From cheeks to creeks, the journey of poo

When I drove up the hill to the Chambers Creek Wastewater Treatment Center for my tour on a very rainy May 18, I expected the clouds to part overhead and the bright sun to bathe the poo tanks in the holiest of lights.

That didn’t happen.

But, I did get to see some cool shit.

The Chambers Creek facility is the largest of all the poo plants I’ve toured. It processes 17 million gallons of poo every day. But, the size of the facility meant that a lot of the coolest features, including the huge grinder that is the first stop on the Great Poo Journey, happened out of view.

There were several giant grinders but all were housed underground and our tour guide wouldn’t lift any of the screens to show us anything horrifying.  In my previous two tours, the grinders were the highlights. I was able to see toothbrushes, rubbers, dental floss, tampons, and more getting ground up and smashed into a dry pulp that went to the landfills. It was fantastic.

Rob Lowe, our tour guide, wearing The Jacket.

Of course, I didn’t let the lack of visible grinders sour me on the entire tour. First of all, the tour guide was named Rob Lowe. Really. Rob Lowe. He looked nothing like he does on TV. But, he did say “poop” a lot, which made me laugh every time. There’s something about a man in his 60s saying the word “poop;” it’s always hilarious. Second, I was easily the most excited person on the tour. Of the 10 of us, I was the only one who didn’t work in military or municipal public works. Their passion for sewage had clearly extinguished years earlier, but I was still fresh and excited. I hope my enthusiasm buoyed their spirits. Third, there were three Army Rangers on the tour. In uniform. Attractive men and municipal wastewater…I was in heaven.

At Chambers Creek, they transform the poop you and I flush every day (ideally) into two things: water that is cleaned and pumped back into Puget Sound and dry fertilizer pellets. Here’s a brief and non-scientific rundown of how it all happens.

One of the foamier aeration basins.

All the non-poop is pulled out in the screening and grit tanks. Rob Lowe mentioned finding concrete chunks, wood, and assorted other decidedly non-flushable items, as well as more expected items like corn and peanuts (this made me laugh so hard, by the way). Those things are ground up and taken to the landfill. What’s left behind goes through two clarifiers, a primary and secondary clarifier, that further separate unusable solids (sand, dirt, etc.) from liquids (we’ll get back to the solids in a minute).

Put your sweet lips a little closer to the foam....

The poop-water left behind is then aerated in a series of giant concrete tanks. Oxygen is pumped up through the sewage, forcing lighter materials to the top. Several tanks on the tour were covered with a thick cake of crusty brown foam, scattered with bits of lettuce, peas, and grease, which is skimmed off the top. Very gross…and awesome to see. As it moves through the progression of tanks, there’s less and less to skim off.

The poop-water, now free of all solid yuck, goes through an ultraviolet light that destroys any dangerous nasties that may have survived the process. Rob Lowe informed us that bacteria is not killed by the ultraviolet light, but it is genetically modified so it’s unable to reproduce. Weird, eh?

This is an emtpy aeration basin. Those white discs pump oxygen into the slurry.

While all of this is happening to the liquids, the solids are going through an entirely different process.  After they are separated out, the solids go to digesters, where anaerobic bacteria work their magic, reducing the volume of the solids and producing hot, smelly gas. This gas is captured and used to run the boilers that power the huge centrifuges, the next stop for the solids, where the bulk of the water is pulled out.

The almost-dry solids are then sent to drying drums (similar to dryers for laundry, but huge and methane-powered), where they are turned into hard pellets. The pellets are then sorted, cooled, and put into storage before they are ultimately sold as fertilizer. The whole process takes about 20 days.

This is not suitable for drinking.

Since coming back from the tour, most people have asked me about the smell. In truth, it didn’t smell all that bad. The worst part was actually before the tour started, when Rob Lowe led us through a maze of tunnels below the processing tanks to get to the screening area, our official starting point. Below ground, in a confined area, the smell got really, really bad. I kept wanting to ask the Army Ranger to my right, “Whew, dude, is that you?” but I didn’t want to seem immature. I said it in my head about 100 times, though.

Another high point was in the testing lab, where water samples are tested for bacteria. In the office was a bathroom and, while we were all crammed in there learning about the computer system, one of the workers came in and went to the bathroom. We could hear everything. It was really awkward and funny. There’s no way in hell I’d go to the bathroom with a tour group standing five feet away. But, maybe if I was surrounded by poop 40 hours a week, I’d get over it.

