One hundred feet below me is the lowest point in Allegheny County, the place where every flush for miles around eventually makes its way.
It's the first stop on my tour of the Alcosan sewage treatment plant along the Ohio River on the North Side, this place where a concrete pipe 101/2 feet wide dumps all that we, the people, have contributed via sewage pipes and combined sewage/stormwater pipes.
One of the perks of being a big-city columnist is getting invited to all the best places.
"We get all the nonhuman waste [out of the system] first,'' Doug Jackson, Alcosan's director of operations and maintenance, explains.
I count eight flights of stairs down to the brown water's edge. I have no desire to work my quads to get to the floating blanket of debris. The unholy scum, a week's worth, might be 6 feet thick, Mr. Jackson guesses.
This is where the Allegheny County Sanitary Authority begins to screen out the basketballs, plastic bottles, car tires and even catfish and carp that pour in. (Imagine how tough a sewer fish must be. I expect if you hooked one, it would yank the metal from its mouth with one fin and sneer, "You looking for this, chum?")
Six years ago, Alcosan came to a deal with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, as well as state and county watchdogs, to eliminate sanitary sewer overflows and control the combined sewer overflows it regularly sends into our rivers and feeder creeks. It has 13 more years to get that right.
In my column last Sunday, I mentioned how water and sewer bills were going up to provide the capital to fix these problems, and how this had led me to a futile campaign to reduce my teenage daughters' water usage. Nancy Barylak, Alcosan's manager of public relations, figured this was reason enough to get me to the final destination for the stuff flushed by more than 800,000 people across 309 square miles.
The longstanding problem is some of the ancient pipes along the route can't handle the volume. Before it even gets to Alcosan's 90-plus miles of massive piping, the watery mess has made its way through some stretch of the 4,000 miles of smaller pipes managed by the various entities serving 83 municipalities.
(A fellow once called Alcosan to ask if they'd found the false teeth he'd lost. Ms. Barylak told him no. I'd have welcomed him to look.)
The plant captures and treats 77 billion gallons of wastewater a year, getting it clean enough that a large flock of mallards was swimming and feeding in its treatment tanks the other day. That's the final stage of the cleansing process. When that water (treated with a bleach that's like Clorox times three) is finally released into the Ohio River, it's not drinkable but it beats the water in there ahead of it.
Our rivers and streams are dirty largely because about 9.7 billion gallons of wastewater is discharged at hundreds of points before it can get to the treatment plant. The plant can handle only about 250 million gallons a day.
Take, for instance, all this snow. When it melts, the plant will surely be over capacity. Again.
It's a lot to take in (literally) but here's what surprised me most about my tour of a plant that handles 110,000 tons of human waste a year: It mostly does not stink.
Our stuff does not stink? I asked.
Odorous compounds are scrubbed out, Mr. Jackson said, and once the grit and debris are removed and the 110,000 tons of waste gets worked down to about 55,000 tons of mudball consistency, it's incinerated to produce 6,500 tons of a rust-colored ash that gets trucked to the landfill.
I stood between two trucks being filled with 50 tons of such ash, and I didn't smell much of anything. Maybe the cold air had something to do with it, but I was already thinking science was pretty amazing when Mr. Jackson said the incineration process provides about 90 percent of the heat for the 56-acre plant.
That's right. Our water and sewer bills are rising, but all our selfless contributions are keeping Alcosan workers warm. Don't let anybody tell you tonight that you didn't do anything constructive all day.
Brian O'Neill: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1947.