If you were to ask me where the worst place is to start your career as a sewer worker, I might have said behind a chili restaurant. That’s where mine started.
My career lasted only a morning, and I didn’t actually do any sewer work. That was fine considering I wasn’t getting paid. Yet, in just a couple hours, I learned that everything I thought or assumed about the life of Burbank’s sewer crew is exaggerated and steeped in more myth than muck.
We passed by the peeling paint of the old Chili John’s restaurant sign and Jerry Ellegood pointed down the road with a thick, tattooed arm. Like all the sewer workers I met, he’s solidly built — a former Marine who can also easily toss aside a 240-pound manhole cover like it was a wafer.
As the collections supervisor for the city, he spends a lot of his time driving his pickup to work sites — usually a truck parked at a manhole where the real work begins.
The sewer truck is gleaming white. Two workers are loading its tank with water from a hydrant, their shoes and pants clean and dry. This sewer clean-up gig is a highly sophisticated, computer-controlled job that only gets dirty if you’re doing it wrong.
It also can be dangerous — especially when operating the giant vacuum fueled by its own 10-cylinder engine that rotates three giant fans.
“It’ll rip your arms off,” Ellegood said.
The two-man crew, Kelly Kusch and Armando Ruiz, both of Burbank, will use the hydrant’s water to fill a hose on the truck that can reach 800 feet into the city sewer line. When the hose is turned on, the water cuts like razor blades. What results is a liquefied gray goo that used to be tree roots sneaking their way through the pipe joints.
Just seven people work on the city’s sewer lines — roughly the same number for the past 70 years, Ellegood said. It used to be a more hands-on job, before technology hastened the process of speed-cleaning the pipes.
Every September, they begin their route at the outer edges of Burbank, snaking their way through the streets toward the sewer treatment plant at the geographic center of Burbank. The route, all 225.5 miles of it, takes between 10 and 12 months regardless of flood or drought.
“People are gonna flush,” Ellegood said.
Gravity is one of the sewer department’s best tools. It helps direct most of the 8.4 million gallons of sewage every day toward the treatment plant. Once there, it’s filtered and much is reused to water city properties.
At the city’s lowest point, the Equestrian District, a pump station helps feed the sewage back uphill. If you’ve ever wondered why it always smells near the basketball court at Riverside and South Beachwood, you can blame a holding tank that also needs to be cleaned out once a year. For that job, workers don Tyvex suits and plunge into the depths.
“There are days you have to grin and bear it and we do what we have to do,” Ellegood said.
Creeping tree roots are the sewer department’s worst enemy. If there’s a clog in the line, it’s usually because roots grow from a private sewage pipe into the line in the middle of the street.
Cooking grease can also gum up the works, becoming thick as concrete once it solidifies and cools when it leaves a house. The city also encounters problems with actual concrete — private contractors may clean off plaster and masonry from their tools and let the water carry away to the sewers.
Not that it happens often, but the potential for accidents is ever-present. On Friday, we visited the worst street for a sewer worker — an industrial area behind the Nickelodeon studio on Olive Avenue, where a narrow alley plus large trucks make working conditions nearly impossible for the street crew.
“You’ve got water, electronics and a lot of moving parts. That’s a lot of problems waiting to happen,” Ellegood said.
And backflow — what movies and TV might illustrate as the everyday life of a collection employee — does occasionally present a problem.
“Everything but the lens of my glasses was covered in crapola,” employee Dan Leech recalled.
He said the movies always get it wrong when a character emerges from the sewers and gently removes the heavy iron manhole covers.
“The ones in the movies are made of unobtanium,” Leech said.
Day after day, these guys make civilized life possible, and when they’re doing their jobs, you barely ever notice they’re there. Every year about 3 billion gallons of sewage is pumped through the city’s sewer lines, and only seven employees make sure that moves along without incident.
But if there ever is an incident, they’re ready for that, too.
“If you see me run, don’t ask why — just be next to me,” Ellegood said.