Shockingly, a couple of the really cool things I saw were not sewage related. In the control room for the drying area, there was a combination microwave-coffee pot on the table. I never before knew such a machine existed. It was really cool. A microwave and a coffee pot all in one! Brilliant! And, I really, really liked Rob Lowe’s fancy wastewater treatment plant jacket. If I had one of those, I’d never take it off. (As a sidenote, Rob Lowe also told us that he wanted to be a marine biologist when he was in college, but he didn’t like all the travel so he went into wastewater. I wanted to make a comment about brown trout, but I kept it to myself and giggled instead.)

So, that was it.  Forty-five minutes that will last a lifetime. I can’t wait for the next one!

Three quick things on a Friday

• People who sing/whistle in public. Earlier this week, I was in a public bathroom with a young woman who insisted on singing “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” while she went pee. Then, just now, a girl passed by my open window singing very loudly (I don’t know the song but it had far too much emotion for a parking lot). These are the worst kind of people because they are so certain of their own star power that they feel they’re doing you (and everyone else within earshot) a favor by sharing it. Rarely are they good singers. Always are they obnoxious and annoying, and deserving of a wedgie.

• Pedometers. A committee I’m on at work recently ordered some giveaway pedometers for a wellness promotion this summer. I received mine in the mail yesterday and I love it! I’m sure the excitement will wear off within a few days, but I think it’s fantastic that I now know it takes 1,916 steps to walk around the entire campus and 87 steps to take the dogs out for a quick wee. Plus, I look like a total dork wearing this thing on my pants. That’s an added bonus.

• Molasses cookies. I made molasses cookies last night, intending to bring them to the office to share today. However, after making molasses cookies, I remembered that no one in my office is over the age of 80 and molasses cookies are sorta gross. The recipe was for “soft molasses cookies” and they had only slightly more firmness than cooked oatmeal. Disaster.

Tomorrow morning I’m writing up my wastewater experience so be sure to watch for that. Until then…happy Friday!

A midweek dog story (and a promise of poo tales on the horizon)

My wastewater tour was yesterday and it was pretty awesome. I think I giggled the entire way through it. I’m going to try to write up the details in the next couple of days, but I didn’t want to leave you all in the lurch. So, here’s a brief distraction until my magnus opus on the Chambers Creek Wastewater Treatment Plant is finished.

Dougal and Barley at the top

Sunday, the dogs and I went out to Eatonville for a morning hike. The weather was incredible when we set out (in spite of looking fairly bleak in Puyallup when we left). We typically do a 7- to 8-mile loop. Barley is good for whatever; Dougal is the wild card.

If he gets tired, he’ll plant his front feet, drop his butt, and collapse to the ground. When that happens, there’s no negotiating. He’s done. No amount of encouragement will get him walking again. So, I have to carry him for a bit. At 22 pounds, I prefer not to carry him.

Unfortunately, I never quite know when he’s going to decide to stop walking. Two weekends ago, when Erik and I walked down to the farmer’s market downtown, Dougal decided to stop on the sidewalk near the Safeway on the way back. I had to carry him to the fairgrounds! It was ridiculous and embarrassing. Barley, of course, plugged along, but I could see the shame in his face. Barley is very proud.

The view from the top.

On Sunday, the road up the mountain was a long, low-grade climb to the top of a ridge overlooking Mount Rainier to the south. It’s a great hike because it’s steep enough to get the blood moving, but not so steep that I want to drop dead. Plus, there are usually tons of birds and squirrels to chase, which keep Dougal from hitting the dirt too early.

A very tired, happy dog.

By the time we reached the top of the ridge, Dougal was pretty tired. He collapsed in the grass and I thought all hope was lost. I seriously thought I’d have to carry his butt back down the hill. I was plotting how I could make a baby sling out of my jacket. But, during that time, Dougal was resting in the grass and refueling. By the time I was done snapping pictures and plotting, he was ready to go again. Win!

Barley

We made it back down to the trailhead in good time, just as clouds and rain were moving in. Dougal napped in the backseat on the drive home. Barley sat in the passenger seat and let me scratch his head while he looked out the window. It was perfect all around.

The best day ever…and yet another excuse for poop jokes

On Tuesday, I will be taking the tour of a lifetime.

Disneyland? No.

Space Needle? No.

