It takes a special breed,” says Utah’s “Mr. Water,” LeRoy W. Hooton Jr., “to work in the sewers.”
The director of Salt Lake City’s Department of Public Utilities isn’t kidding.
The untold story of the three men who took this city’s sewers from the abandoned and often dangerous state they were in 50 years ago to the national award-winning collection and treatment system that exists today is, if nothing else, a tale of true romance.
Boy meets sewer. Sewer fascinates and enchants. Boy dedicates his working life to caring for, and improving, said sewers.
Does this seem far-fetched? Whose mother raises her son to be a sewer worker? Who would even go near fast-flowing gallons of raw sewage, let alone worry about it 24-seven?
And who, in their right mind, would ever come to care about it?
The sewers are as old as man’s attempts to be civilized, to be sanitary, and to control the spread of disease. Without the sewers we would be faced not only with walking in our own filth, but also outbreaks of diseases that would decimate the population. Yet we press the flush button and turn our back as our bodily waste goes on its epic journey without so much as a second thought. That waste'or whatever euphemism you prefer, from what-not, pooh and poop to load, crap and that good old fashioned Anglo-Saxon favorite, “sh*t”'emerges from our most private act of the day and becomes part of a river of anonymity within seconds. It is an oddly humbling thought, standing in the treatment plant where the raw sewage emerges from three trunk lines into a churning river of brown, that the 49,000 homes these lines trace back to have, on a daily basis, seen underwear dropped, newspapers picked up and the resulting product sent on its merry way to converge at this precise point.
The secret to a well-run sewer, says Jeff Niermeyer, Salt Lake City’s public utilities deputy director, is speed. He has designed sewers for a living. “You have to watch the flushing velocity so they self-clean, keep the particles moving.”
Unlike the sewers back East, the 640 miles of sewer lines in Salt Lake City are a closed system. There are none of the walkways that turn New York’s sewers, at least in TV shows like Beauty and the Beast, into gothic rendezvous for romantic trysts.
A 2 percent gravity incline collects the waste from lateral pipes running from homes, offices and restaurants. Under its own steam, the water and byproducts of our bodies and everyday life runs down to street lines. From there they feed into three main lines that merge at the treatment plant, where the waste goes through a complex process of separating bio-solids and turning them into fertilizer and the liquid into reusable water.
“It’s an amazingly intricate system,” says wastewater manager Rick Bright, who’s also in charge of the storm-water drains. “People know so little about it. They flush that toilet and never, ever see it again. But it’s amazing how people become educated when you have a backup.”
Bright, along with his former boss and mentor Frank Sconfienza, and the current head of the water reclamation plant, Jon Adams, have had more of an impact on the sewers and how they are run than anyone else, at least if you don’t include the city engineer who designed the first gravity outlet for the downtown business district in 1889.
To go on the journey that our bodily waste does is to travel through this city’s past, present and future. It is a journey that finally, inevitably ends where it begins, with the people who use it.
No one has ever loved the sewers with quite the passion of Frank Sconfienza'and probably no one ever will. Now 67, Sconfienza retired in 1993 and still lives in the Sugar House residence that has been his home for 30 years; the dominant yellow color scheme reminiscent of the canaries miners would take with them to warn of methane gas.
“He helped bring the sewers into the modern way of doing things” says Bright, while Hooton adds, “He loved his work, had such a great interest in the sewer system. He was unique to this city, if not the country.”
Yet if he is a legend in this municipality, it is not so much for what he did as how he did it. His management techniques, often lunatic and unorthodox, were also effective, and much of the credit for the professional sewers we have now should be laid at his door.
“He was of the old school,” says Bright. “Tried to cram 10 hours into an eight-hour working day.” But that tells only part of the story of a man who is equal parts Mafioso and Art Carney’s sewer worker from The Honeymooners, Ed Norton.
Sconfienza grew up in Butte, Mont. He left school at the age of 16 to run a small ranch with his brother. His wife hated the cold, so in 1957 they moved to Salt Lake City. Unable to find any work, he went to the Salt Lake City Corporation and, having a natural way with stretching the truth to suit his own purposes, told them he was a professional engineer. “They put me on the pump plant,” he says, “for a buck 65 an hour.”
The plant'built 10 years before the treatment facility, which opened in 1965'was where all the sewage from the city was collected and pumped out to Farmington Bay. It still sits there to this day, suspended in salt water, and will, says Sconfienza, be there for thousands of years to come.
