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Down and Dirty : Rooting About in City’s Sewers Isn’t a Job for the Squeamish

Times Staff Writer

Working in the city’s sewers is not a job for the squeamish.

Ask William P. Thacker, who earns a living in and around the labyrinth of waste water pipes beneath the San Fernando Valley.

One day, Thacker got an emergency call: A grease clog was causing raw sewage to back up onto Ventura Boulevard in Encino.

“I took the cover off the manhole and it was full of rats--there must have been 200 of them,” Thacker said. The rats scattered and, undaunted, he climbed down and cleaned out the sewer line.

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Thacker’s co-worker, Hernando Cabeza, has been bitten by a black widow spider, and confronted by swarms of cockroaches, not to mention rats, during his eight years as a sewer man.

210 Employees

Cabeza, 30, and Thacker, 39, are among about 210 employees of the city’s Wastewater Collection Division, a branch of the Public Works Department.

Their job is to keep the flow going in two vast, separate networks of tunnels: sewers, which transport waste water to treatment plants, and storm drains, which carry rainwater to the sea.

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Like Ed Norton, the sewer worker who lived upstairs from Ralph and Alice Kramden in “The Honeymooners,” the men officially dubbed “waste water workers” are frequently the butt of jokes and do not get much respect for their job.

But, “without us, there wouldn’t be a city,” says Ed Limon, who has worked in the sewers for 24 years, following in his father’s footsteps.

Los Angeles has one of the most extensive sewer and storm drain systems in the world, serving about 3.5 million people. Laid end to end, the city’s sewer pipes would stretch 6,400 miles. A sewer line runs beneath practically every street in the city.

17-Foot-Tall Drains

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In addition, there are 1,100 miles of city storm drains, some of which are 17 feet tall, big enough to drive a truck through.

A consultant working for the city recently estimated that it would cost $2.1 billion to replace the city’s sewer pipelines. Every day, those lines carry about 460 million gallons of sewage from millions of homes and businesses to one of four treatment plants. Rains can boost the total flow of liquid to 700 million gallons a day.

Important though it may be, sewer work is so unsavory that many prospective employees “walk right out of the interview” when the conditions are described, said Warren BeMiller, who heads sewer operations in the West Valley. Others quit after they get their first whiff of sewage and rancid grease.

“You get used to it,” BeMiller said. “You try to stand upwind of it so it won’t blow on you.”

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But sewer workers have a harder time adjusting to vermin and insects that they occasionally encounter.

Cabeza, an avid student of the Middle Ages and an antique collector, said he once encountered 4-inch cockroaches while working with a night crew downtown.

‘They Will Get Inside’

“If they (cockroaches) can get inside your clothes, they will,” said Steve Russell, 19, of Rosamond, a sewer worker for just over a year. “I’ve stripped down to my underwear and boots right in the middle of the street to get them off of me.”

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Thanks to machines, however, the workers do not have to go down in the sewers as much as they once did. The crews can often be seen in busy intersections wielding machinery that snakes through the sewer lines, powering through blockages. Sometimes workers use high-velocity streams of water to flush out the lines while using long poles to poke at clogs of grease solidified to the consistency of hard cheese.

Giant Roto-Rooter-type machines churn through tree roots that, left to grow, would choke off sewage flow in hillside areas.

But when those methods fail to clear a blockage--for instance a large chunk of wood--the workers must wade into dank, slimy tunnels to remove the obstruction. Some of the tunnels are 85 feet below ground and have pipes 11 feet in diameter.

Hazardous Work

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According to the National Safety Council, sewer and storm drain work ranks just below underground mining as the most dangerous occupation.

In addition to the possibility of cave-ins, sewage creates lethal hydrogen sulfide, a gas that has killed at least seven workers in the Los Angeles area in the last 25 years, officials say.

A worker climbing into a city sewer wears coveralls, a hard hat and a safety harness attached to a strong rope held by co-workers, who remain above ground and can yank him up if he collapses. The worker carries a portable oxygen tank, gas masks and a device to warn of unsafe gasses or explosives. Blowers are installed at manholes to expel dangerous gasses.

While working above ground, the sewer crews must keep an eye on traffic and be ready to jump out of the path of cars.

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But perhaps the greatest danger comes from the caustic chemicals, heavy metals, acids and other hazardous materials dumped illegally into sewers by companies trying to save money.

Some workers worry about getting cancer, although sewer officials said there is no indication that they are at special risk for the disease.

First Sewers Long Ditches

Los Angeles’ first sewers were long ditches, sometimes covered by boards and stones, sometimes open, built about 200 years ago. The waste flowed from the Plaza, the center of town at the time, to the Los Angeles River and to farmland.

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A primitive wooden stave sewer with small pipes of concrete-lined clay was installed in 1884 and sent sewage to a primitive treatment plant, where it was screened for solids, chemically treated and discharged into the Pacific Ocean. The system had 20 miles of pipes by 1887. It was abandoned and replaced with a large sewer in 1904.

One of the people most intimately acquainted with the city’s early system was the late Reuben F. Brown, the former assistant sewer superintendent who set sail through a large tributary of the sewer system in a small pontoon boat. It was 1935, three years after the Long Beach earthquake, and Brown wanted to inspect for damage.

