We're Number Two!

There is one line that Bob Dylan left out of his immortal ballad "Blowin' in the Wind":

How many fecal violations does it take/
For a sewage treatment plant to qualify as having the second-best operations in the land?

The answer, my friend, is one.
And the plant at 91st Avenue and the Salt River, run by the City of Phoenix Water Services Department, did indeed have just one fecalistic violation--out of potential thousands--to earn a prestigious national second-place rating this year from the Environmental Protection Agency.

Which means the plant takes anything that the good people of Phoenix, Mesa, Tempe, Scottsdale, Glendale and Youngtown offer up as industrial waste--or put down a garbage disposal, run down a drain or flush down a toilet--and turns it into reusable matter. Which means water tocool the nuclear reactors at the Palo Verde Nuclear Generating Station, water to irrigate the Buckeye cotton fields, and solids--known in the business as "final sludge product"--to recondition the cotton fields.

And when you consider just what goes into the insatiable sewage maw every day, from your house alone, this is nothing to sniff at. The 91st Avenue plant was bested only by the operation in Providence, Rhode Island; well, sometimes fate is a fecal mistress.

Pride.
Before we go any further, let's talk about that for a second. Maybe some of the things going on right now in the place where we live make it hard for us Valley folk to hold our heads up and say, "I'm proud to hold my head up and say I have pride in the place where I live." When the governor himself--the man we all want to view as a hero, a standard-bearer, a leader--is little more than a pathetic disappointment barely hanging on to the hem of honesty, it makes a person wonder who can be looked up to around here.

Well, I can give you 126 people: the people who work down at treatment plant number 24-7-365, converting your waste like nobody's business. And I can give you Keith Greenberg, the assistant wastewater treatment superintendent, who is about to give me a personal tour of the prize-winning facility.

Keith is a man who loves his job. He's been at it for 16 years. He drives a company car with a rubber skeleton hanging from the rearview mirror, and he wears a wristwatch with Babe Ruth on its face. One of his five daughters gave it to him. Keith is probably the guy who would pull over to help you on a remote road at three in the morning in the rain. This makes sense not only because he's a nice guy, but because he's on call 24 hours a day.

"Winning this award is a very big deal," he tells me as we don hard hats for the tour. "There are hundreds of plants in this country that would like to have less than five violations a month. And we had less than five for the whole year."

At one point later on, as we gaze down at a concrete river flowing with millions of gallons of incoming crap, he gets a bit wistful and says, "If you didn't have wastewater treatment plants, you'd have typhoid, cholera, typhus, all kinds of diseases. As corny as it sounds, it's nice to go home every day knowing you've put out quality effluent."

"Effluent" is just one of the terms I will learn today; according to Webster, it is "waste material discharged into the environment." But before the effluent is discharged from 91st Avenue, it goes through a cleansing process to be reckoned with. How a bill becomes a law has nothing on how this wretched refuse becomes a force for good.

It all begins at the headworks.
This is where everything flows in: Five huge, vertical, rakelike monsters called climber screens methodically remove anything bigger than three quarters of an inch in diameter. The water is stinking, black and evil; bits of things roil to the surface. A lot of this stuff--I don't know what it is, and I don't want to know.

A skein of condoms glides by like flattened water snakes as Keith speaks: "Everything stays in suspension throughout the collection system. At the beginning of the plant, we'll take out any large material--bricks, tree limbs, dirt, toilet paper, condoms, a whole slew of applicators." When I suggest that maybe all these condoms indicate a more responsible trend in our society, Keith does not respond. I see what appears to be the underside of a child's ballet slipper. Keith scoffs. "That's a tampon. They just flush 'em. Out of sight, out of mind."

Three in the afternoon is the high-flow period, when up to 180 million gallons per hour will rush in. At nine in the morning, things grow somewhat mellower, with a flow of a mere 60 million gallons putting the plant through its paces.

"I used to think, 'Damn, we're doing good,'" admits Keith. "Then I went to Chicago for an EPA meeting a couple years ago and toured the Stickney, Illinois, plant."

He shakes his head slowly, sighing with admiration.
"1.2 billion capacity."

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