Sconfienza raised Cain from the day he started. “‘What the hell am I going to do here, sitting all day and night doing nothing?’ I told them. ‘Someone has to watch the place,’ they said. So I said ‘I’m going to quit.’ So they made me a sewer worker. Those guys’d go around and park their truck, mark off the job with a pencil and never get anything done. That was how the city was in those days. I said I was not getting any work done, so they made me foreman.”
According to Sconfienza the sewers were a disgrace. “Hadn’t been maintained since they were put in,” he says. The 3,000 to 4,000 manhole covers were never lifted because they had all been asphalted over. “When I’d get a trouble call at night, I’d get the jack hammer to dig out the lid.”
Along with the complacent municipal culture, Sconfienza also had to deal with a chronic shortage of funds. Like the treatment plant, the sewage-collection system had to compete with the fire department and the police for public funds. The sewers usually came away with the smelly end of the stick.
All that the department had in the way of machinery to unblock a line was 3-foot sections of wooden rods. “If you had a plug in the line, then you had to jump down, hook up and then push, and when you broke the plug loose you better get out of there fast. I’d have crap up to my chin, damn near drowned in it. Didn’t bother me, I’m immune to disease.”
According to Bright, “We always got the hand-me-down equipment. Frank would take it, not complain, we were recipients, had to deal with it. Instead he raised the bar. We got a reputation as a go-to crew. Crap couldn’t get taken care of? Give it to Frank’s people.”
The first job Sconfienza had to get done was a cleaning of all the lines. Somehow he managed to get hold of high-pressure machines'his contacts in the city were legendary; Bright says he knows everyone'and he and his crew cleaned out the sewers from the 4-inch lateral feed from houses to the 72-inch lines that carry the sewage to the treatment plant.
Safety was an issue that went unrecognized when Sconfienza began working for the city. “I was down in the pump plant, I lit a cigarette, blew me against the wall, damn near killed me. ‘What the hell was that?’ I said. No one told you about methane.”
In fact Sconfienza, who still goes to the gym seven days a week, credits methane for his remarkable constitution. He has survived a heart attack and colon cancer. “The methane’s kept me strong,” he says. His way of dealing with gas buildup in the sewers from where the flow slowed, and fecal matter and other debris built up, was simple. “Light a match, lift the lid and let it blow.”
Along with introducing safety measures such as masks and hard shoes, Sconfienza says he instituted annual inspections of all the lines, cleared the system completely of rats'“they were big ones, but we got them all”'and tarred all the manholes to stop residents from throwing such curious objects as bowling balls down the sewers. “This is the only city in the world where the manholes are done like that,” he says. He is a man who does not shrink from hyperbole, or stint from self-recognition. But mixed into that temperament is a decidedly peppery sense of humor.
Ask him which point in the sewers a journalist might look at to get an idea of how they work and he suggests, in a deadpan manner, a manhole on Beck Street. “Get them to throw you in there.” Bright explains that it is a 48-inch raging, torrential flood and not such a good idea
When Bright applied for a job in the sewer department he did not think about what the word sewer actually meant. It was 1977 and he was 19, lived and breathed for basketball but couldn’t get a scholarship. There was a stigma attached to working for the sewers. “It was a little tough to say where I worked. There was joking, you’d take it to heart.” If that was not bad enough, discrimination came even from within the municipality.
“Our department got some of the screwiest, nastiest jobs'construction of any type to odd jobs like trimming a tree,” says Bright. “We were looked down upon as lower-class people. They felt we didn’t measure up to some of the rest of the groups like road reconstruction.”
Sconfienza’s crews were composed of people he’d picked up wandering around the Salt Lake City & County building looking for work, discipline problems from other municipal departments'“deadbeats” as he calls them'and even prisoners sent by the county. He worked his way through hundreds of men, building up a team. As he did this they became loyal and faithful, both to him and his cause.
“They sent me all the deadbeats because they knew I’d straighten them out. Guy comes five minutes late to work, I sent him home for a week with no pay. This is not 1776, it’s over with.” If an employee was off sick, Sconfienza’s attitude was it was a hangover. He went down to the man’s home, placed an empty whisky bottle on his doorstep and then called the city nurse. “He’s been drinking, Frank,” she’d tell him. Ironically, the city was unable to pay him all the sick leave he was owed for 38 years of service.
If some municipal colleagues saw Sconfienza’s crew as literally coming from the gutter, they certainly made the most of it. Jon Adams, water reclamation manager, recalls that, “When Frank’s crew came in, it was like the Wild Bunch had turned up. They settled disputes going out behind the barn. No right or wrong but who prevailed. There’s a little bit of Frank in all of us.”
