D.c. Water Hopes New Tunnels Will Make It Easier To Be Green (Transcript) | WAMU 88.5 - American University Radio

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D.C. Water Hopes New Tunnels Will Make It Easier To Be Green

MS. REBECCA SHEIR

00:00:03
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

00:00:26
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

00:00:43
Everything about D.C. Water's latest tunneling project is big.

MR. JAMES WONNEBERG

00:00:47
You'll see it -- you might get a little splatter here, but they're gonna, they're gonna dump a box, so.

WILSON

00:00:51
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.

WONNEBERG

00:01:25
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.

WILSON

00:01:32
Not much room in here, is there?

WONNEBERG

00:01:33
No, it's tight, but we can fit.

WILSON

00:01:38
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

00:02:00
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.

WILSON

00:02:10
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

00:02:28
Everything they get, I bring to them.

WILSON

00:02:32
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.

WONNEBERG

00:02:48
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.

WILSON

00:02:59
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

00:03:17
A second phase of this huge tunnel will start all the way at RFK Stadium and actually come south on the Anacostia.

WILSON

00:03:24
George Hawkins is D.C. Water's general manager.

HAWKINS

00:03:27
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.

WILSON

00:03:35
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.

HAWKINS

00:03:57
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.

WILSON

00:04:22
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.

WILSON

00:04:43
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.

HAWKINS

00:05:10
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.

WILSON

00:05:21
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.

HAWKINS

00:05:44
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.

WILSON

00:05:52
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.

JENKINS

00:06:06
They have it down to an art, it's pretty neat.

WILSON

00:06:09
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.

SHEIR

00:06:26
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.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE

00:06:56
It's so wonderful to find classically based plays that are even more punk than we are.

SHEIR

00:07:01
It's coming your way on this Breaking the Mold edition of "Metro Connection." We're on WAMU 88.5.
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