News Feature | August 8, 2017

Wastewater Plant Workers Find Some Crazy Things

Sara Jerome

By Sara Jerome

An unusual part of the lives of waste workers: Findings strange items that get flushed down the toilet or otherwise end up at the treatment plant.

Sometimes, valuables — even money — find their way through the pipes, according to Bob Hall, operating engineer at the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago (MWRD), which operates the world’s largest nutrient recovery facility at their Stickney Water Reclamation Plant.

"Every once in a while, you get lucky. It's usually only singles. I always joke it's got to have at least one zero on it before I go in for it, preferably two," Hall told the Chicago Tribune. "The most I ever got out of here was a maybe a $20 bill one time in the 10 years I've been here."

Employees are allowed to keep the money, and they soak it in bleach to clean it, he said. That's a "fringe benefit of a dirty job," the report said.

One of the most memorable discoveries for assistant chief operating engineer Mike Ahrens was a live animal.

“About 10 years ago, he rescued a snapping turtle more than a foot wide at the treatment plant and took it to a nearby pond,” the report said.

Some items are exactly what you’d expect.

“Bouncy balls are among the most common items filtered out during the first step of preliminary treatment of wastewater from the Chicago area. Oft-collected items include personal hygiene products, snakes, dead animals, logs, plastic bottles and balls of rags,” the report said.

But other items are a little stranger.

“Longtime employees recall finding more unusual items over the years, including thousands of feet of nylon rope that became known as the rope monster,” the report said.

Hall, the operating engineer, described another memorable find.

"About five years ago, we had this tree trunk, and the whole root system came in from somewhere. They had to send down ... the diver with chains to chain the thing up and had to hoist it up by a crane inside," he said, per the report.

Baltimore wastewater workers made a strange finding of their own a few years ago, according to a Wired report.

“The Baltimore Wastewater Treatment Plant put out a call for extreme spider help in 2009, when a giant spider web covered almost 4 acres of their facility. Scientists eventually estimated over 107 million spiders were living in the structure, with densities of 35,176 spiders per m³ in spots,” the report said.

To read more about those working at treatment plants visit Water Online’s Labor Solutions Center.

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