If Sam Peckinpah comes to mind, so does Martin Scorsese'at least as far as Sconfienza’s management style. Growing up in Butte, he was certainly surrounded by the mafia culture. “When you got on Capone’s shit list, he’d cut your wages and send you to Butte. That deadbeat queer Hoover did the same with the FBI. So you’d see all these mafiosos and FBI agents staying in boarding houses run by miners’ widows.”
One leaf from the mafia handbook he appears to have taken was intimidation, which proved a handy tool in Sconfienza’s repertoire of leadership skills. “They were all afraid of me,” he says.
To make sure they knew how strong he was, he would have two of his men place a rope around his neck and try and choke him unconscious. They never managed. “Couldn’t choke that nut,” says Bright with a degree of pride. Sconfienza also grabbed 165-pound manhole covers from the ground, bounced them on his chest and threw them up into the truck. If that didn’t put the fear of God into them, there was always the ball-peen hammer.
“I had a lot of tough guys come to work for me. I showed them the ball-peen hammer, always packed it in the back of my truck. That’s bad; if you break your knees you’re finished.” Ask for more details and he is likely to say, “You want me to crack you in the knee and show you what it does?”
He was sent an employee who had proved to be a discipline problem down at the treatment plant. Sconfienza says he fired him. The next day, the man, seeing him working in the street, came running at him across traffic and was hit by a car and killed.
But if he was tough, he was also generous, encouraging. “Do a good job for me, I’d tell them, I’ll see you get a raise,” he says'and he did.
It was not only his workers he stood up to. He once told a city contractor responsible for installing manholes that he did them all wrong. When the man put several hundred-dollar bills in Sconfienza’s shirt pocket, he told him to stick them up his ass. He says he also routinely threatened his bosses. “I told them I’d get the taxpayers after them if they didn’t do the right thing,” he says.
Nothing seems to have gotten in his way. In one notorious incident, exasperated at being unable to get access to the airport when the storm sewer pumps went out, he drove his truck through the locked gates. Outraged security personnel, guns drawn, chased him across the runway. “The mayor wanted to lock me up,” he says.
But it was this larger-than-life lunacy that earned him loyalty from those who followed him into the daily battle of upgrading and maintaining Salt Lake City’s sewers. Bright, his successor in both passion and commitment, still maintains an absolute loyalty to the man. “He took me under his wing, showed me so many things,” he says. “More so than my own father. I wanted to please him. He instilled in me a work ethic. He truly cared. Bad as the word sewer sounded, he wanted to make it professional, a very honorable profession ... I was not ashamed anymore to say I work for the sewer department. I learned to feel good about it, about what I did for a living.”
Sconfienza’s bid to make the sewer department more professional was given a sizable hand up by events at the other end of the system.
In 1982, residents from Rose Park marched on the mayor’s office and deposited handfuls of sludge on his desk. “Smell this,” they said. “How would you like to live with this every day?” Hooton says he had never seen the city chambers fuller. It was after this that an enterprise fund was set up for the sewers and the plant, giving it its own dedicated revenue source. It was then transferred to the water department.
If managing his dissolute collection of men and boosting their self-esteem was not enough'he had a sign on the office door that said, “Here enter the world’s greatest employees”'Sconfienza also dealt with natural disasters. “The floods of ’83 were uncalled for,” he says. “The storm sewers had not been cleaned for eight or 10 years. The street department started raising the lids on Main Street to let the water go down the sewers, but the silt it carried plugged up the lines. I went out day and night and sealed all the lids, got corks from a Californian winery. I didn’t go home for a month. Didn’t get paid for it, either. That doesn’t matter. I got my wages.”
But even Sconfienza could not stave off the inevitable, and in 1993 had to retire. “The last day of his work, I hated to see him go,” says Bright. “Drove him home and told him ‘I love you.’ ‘Quit it,’ he told me, ‘You’re going to make me cry.’”
Of the three men, Bright is the most earnest, the most articulate about his relationship with the sprawling underground network he manages. Talking to him, there is an impression sometimes that if he has looked long and deep into the sewer system it, in turn, has looked long and deep into him.
“I have an affection for it,” he says. “I take it personally, want it to run, look the best it can.
In the back of his truck, he keeps an old section of 2-foot clay pipe from the very first sewers and a 100-year-old redwood plank used to shore up a sewer. This makeshift museum is complemented by a graveyard of manhole lids behind the water utility building. His old boss had a less sentimental view of things, however. When Sconfienza found a brass gate one of Brigham Young’s sons, a city engineer, had put in back in the 1890s to help clean the system, he threw it away. “Piece of crap, what would I want to do with that?”
Aside from Sconfienza, Bright knows more about the sewers than anyone else. His intimate knowledge of the system comes from having televised its entire length, installing cameras and tractoring them up the lines, in some cases, in the bigger pipes, using a boat to pull them through, checking the lines for roots, for cracks, for any point where sewage might start to build up and create a blockage.
