In his 26 years working at the West Boise Wastewater Treatment Plant, Bill Duncan has seen a lot of changes. "There was hardly anything out here back then," the plant manager recalls, looking over 80 acres of pools and pipes that are capable of processing up to 24 million gallons of sewage a day. "The technology, the biology, the chemistry have changed it all so much, it's really no comparison."
But some unpleasant trends remain from the days when conservation was the last thing on nearly anyone's mind. Namely, Boiseans still like to flush their troubles down the drain.
"You don't really want to bring a toddler in here," Duncan says as we turn into a large, rumbling building with cement walls and floor. The plant has hosted hundreds of school tours over the years, and will soon host the Boise WaterShed education center, but few elementary students have seen the room we're entering. "They're here [at the plant] primarily for education purposes," Duncan says of the kids, "not entertainment."
Entertainment is, in this case, a subjective term. For Duncan, and for Boise City Public Works Operations Director Richard Dees, it is two large, smelly metal bins. In one, a speckled pile of sand, rice, eggshells and corn-lots of corn-is collected after spraying from a gaping black chute in the ceiling. Duncan says that most of this pile comes from garbage disposals, and from sand that unexpectedly leaks into Boise's 800 miles of sewer line. The rest is the food our mothers always told us to chew. We didn't listen.
The other bin, dubbed "the rag dumpster" by the plant's employees, contains a grayish pile about two yards long, four feet high and smelling both musty and oily-a cross between an outhouse and a restaurant's grease trap. This is where everything we should put in the trash but don't-including, feminine by-products, prophylactics, syringes, cigarette butts and grease, along with scads of toilet paper-shows up before being carted to the dump.
Plant workers call these items "non-biodegradables," but "unmentionables" would also be an appropriate title. In our pipe-happy civilization, it's easy to view drains as the best place to hide our most secret trash, be it spiders, Trojans, needles or Camels. It's also easy to assume that once that handful of cheap-ass TP your boss provides hits the water, it instantly disintegrates into nothingness. Neither is true. The workers at Boise's two wastewater plants gather up both classes of trash, and they often have a good laugh about it.
"There's your product," Duncan says, pointing at a white bucket containing about a dozen colored condoms that the plant's staff has set aside for BW. "We get a lot of this kind of stuff, 24 hours a day."
Not that long ago, Dees explains, workers at Boise's other wastewater treatment plant on Lander Street rolled up non-biodegradables by hand, exposing them to dirty syringes and other sharp trash. Today, the process is more mechanized, but accidents still happen. "We have to try to get this stuff out of the water at the beginning, so it doesn't clog up our machines," Dees explains. With eyes trained for spotting any dangerous irregularities in the sea of toilet paper, they come across items from the hilarious to the grotesque.
Both men are quick to point out a tiny action figure of the Nickelodeon character Doug, who sits on a metal beam next to the non-biodegradeable filters. "He's our prized possession," Dees explains with a grin. "He made a long journey here to his final resting place."
And as for that long-lost goldfish who was given the bathroom equivalent of a burial at sea? It's here as well ... mostly. "Yeah, you'll see fish," Duncan says, "although they don't look like fish anymore."
"Dogs, too," adds Dees. "But they sure don't look like dogs anymore."
The disturbing logistics of puppy-flushing aside, both men get serious when the discussion turns to toxic liquids slipping down the drain. When citizens pour pesticides or herbicides into utility sinks, those wastes end up here, too. Then they flow back into the Boise River, after wreaking havoc on the delicate microenvironment of the wastewater treatment plant.
"Our system here is a living, breathing organism," Duncan says. "We use naturally occurring organisms to remove the organic matter. Just as if you were to drink a gallon of diazinon, anything that is toxic to a human being is going to impact our biological mass."
For these reasons, Boise City Public Works has begun a campaign telling citizens if they wouldn't eat it, not to flush it. Respecting the sludge comes easy to employees like Duncan-he had little choice, after getting splattered with sewage on his first day of work-but he admits difficulty in convincing citizens to take heed of nontoxic trash like condoms and syringes.
"The majority of people, when they flush it, they forget it," he says. "They don't know where it goes, and they don't care. They just want it to go away. We're just trying to educate them about that."
At the end of our tour, Boise City Public Works Community Outreach Director Elizabeth Duncan puts it a different way. "We don't want people to stop using condoms," she says. "We just want people to stop flushing them."
To see pictures of Nick's magical tour of the sewer, visit www.boiseweekly.com.