“This is the stuff people don’t see.”
His name is Vince. He’s maintained a treatment plant for 20 years. He took us on a guided tour like no other. And we took a camera.
“Any tunnel in this place, behind a wall could be a hundred million gallons of water.”
Vince Vetrano narrated our journey like a Netflix documentary as he walked four steps ahead of us through the dark cavernous tunnels deep under one of the largest treatment plants in the country.
He has more than 20 years of maintenance knowledge under his hard hat and soaked into the very fibers of his flannel-lined hoodie. I recently followed Vince with our Communications Specialist and photog extraordinaire Nicole Harvel to see even more of what most people never even see at all.
The underbelly of a wastewater treatment plant.
“This is the stuff people don’t see,” Vince said. Labyrinths of pipes, whirring motors, glares of sun bouncing off metal duct work and casting shadows onto equipment older than many of our employees. Hidden realities of the already unseen work of wastewater treatment. As an equipment operator and long-time utility maintenance person, he tells me “we keep this stuff going.”
Every stop on our tour has a smell. A feel. Almost a habitat of its own even though they are integrally connected.
In the Renewable Energy Facility where sludge is incinerated and energy generated, every step has a sound-”kshhk kshhk kshhk”-as our boots tread upon a dusty mix of sand and ash on the concrete floors.
Underground tunnels connect every corner of the nearly 100-year-old and 280-acre plant, stretches of which date back to the 1920s. “Not much has dates on it,” Vince says under the glow of overhead tunnel lights.
“You can get lost down here.” But honestly Nicole and I wouldn’t know it if we were. We trust him. He stops and looks both ways at every intersection, passing painted maps on the walls of faded arrows and process acronyms. “They’re outdated anyway.”
We surface and make our way to a vast complex of bubbling vats and air so thick it coats your skin. In each slowly whirling drum is grease skimmed from earlier in the treatment process, solids that have floated to the top of incoming wastewater.
It’s collected and pumped here so it can churn and eventually be dewatered to become fuel for our incinerators, burners that generate heat and steam to spin a turbine and generate electricity on-site. An innovative process that still requires very real and dirty manual labor.
We head back underground. The texture of each tunnel seems to shout at us with every turn. You don’t have to touch anything to know how it feels. You can hear the history. The largest pipes in the plant carrying treated water stretch so far as to almost disappear into the darkness.
The safety precautions are undeniable but each new direction showcases the risks involved in this essential service. “We call them submarine doors,” he says, pointing at the thick glass porthole in the latch doors once designed to separate areas that risked significant flooding. “If you saw water on the other side, you don’t open it.”
As our trek continued, we seemed to be the only life in the tunnels but Vince assured us that we were not.
“There are more spiders in here than in your dreams.”
Walking into the maintenance storage area strikes me. Floor to ceiling boxes and crates labeled as if historical archives, reminiscent of Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark. A treatment plant with more than 50 years of history and tens of billions of gallons of water treated over every one of them takes a lot of equipment, a lot of knowledge, and a lot of hands.
Hands like Vince’s and his co-workers’.
Utility work isn’t a spotlight job.
Utilities work in the glare of winter sun. The glow of LED lights in winding aging tunnels. The beams of head lamps in a confined space. It’s good work not done to be noticed.
But sometimes, good work is worth a spotlight.
Photos by Nicole Harvel. Story by John Gonzalez.