“Dealing with other people’s human waste,” he says, “tells you who you are. When I was head to toe in sewage I didn’t act like a baby and run away. It’s where I work for heck sake. When you are in a repair situation and all that stuff comes through, holy moley, oh, Lordy, you start to gag but you stick your glove in there, pull out tampons, feces, everything you can imagine.”
In this world of cowboys and hard men'“I never had a woman interview for a position,” says Bright'you would think that room for the affection he displays for the sewers would not exist. Whatever he feels about the sewers, he says, they have brought it out in him.
“It does separate who we are, there is repellence. My kids think it’s cool, what Daddy does, not what Daddy is. But some people can’t tolerate it, they can’t touch it, can’t be in that environment. Whenever I hire guys I say can you do it, touching other people’s stuff?”
Nor are residents who find their toilets backing up necessarily thrilled either. Bright’s worst case was four years ago. “My gosh, 35 homes backed-up east of Sugar House. The last thing you want to happen is, after you flush, for it to return and return like a monster invading your home. It’s everywhere. I don’t know we’ll ever have trouble-free sewers. That’s my dream.”
Inevitably, comparisons between the sewers and the human body it serves can be drawn. “The human body consumes nutrients,” says Bright “excreted through urine and the bowel systems.” (As a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, he has for the past two years tried not to swear and so prefers clinical terms or ‘poop’ to more salty euphemisms). “The sewer works in the same way. I’ve heard the treatment plant referred to as the city’s sphincter.”
Surrounded by oil refineries, the sphincter is out on the northern limits of the city, sending bright orange flames and black smoke into the sky. Drive through the gates into the plant and you find a large wildlife reserve and a sign announcing ducks crossing. A sewage treatment plant is the largest single financial investment that most cities ever make. Jon Adams, who has held the position of treatment plant manager since 1991 and is the longest-serving incumbent by far, shares the same passion as Bright and Sconfienza, although his sense of humor runs a little broader.
He has mooted to Hooton offering a rebate program, if residents take back half of what they send him. In the first two weeks of January, he is more than willing for people who throw up into the toilet on New Year’s Eve to come down and try on the pairs of dentures he has collected. Ask him for marketing slogans for the plant and he says: “You dump it, we pump it; you excrete it; we treat it.” This humor runs in the family. One of his son’s filling-in a school census, put for his father’s profession “Turd-hurder.”
Like Sconfienza he is a cowboy at heart, raises horses and cows that he butchers. “Frank’s an old-fashioned cowboy, he’ll get on a horse and ride it till he kills it, I’ll get on and make it do what I want.” Adams also loves to read. It is hard imagining Sconfienza picking up a book, other than to throw it at someone. Adams’ office features portraits of Lincoln and Gandhi, who he says he reads avidly.
Like the others, he drifted into the business. A native of American Fork, he had planned to follow his police sheriff father into law enforcement as a US Marshal. Instead, needing health insurance after getting married, he ended up in his town’s sewer department in 1972. “My Dad didn’t have a lot to say. Ask him about buying a house, he’d say it’s your money. I was in the treatment plant, thinking about going back to the police. But he said we’re both in the same job, taking crap from the public. Only difference is they don’t shoot at you.”
Put in charge of American Fork’s sewage treatment plant, he had to ask where it was, despite having grown up there. When he did get there, he found it to be in utter disrepair. There were weeds growing through the tiles. After clearing the weeds and waxing the floor, he was told he was the best operator the plant had ever had. His job description included rolling out fire hoses when he heard sirens, taking care of the dogs at the neighboring pound.
He got a book, The New York Manual of Wastewater Treatment. “I had to read it a few times to understand it.” After going back to college to study for a degree in environmental technology, he went on to teach a water and waste treatment course at Utah Valley State College, which took him out to work with small operators in the state. “It was incredible, they were doing tremendous things with hardly any resources. At these little towns like Ashley Valley and Tropic, you’d find farmers or service station attendants working on the lagoons or sewer ponds part time or even the city councilman. Nobody else would do it.”
If the blackest day in the history of sewage treatment was the last episode of M*A*S*H'everyone got up and flushed, flooding them right off the map says Adams'he still finds that local habits bring their own price as far as the plant is concerned. “General conference is harder on us than the Olympics was. The locals got out of Dodge for the games. And then there’s Fast Sunday. Since the LDS don’t eat, the waste load goes way down that first Sunday, just as the month is getting started.”
