunnel will start all the way at RFK Stadium and actually come south on the Anacostia.
George Hawkins is D.C. Water's general manager.
The third phase of the tunnel will start at RFK Stadium and tunnel into the city to where Ledroit Park, Bloomingdale, that historic flooding has happened.
Hawkins says most people who rely on modern water utilities rarely appreciate the engineering muscle and technological prowess required to get clean water to every faucet in a city and keep dirty water out of local waterways. He hopes this project will change that and make people realize that water just might be an underpriced resource.
Our view in this industry is that if we can describe and explain in a way that is meaningful and understandable to the people we serve, what their money is going towards, it's our judgment that most of the people that we've talked to, not willingly, no one willingly writes out a bill, but at least accepts that this is a good investment, because my family, every living organism, whether it's human or otherwise relies on clean drinking water.
And D.C. water bills have had to go up to pay for the 2.6 billion dollar Clean Rivers Project, which includes not only the cost of the 13 mile Anacostia Water Tunnel, but also two additional tunnels planned for coming years. In 2009, D.C. Water implemented an impervious area charge for all customers to help pay for the Clean Rivers Project.
The more impervious the surface on your property, that would include most buildings or houses, any blacktop or concrete, the more you're contributing to storm water runoff and the more you pay. The average charge is an additional 12 dollars each month. The project will remove 98 percent of the combined sewage and storm water that flows into the Anacostia River. But Hawkins says there may be an even better and cheaper way to keep our rivers clean.
One of the attributes of the tunnel is it only works when you have a big enough rain storm to cause the sewers to overflow, otherwise, it sits empty and is not doing anything at all, even despite the expense.
That's why Hawkins and D.C. Water have gone back to the EPA with an alternative plan that would create a smaller second tunnel and eliminate the need for a third tunnel altogether, all by investing 60 million dollars in things such as permeable pavement and green roofing, to absorb more water runoff. The new plan would save the average customer about 400 dollars a year.
Green infrastructure provides benefits all -- at every rain storm, it could be a sprinkling of water and that will absorb it and the green will grow and all those benefits will come.
For now, George Hawkins has to wait and see if the Department of Justice and the EPA find the green infrastructure plan acceptable. In the meantime, says, Loki driver Jeffery Jenkins, the Anacostia Water Tunnel isn't a bad place to be.
They have it down to an art, it's pretty neat.
Art and sewage, a few hours underground with the technology behind the Anacostia Water Tunnel and you might start thinking those two things can actually go together. I'm Jonathan Wilson.
So, here's the thing, much as we trust Jonathan, we couldn't send him underground alone, and lucky for us, web producer Martin Austermuhle took some amazing pictures and video while he was playing chaperone. You can see it all on our website, metroconnection.org. Time for another break, but when we get back, breaking the rules, punk style.
It's so wonderful to find classically based plays that are even more punk than we are.
It's coming your way on this Breaking the Mold edition of "Metro Connection." We're on WAMU 88.5.
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