Brown’s trip spanned several days. He was equipped with a gas mask and oxygen tanks, but they could not shield him from temperatures registering 145 degrees in the pipes.

“No human being was ever meant to endure the stifling heat of that sewer,” Brown later remarked. “The hell of fire and brimstone couldn’t be worse.”

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Today, they can do the same type of inspection with waterproof infrared cameras that can be pulled through the lines, beaming up pictures.

Cabeza and other sewer workers can tell what’s in a neighborhood just by looking at the sewage.

When they see syringes, soiled linens, rubber gloves and other items in the murky slime, for instance, they know a hospital is near. Grease indicates the presence of a restaurant. Sometimes they can even tell what kind of restaurant, as, for instance, when spaghetti recently came spewing out of a manhole in Hollywood.

Sewer workers also typically find a high concentration of grease in sewer lines near convalescent homes, Limon said. On one recent night, it took him and two others nearly an hour and 4,500 gallons of water to flush out a grease-clogged sewer line near a Canoga Park convalescent home.

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“I thought old people were supposed to have a low-fat diet,” Limon said.

Fish Heads in Chinatown

In Chinatown sewers and storm drains, the workers find heaps of discarded fish heads and tails, Cabeza said.

Waste water workers also can learn a lot about society by the booty they turn up.

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Tales of alligators living in the sewers are folklore. But people dump just about every imaginable type of object in there, including bowling balls, rolls of carpet and furniture, Cabeza said.

Other things end up in sewers by accident. Workers sometimes find coins rubbed thin and sharp as razor blades by the grit of the sewers. Crews get panicked calls from people whose diamonds have popped out of ring settings or whose dentures have been dropped down drains or toilets. Sometimes sewer workers can recover the items by installing grates in pipes downstream to catch them before they wash away.

Limon once found a large loose diamond while cutting roots out of a sewer line. “It got hung up on the rod I was working with,” he said. “I just happened to look up at the right time. In those days, everything the crew found was split three ways. I wanted it for my wife so I bought the other guys out and gave it to my wife . . . and she lost it too. It came out of the setting.

“It was an unlucky diamond. It’s probably still floating in the sewer somewhere.”

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Unwanted Discards

Even more booty turns up in storm drains. “People usually throw things down here they don’t want anybody to see,” Thacker noted.

City crews have found shotguns, pistols, live mortars rounds, drugs, jewelry, pornographic films, and the bodies of sheep and cows, not to mention large quantities of paper, plastic and other trash, which clog the drains, causing city streets to flood when it rains.

“Occasionally, we get calls from the Police Department to meet them so they can search storm drains near where a crime has been committed for discarded weapons,” BeMiller said.

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Burglars in at least two instances have used storm drain tunnels to rob banks and then make clean getaways, so to speak.

Last August, a gang made off with $91,000 from a Bank of America branch near Beverly Hills after tunneling from a storm drain on La Cienega Boulevard into the bank’s vault. The year before, burglars tunneled through the drains to steal $190,000 from a First Interstate Bank branch in Hollywood.

Although safer than sewers, storm drains are not without dangers, particularly rattlesnakes, poison oak and chemicals that have been illegally dumped.

There are a handful of women in the ranks, but sewer work is basically a man’s job. As with any blue-collar fraternity, many of the men tote lunches from home. When they eat out, they carefully pick restaurants where they can park their trucks close enough to hear the radio in case it calls them to an emergency. The trucks also carry soap and water, which is dispensed through a spigot on back.

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Mostly Daytime Job

It is mostly a daytime job, although one emergency crew ranges over the city at night unclogging stopped storm drains after it rains, and seeking the culprits in sewer stoppages after hours. Sewers in the busiest intersections, along Ventura Boulevard and Wilshire Boulevard in Westwood, for instance, are usually cleaned at night, when traffic is lowest.

Like city garbage collectors, waste water workers earn 5% over the base salary for city public works employees because of the dangerous and distasteful aspects of the job. But even with the bonus, the pay is modest. Top-scale salaries range from about $20,000 to $28,000, BeMiller said.

Sewer workers are used to jokes and questions about their line of work, but prefer to dwell on their paychecks, not the distasteful aspects of the job.

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“How could a person be a surgeon and cut open brains?” BeMiller shot back to the question of how he deals with the job.

“Hey, everybody’s got to have a job,” added Elton Juniel, a 25-year-old Van Nuys resident, as he worked in the hot sun clearing roots out of a sewer in Woodland Hills.

Joe Sanchez, 37, of Monterey Park, a 14-year employee, prefers contact with sewage to the encounters he had with snakes and bees on his former job clearing brush from fire-prone hillsides for the city.

Called ‘Sewer Rat’

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“My wife used to call me ‘sewer rat.’ But she’d say, ‘I still love you,’ ” said Sanchez, who coaches his son’s Little League team in his spare time. “It’s a little embarrassing when people find out what you do for a living, but it’s bought everything I have: my car, my camper, my house.”

Some of the workers can even make light of the job’s distasteful elements. Far from getting bugged by the cockroaches, Russell keeps looking for the large ones in hopes of winning an extermination company’s offer of $5,000 for the biggest roach in America.

And Thacker, a former U.S. Marine, put sewer work in his own special perspective: “This is nothing compared to Vietnam.”


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