Mount Rushmore? Um, not exactly.

Chambers Creek Wastewater Treatment Plant! Hell, yeah.

Now, before you all laugh and read into this a ton of sarcasm, know that I jumped up and down and screamed when my boss gave me the green light for the tour. I live for this shit. Literally.

When I called to reserve a spot (front row, sludge lagoon…kidding), the gal asked which of the tours I preferred. I told her I could make time for either, so she could put me on the least crowded one. She said, “There’s only a couple people on each, so you can pick either time.” Wha? A free, behind the scenes look at our community poo plant and no one wants to go? My shock is moving into disgust. Is there no curiosity for what happens post-flush?

Well, I suspect all of you are curious and I have made it my mission to take you along on Tuesday’s tour. I’ll have my camera with me and I plan to take tons of pictures and careful notes. I want you all to share in this joyous and exciting experience. I just hope the rest of the people on the tour are as passionate about waste management as I am…and they don’t mind me playing obnoxious tourist.

It’s really too bad Erik can’t go. A picture of us in front of the wastewater treatment plant would definitely make it into the album. Poor guy. I don’t know how he puts up with my shit. (Last one, I promise. Heh heh.)

Digger squirrels, tree squirrels, and the man in the middle

My grandparents have a one-room house; the main entrance is a sliding glass door that opens out onto the driveway and a half-dozen fruit trees. Immediately outside the door is a paved, covered seating area with plants and several bird feeders set on the ground for the squirrels. My grandpa has little interest in birds, you see. He likes the squirrels.

And, his love for them is apparent.

Squeaks...not obese, but gray.

They are the fattest squirrels I’ve ever seen. With robust bellies and full, bushy gray tails, they more closely resemble cats than squirrels. They are very, very well-fed. My grandpa keeps the squirrel feeders stocked with dry corn and he takes great joy in watching them sit and eat.

Disturbing this bucolic squirrel smorgasbord are what my grandpa calls the “digger squirrels.” (They are California ground squirrels, but are referred to as “digger squirrels” by cool old cats like my grandpa.) The digger squirrels, he says, come up from the fruit trees and attack the gray tree squirrels, stealing the corn and creating a culture of terror around the feeders. Last year, two digger squirrels chased away all of my grandpa’s tree squirrels, taking over the feeder as their own, and robbing him of one of his great joys.

An offending digger.

Obviously, he fought back. I suspect the digger squirrels had no idea what they were up against.

My grandpa is a tough guy. I once saw him on all fours, poised over a gopher hole, waiting to slam the little rodent’s head with his fist. He’s killed more gophers and moles than anyone and his passion for rodent elimination continues into his twilight years. When he saw the bland, brown, small-tailed digger squirrels terrorizing his beautiful, silver, full-tailed tree squirrels, he took swift and decisive action.

He parked his lawn mower in a convenient spot and sat there, his .22 loaded and ready, and waited for the digger squirrels to come to the feeder. At 84, he has a lot of patience. Pair a nice day with a counter-terrorism mission, and my grandpa is happy for hours. Plus, his lawnmower has a comfy seat.

In a matter of hours, one of the offending digger squirrels crested the hill of fruit trees and cautiously approached, a few feet at a time, the freshly stocked feeder. My grandpa lurched into action, raising the .22 on his arthritic shoulder and firing several shots.

“I sprayed guts all over!” exclaimed my normally mild-mannered, elderly grandpa.

It was another couple of days before the second digger squirrel forgot the tragedy of his buddy’s death and was lured to the feeder by the promise of a full belly with no effort. Again, my grandpa, from the comfort of his lawn mower, a mug of coffee on the hood, blasted him, ridding his porch of the filthy bastard digger squirrels.

For my grandpa, it was a noble mission and a source of great pride. Sure, lives were lost, but it was in the pursuit of a greater good. I look at the situation and wonder how it is the digger squirrels are the junk squirrels in my grandpa’s eyes, when really a squirrel is a squirrel is a squirrel. They’re all rodents underneath. What harm is there in letting the squirrels work out the feeder politics amonst themselves? But, I guess when you’re 84 and facing another afternoon inside with my grandma, catching up on “Days of Our Lives,” it’s probably very satisfying to have a freedom fight to oversee.

The gray squirrels are back at the feeder now, fat and sassy, greedily and leisurely stuffing corn into their chubby faces, and my grandpa is happy.