There are also the things'from the bizarre to the tragic'that turn up on the screens that filter out the rags and paper that come down with the sewage. Small sharks turned up one day from a high school biology class.
While there have been no bodies, there have been a number of fetuses raked off the screens. Now the process is mechanized but a few years ago, when the screens had to be raked by hand, one employee had to be given months of sick leave and psychological counseling after pulling up a drowned baby. Others claim not to have been so perturbed. Sconfienza says the three fetuses he found came from sewage dumped from airplanes. He wanted to keep them in formaldehyde but the police insisted they be taken to the university.
Recently rumors circulated that medication was making its way through the sewers intact. Ratepayers rang to make sure it was not being marketed. Others called in because they believed gold was being extracted from the sewage and wanted to know why the rates weren’t being lowered.
Once the sewage is through the screens, it undergoes a 15-day process of being sent through a series of digesters'using microorganisms that exist in the matter to break it down'trickling filters and clarifiers supported by miles and miles of underground tunnels and pipes until it ends up in 22 acres of drying beds where it eventually becomes a material similar to peat moss. Adjustable gates decant the water. They tried various odor-masking agents, including orange and pine. “It still smelt like crap, only as if you had taken a dump under a pine tree,” Adams says. The 3,500-4,500 tons of dry material produced each year is taken to Kennecott to revegetate old tailing sites.
From the resulting effluent, 2 million to 3 million gallons a day are put through the wetlands, which act like a natural filter stripping out the chlorine. The wetlands, which are home to more than 100 species of birds, ducks and geese, were developed by the plant and were, before 9/11, a favorite haunt for birdwatchers. It was closed to the public because the plant holds chlorine liquid, which if exposed to the atmosphere expands 460 times'a deadly chloride gas cloud would drift down to the city within minutes.
Adams knows the danger of chlorine, which is used to chlorinate the water, firsthand. When he was a 24-year-old plant manager in American Fork, he went down to check a leak in the chlorine room. “They didn’t even have keys to the treatment plant. No scrubs, no masks, no buddy system. The locks were all badly rusted and didn’t work anyway.” When he opened the door, the chlorine knocked him out, burning out his sense of smell, damaging his lungs. If he had fallen forward he would have died.
There had been five superintendents in six years in the Salt Lake City treatment plant before Adams took over in 1991. Many municipal disciplinary problems had been transferred to the plant. “The reason they took me on was I was willing to deal with the people issues. The irony was the work group had more potential than any group they’d ever had. They just weren’t walking in the same direction.” People liked to work at the plant because it was out of the mainstream, he says, but that also meant they felt they were forgotten. Until they began to get national and state awards, recognition was not forthcoming. “I used to think if people quit complaining, it meant I was a good manager. People quit complaining when they die.”
Adams says he is fascinated by what he does and isn’t embarrassed as he once was. When one of his children came to see what his Dad did, he told the boy that “everybody’s poop comes down here.” “That’s what you do for a living?” the boy asked and then added, “You went to college for that?” His son would no doubt be surprised at the biochemists, master electricians and university-level graduates working there now.
This is the present and future of the sewers'master’s degrees, scientific precision, feasibility studies to assess the possible reuse of water from the plant to irrigate public parks'“we’d have to deal with the soccer mum mentality first,” says Neirmeyer. No more hard-man antics, no more grandstanding or lit matches.
Just the sewers running on and on.
“With proper management,” says Sconfienza, “the sewers just keep on going, the water never stops running'and you’ve got to keep running ahead of it. It will always plug up, just like your veins or your heart if you don’t treat it right. But it’s the lifeblood of the city. If you stop the sewers, you get disease, everything'you’d have it worse than the West Nile virus.”
All well and good, but one question remains unanswered.
What is it about the sewers that made these men care for them so?
What is it about these channels, these lines, these “conduits of civilization” that can make ordinary men so passionate, so committed, so determined to serve them, to worship at their particular altar?
What does it say about them that they feel so much for something we turn our backs on every day?
Arguably the answer lies in the sewers themselves, silently working beneath our streets, collecting what our bodies expel and taking it to a point where nature can reclaim what was once its own. It is hard to resist the sensation that the sewers are in every sense a living entity, a body with arteries and veins that lead to a heart and stomach and finally that all-important sphincter (if that closes up we’re all in trouble). They take everything we do not want, everything that in a sense disgusts us about our bodies, they hide our very mortality, the way our bodies function from us, they serve us like snakes slithering under the ground, holding what we are and gathering it together in the most democratic of stews.
If we are what we eat, then we are, too, what we excrete and the sewers which day and night absorb that excretion know us in a way that Sconfienza, Bright and Adams might well argue is better than we know ourselves.