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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."

More or less anything that humans can dispose of in a sewer--thatis what Keith has encountered at the headworks. "When I was an operator many years ago, it was more of a manual operation. We had to grind up everything, so you saw more of what came in," he says. "We've had money come in. We grab it, wash it, spend it. We get an occasional phone call saying, 'I've dropped my wedding ring down the toilet, can you help me find it?' But that's so rare that you can find them.

"We used to see fetuses. When my wife was in her eighth month, a fetus came inthat was more developed than you normally saw. That kind of threw me. We used to bury them. When I worked at 23rd Avenue, we'd go off to the side somewhere--we had some nice grass areas--and we'd dig a hole. No ceremony or anything like that; itwas just something the operators did. It was a life at one point ... but I haven't heard of one coming in in years."

Onward. We walk across the plant on a dirt road. It is amazingly quiet--no industrial noise, hardly any employees in sight. There is only a unique, ubiquitous fragrance that hangs in the air like patchouli at a Grateful Dead show. Only different.

We arrive at the primary settling basins, big, circular pools that look like bass hatcheries but definitely are not. This is where they "slow the flow down and let gravity take over," Keith reveals. "The heavier material will settle to the bottom; the lighter material--the grease, oil, scum--will float to the top. We can get rid of that; it's about 40 to 60 percent ofthe material that comes in."

And what about the rest? What about the stuff that is hanging in wasteland limbo, neither heavy nor light? It's there, Keith assures me, and he trots out a strange, culinary, allegorical tale to illustrate.

"Think of this as hamburgers," he offers gently. "The hamburgers that are heavy enough settle to the bottom, we pump those out. The hamburgers that are light enough float to the top, we can scoop them up. The hamburgers that are stuck in the middle, we have to get rid of. We bring these microorganisms in. They start eating the hamburgers, and the weight of the microorganism and the weight of the hamburger is heavy enough to sink to the bottom."

There's even a large sculpture at the plant that pays artistic homage to the starving army of invisible hamburger helpers. It's made from machine parts discarded by the treatment center, parts patterned after bacterial buddies like the pinched-tail rotifer, the filimentus, and the stock ciliate. The sculpture is functional, as well, acting as a wind indicator in case any escaping gases need to be tracked. It cost $25,000, and it includes lights run by solar panels. It is one heck of a sculpture.

"Everybody kind of looked at it at first and said, 'Oh, man, what is this?'" Keith says. "But I really like it."

From the primary settling basins, the burgers, et al., are pumped into digesters. These "work exactly like a human stomach," Keith clarifies. "Same byproducts, liquids, solids, gas; same organisms that digest the food. When they get sick, they do the same thing as a stomach: They burp, they throw up. We treat it the same way, with sodium bicarbonate--except we use 50-pound bags."

As we pass humongous digesters in all their stomachlike glory and make our way to the computer command center, I wonder just how much technology has changed the basic principles in use at treatment plants.

Not much. "Back in the Thirties, they had the same basic systems. Even trickling filters are from a long time ago," Keith says, referring to a particular kind of filter that works by trickling. "And the ponds they used in ancient China to grow algae, they used the same type of biological activities."

The computer here will tell an employee pretty much anything that is going on, good or bad, at any point in the plant. This is great and essential, no doubt, for an employee; for me, it is not too sexy. We sit while Keith fiddles with the screen, showing me things I don't understand while I await some kind of China Syndrome situation that does not happen. A woman comes in. She leans over in front of the screen and asks the computer something. Bored and incredibly observant, I notice that her hat has a distinctive purple symbol on it. Is this an official Water Services Department logo?  

"No," she says, "it's a Melissa Etheridge hat."

If we can stop for a second here, I'd be more than happy to tell you a couple of the really interesting facts about the world of waste treatment that you obviously are dying to know.

Though most repairs on basins, pools and tanks are done after they are drained, there is a company that provides guys who will put on special scuba gear (damn special, one would imagine) and dive in to do the job. Even Keith, a man who jumps into his job headfirst, finds this a little extreme.

"There's not enough you could pay me," he says, shuddering. "But everybody's got their own thing in life."

Maybe so, but ol' Keith took the plunge once himself--a baptism not uncommon at the plant. "Everybody that works here long enough has some horror story about what they fell in or what they got sprayed with," Keith offers. "My worst was, I was out in the sludge lagoons trying to open up a gate that was stuck. I put my weight up against it--in those days, I was a lot thinner. It opened up and flung me out in the lagoon. I was sitting in about three feet deep of sludge."

