October 2007, Vol. 19, No.10


Tales From the Headworks

Mary Bufe

The stories you are about to read are true. At least, we think they are.

When you are talking to operators about the unusual items that turn up in the headworks at their waste treatment plants, you must remember that, well, this is the stuff of which urban legends are made.

“Now, I didn’t see the severed hand personally,” they’ll tell you. But they know someone who swears they know somebody who did and, besides, no one can prove otherwise.

There is one thing, however, these plant operators all know for sure: The headworks is the most hardworking and underappreciated part of any wastewater treatment plant.

It’s here that the wastewater — and whatever it carries with it — enters the plant. Bar screens help separate the debris from the flow so it can’t damage the equipment used in the treatment process. Until recently, it typically has been the job of plant personnel to clean those screens, removing and disposing of the rags, dead rats, 40-lb (18-kg) carp, and other assorted treasures left behind.

The question becomes are those “other treasures” tricks or treats? In honor of Halloween, we’ve conducted an informal survey of plant operators from around the country to find out.

The Good
We have all heard of people who throw their money down the drain. But who knew so many took it literally?

Practically everyone interviewed for this story had stories of $20, $50, and even $100 bills found on the bar screen. Phil Larkin, director of Water Pollution Control in Kansas City, Kan., said he personally found $50. “At first, I thought it was a torn bill,” he said. “When I got closer, I saw it was just folded in half.”

What did he do with it? He washed it with soap and water, of course, before drying it over a heater. Then he followed what appears to be the universal rule of treatment plant personnel when it comes to found goods: finders keepers.

Bill Tatum, plant manager for the Trinity River Authority near Dallas, said he once had an employee nervously approach him about finding not one, but five $100 bills. After looking over the bills, Tatum advised him to get to a bank promptly.

While Tatum can’t recall exactly when the money was found, others in the business say there are times when the odds are definitely better than others. Dan Busch, director of operations for the Green Bay (Wis.) Metropolitan Sewer District, even thinks he knows why.

“With Green Bay being home to an NFL football team, the most likely time to find money is after a winter home game,” he said. “The second most likely time to find bills is right after New Year’s Eve. Both cases involve a lot of celebrating and folks getting careless in the bathroom.”

He’ll leave the rest to your imagination.

The amount of money, jewelry, and other valuables found in Green Bay and elsewhere, however, has dropped in recent years. It’s not because people are more careful, but rather due to the equipment that many utilities have installed to automatically grind, wash, and compress the debris entering the headworks.

“Now, unless you operate a small plant or have a problem, you don’t normally see what comes through,” said Phil Loar, management specialist for the Arlington County (Va.) Water Pollution Control Bureau.

There are, however, exceptions, according to Alec Mackie, marketing manager for JWC Environmental (Costa Mesa, Calif.), a maker of wastewater grinders and treatment separation systems. The most notable exception? Las Vegas treatment plants.

“That’s a city that is legendary for found goods,” said Mackie. Many treatment plant operators there don’t like to use his company’s grinders, he said, and for a simple reason. “They’re constantly pulling casino chips and cash out of the headworks’ screens,” he said.

The Bad
Despite the loss of this second income stream, most utilities seem happy to relinquish the task of hand cleaning their bar screens to automated processes. For every dollar bill found, it seems, there are a pair or two of false teeth, a cell phone, and dozens of rats, rabbits, and fish — including some that are, miraculously, still alive.

And then there are the stories of the human bodies and body parts, only one of which was not too gruesome to repeat here. It’s a story Loar told about a severed hand found at his plant in the mid- to late 1980s. “The police were called, and they did some investigation,” recalled Loar. “They learned that the hand had been removed at an emergency clinic, so there wasn’t a crime involved. The illegal thing was that the clinic disposed of it in the sewer.”

There are many things, it turns out, that people dispose of in the sewer, not realizing who might find them later.

Busch reported, for example, that Green Bay has had “many, many cases of goldfish that have been flushed down the toilet as a means of burial.” The most memorable discovery, he said, was that of a small bottle, complete with a crude headstone and a short, written obituary for the deceased goldfish inside. “It was very touching, to say the least,” he said.

The Just Plain Bizarre
Treatment plant operators know they have dirty jobs, and most approach their work with, let’s just say, the right attitude.

Busch recalled a display of this attitude when an operator planted a dead woodchuck, complete with sunglasses and a cigarette in its mouth, in the bar screen as a surprise for the plant’s night shift operator.

A smoking woodchuck is, nonetheless, less peculiar than some of the other items that have turn up in the headworks. Take, for example, the very large brassiere that Tom Riley reports was once found at the Haverall Wastewater Treatment Plant in Bradford, Mass.

“It was huge — a 48-D or something,” said Riley, senior operator at the plant. “It got passed around the plant afterwards, and was found hanging on doors and elsewhere. It was frightening.”

Mackie said the service technicians at JWC Environmental have yanked enough odd items from bar screens to fill a second-hand store. Among them: a bicycle frame in Nashville, Tenn., the front seat of a car in Lancaster, Pa., and a fire extinguisher in Phoenix. Tatum tells the story of a goat that jumped over a handrail somewhere around Dallas and ended up on the bar screen.

And then there is a story told by a former employee of the New York Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) and a now a vice president of a large consulting engineering firm. Because he cannot confirm the veracity of his story 100%, he has asked to remain anonymous.

The story dates back to the 1970s, and involves not a headworks but an interceptor sewer — and a paddle boat.

It seems, according to our source, that the unmanned boat, which originally made its home at Van Cortlandt Park in the Bronx, had crossed over a weir and into the 18-ft-diameter (5.5-m-diameter) combined sewer below, where DEP workers discovered it.

“They knew only one way to get it out,” explained our source. “They had to paddle it.” Legend has it that DEP workers took turns paddling the boat more than a mile through the sewer to the nearest discharge at the Harlem River. When they got there, a bar screen prevented them from removing it, so they ended up cutting the boat into small pieces and removing it that way.

“It’s hard to imagine,” our source said, “but the crews swore up and down that it happened.”

And who is going to doubt someone who says they once rode a paddleboat through an underground sewer? Not us. But had they run into some giant albino alligators along the way … .

Mary Bufe, Operations Forum