Three workers with the city sewer department use a camera system to find issues in the city’s pipes – along with other items that may not belong. | Kenneth Boone

Archived Story

You won’t believe what’s down here!

Published 10:58am Thursday, January 10, 2013

Diamond rings, bowling balls and other oddities make their way through sewer system regularly

It’s been around in Alexander City since the turn of the 20th century.

It stretches for more than 140 miles, networking beneath our feet.

It has served as a home for multitudes of unwelcome snakes, rats, roaches and tree roots.

And it is arguably one of the biggest strides humankind has made to drastically reduce diseases such as cholera and hepatitis.

Yet according to City Engineer Gerard Brewer, most people don’t consider what happens to organic waste once it leaves their toilet at home and makes its way through the city sewer system.

“Most people just flush the toilet and think that’s the end of it,” Brewer said. “But that’s really just the beginning. It’s a super expensive network of things – between the city’s pipes and being discharged into the lake or river, there is a very expensive group of materials and pumps, a huge input of fuel to lift sewage and move it, as well as chemicals to treat it. It’s an expensive process from the time it leaves your toilet until it is completely environmentally friendly again.”

Though many may have the idea that sewer pipes tend to be massive, man-sized crisscrossing structures big enough for men to walk or crawl through, in actuality the pipes in Alexander City range from only 4 to 30 inches in diameter.

One of the main obstacles the city sewer department is fighting the onslaught of items that shouldn’t have been flushed in the first place, Brewer said.

“People need to know they don’t need to flush things like baby wipes, feminine hygiene products – the applicators or the actual absorbents – condoms, or any of those types of products,” Brewer said. “You’ll find hundreds of those types of products in there – an incredible mass of them.”

Brewer explained the items do not dissolve as toilet paper is designed to do.

“As toilet paper bounces down the sewer, it is dissolved into a gray, murky, thick-looking mess, but by the time it gets to the pump station it doesn’t really stink and isn’t really putrid,” Brewer said. “The wipes, applicators, absorbents, condoms and all that – those things have to be managed manually.”

Mike Kendrick of the sewer department said once those items make their way to the treatment plant, they must be removed by hand.

“The sewer water runs through a screen, and the employees have to clean that screen every day,” Kendrick said. “They have a rake that’s designed to come up through the screen, and then (they place the contents) in the garbage.”

Though the aforementioned items are commonplace in the sewers, Kendrick said city employees have discovered much more bizarre wares in the pipes throughout the years as well.

“We’ve found a bowling ball – and it was in an eight-inch pipe, too,” Kendrick said. “We didn’t even have a jet washer system at that point, either – we had an old rod that turns, and we had to keep putting pressure on it, twisting it and pushing it out at the other end. It took all day.”

Kendrick said it would be impossible to flush items wider than around two inches down the toilet. He added that the sanitary sewer system and the storm sewer system – which carries precipitation runoff from streets – are separate systems, so someone must have placed the items in the sewers manually.

Years ago, one common item stopping up pipes was whiskey bottles near Alexander City Middle School, though Kendrick said the prevalence of those items has since ceased.

Kendrick said employees have also discovered a leather jacket, “all kinds of clothes,” yards of bolts of cloth from the textile mills, towels and bed sheets.

“Up at the jail, the prisoners used to take their bed sheets and flush them,” Kendrick said. “They would get the sewer backed up into the jail cell so they’d have to take them out (of the cell).”

City employees have discovered much more valuable items over the years as well.

“We found some $100 bills in the Coley Creek line once,” Kendrick said. “There had been a robbery at one of the stores. I think it was an inside job, and the employee was about to get caught, so they flushed the money down the toilet to get rid of it. It came out down there at Coley Creek.”

Brewer said one valuable sewer discovery was of a diamond ring – and the employee who found it put it to good use.

“One of the employees ended up giving it to his fiancée,” Brewer said.

“He took it to the jewelry store and got it cleaned up first,” Kendrick added.

Brewer stressed the importance of sewers in everyone’s daily life and said he hoped the community would rally support behind continued sewer maintenance built into the city budget each year.

“One of the things they preach in engineering school is that people may think medicine has afforded us the public health levels we have, but they really believe it’s wastewater treatment and the management of bathroom waste. It’s one of the biggest health enhancers in the history of mankind,” Brewer said. “That sounds dramatic, but you can’t understate the importance of it. I hope people will appreciate and be OK with the money being spent on sewers. It’s one of the single most health-effective things the city does.”