Oooweee.

For a place that deals in millions of gallons of filth, the 91st Avenue plant is surprisingly clean. We step through the blower building to the aerators, a series of long, parallel pools of frothy water. The railings--complete with life preservers--and concrete walkways are perfectly symmetrical, like a Margaret Bourke-White photograph for Life magazine. The noon sun glints off the foam and shines through the mist. If you crouch at a certain angle, you can see tiny rainbows.

You can also see an impressive array of multihued condoms inflated with air, bobbing away happily, nose-up, like miniature dolphins. "When I first came to work here, I was still at the point in my life where I was trying to increase the size of my family," says Keith as he gazes at the inflated Trojan army. "I didn't know that condoms came in colors.

"They get through," he says with resignation. "There's no way to keep out all of 'em."

The aerators are where the biological activity goes on, where the hungry microorganisms are introduced. "They eat the food, the 'hamburgers.' They work their way through into the secondaries [pools], where they settle down to digest the bacteria they've eaten. Kinda like, work's over, you go home, watch TV, take a nap."

Oh, now I get it.

Now back to the sludge--the solids, that is. The process used to rectify it is similar to the water situation: lots of sifting and sinking, much of which takes place in a large, merry-go-round-looking tank. It's 17 feet deep. A number of long, black arms span the muck, caressing the surface to remove layers of sludge.

The stuff makes its way out to the drying lagoons, which are on the edge of the 450acre plant and look a little like the desolate oil fields in Five Easy Pieces. The sludge is laid out quite literally to dry, then eventually is removed to energize the cotton fields. Big deal, you say; sludge is sludge, right? Not at all, friends. There are three different grades of sludge, Keith tells us.

"There's Class A, a higher-quality sludge; Class B, which can be used for soil reconditioner; and then there's an ordinary-quality sludge. Because of the process we use, the EPA says we're a Class B sludge. But we've run tests on our sludge, and our tests indicate we're a Class A sludge." He's a little miffed, I can tell through the jovial exterior. But then, we're talking about a man's personal sludge-esteem.

One lone tractor is driving back and forth through the black junk, breaking up buried chunks of sludge for better access to the drying powers of the sun. It's difficult to imagine anything or anyone who isn't being paid to be out here in this godforsaken place. But in addition to the tractor driver with noise-preventing earphones and a Walkman on under them, there is a touch of misplaced nature.

Up ahead on the banks of a vast sludge field, an enormous gray bird with a four-foot wingspan suddenly appears, rising through the air in prehistoric slow motion. It takes me by surprise, and one took Keith Greenberg by surprise many years ago.  

"Right when I started working here, I'd never been here in the daylight, and I was out in the sludge fields," he says. "I guess the bird didn't hear me, and I sure didn't see him. I was only a few feet away, as close as I am to you right now, and he flew straight up. For just a second I thought it was a pterodactyl--it scared the hell out of me."

I wonder what they're doing out here, these graceful, magnificent birds in these sun-baked turd paddies. "As far as I can tell," Keith says with a shrug, "all they like to do is stand in the sludge."

And so we are at the end of the line.
Outside the plant, what went in as a river of foulness from a concrete tube is emerging as a clear stream.

Starting here, the water flows out underneath 91st Avenue (where NO SWIMMING is painted in blood red on the street), on toward the Buckeye irrigation district. It is a tranquil, remote scene, something out of Mark Twain, or someplace to dump a body. Little fish are swimming around, and Keith claims that turtles and a possum or two live nearby. There is not a condom or tampon in sight.

Keith and I stand and listen to the gurgle of water that just hours ago spoke in flushes, and he seems content, happy, proud to show off his work. This pride is a good thing; employees down at 91st Avenue don't get parties or vacations or big raises for doing their job the way they're supposed to. The plant will get a "nice plaque," Keith says, "and a flag we get to fly."

It was, after all, only one violation that kept his plant from a perfect score. And Keith doesn't want to swallow even that.

"All right, we had one fecal violation. But I'm still convinced it was representative of the one 50-milliliter bottle that was pulled out to test for the day," he emphasizes. "I think it was just that one bottle, not the effluent that was leaving. None of our other process control showed any abnormality."

I look at him and nod. Can't stop myself.
"No shit."--Gilstrap


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