Home > Adventures in Journalism > Neck Deep in the Sewers

Neck Deep in the Sewers

Swan Island Pump Station

Helmet on head, goggles on nose, neon-yellow safety vest velcro’d tight and boots laced. I wasn’t tarted up for this year’s most anticipated rave, I was about to clamber through one-hundred and sixty feet of Portland’s sparkling new sewage pump. Crawling through the murk and muck of industrial hangovers is a cherished pastime, all cops and robbers and dangling above certain death from fatigued metal railings, but this exercise in urban spelunking was actually a sanctioned tour.

People buy expensive suits and carry briefcases to impress their fellow downtown office drones. I looked like the foreman’s nephew rushed into whatever scraps of gear had been abandoned. Good thing I wasn’t here to impress anyone or find a job, I was here to research the Wired article: Robots, Rebar and Slurry: Inside a Massive Public Works Project.

My journey to fashion victimization had begun a couple weeks back as I rooted through the mail. It’s never for me, but I like to pick it up every day and feel connected to the outside world through my roommates’ bills, adverts and assorted landfill. Coupons for the shitty pizza chain? Into the recycling. Top dollar for my gold jewelry? Into the recycling. Mailer from the city’s Bureau of Environmental Services? Hold up.

Swan Island Pump Station

And I learned that armies of workers banded together with subterranean robots to construct miles of tunnels beneath the city streets, rescuing the Willamette River from annual inundations of raw sewage. Vital infrastructure had been diverted, replaced and modernized without closing city streets or shutting off peoples showers. A swath of destruction was carved out beneath the river without causing a deadly catastrophe. But how?

The city’s press office informed me that the project was nearing completion. Tunnels had been sealed and filled with sludge but I was welcome to visit the pump station where installations crews were still working.

That makes this story current.

I asked after the pictures posted on the city’s website. A photographer had been hired to record the progress of the project, spanning nearly ten years, from the digging of access shafts to the mining of the tunnels. Photos would be furnished to run with an article free of charge.

That makes this story visual.

And I thought about Washington where politicians were screaming at each other over spending federal money on infrastructure projects around the country. They stimulate the economy, they add to the deficit, the private sector should be brought in, that’s corporate welfare.

That makes this story relevant. My editor agreed.

Talking Sewage at the Opera

But how to write up a sprawling, complex engineering feat? I can’t sort out basic algebraic equations. I can’t grasp the most fundamental laws of physics. I can’t even hammer a nail straight. Engineers are easily confused by polite conversation and lurk behind obtuse calculations as compensation and I was riding across town to meet with the project manager, anxiety held at bay by my repeated attempts to get run over.

I also can’t read a map. Abandoning cars an traffic lights to hop a curb led me down a promenade segregating the Rose Garden from its ugly step-sister the Memorial Coliseum. In theory this path would cut directly to the riverfront trails I wanted to follow but urban planners threw bus stops, light-rail tracks and roads going nowhere in my face. I sat waiting for the left turn signal. My bike wasn’t heavy enough to trigger it.

When I first visited Portland the riverfront and bridges had been besieged by junkies and the homeless. These days upstanding citizens disgrace the human race by donning spandex and performing free-style interpretive yoga along both sides of the Willamette. Infestations of nouveau urbanites shoot spams through my skull but I actually do like the Eastbank Esplanade. The city managed to bring riparian delights to the masses while leaving enough dark corners and overpasses to shoot up and piss yourself in. Had I the time I would have walked my bike an reread every historical placard lining the walk.

Hampton Opera Center

The Hampton Opera Center occupied the southern stretches of the Esplanade. Portland’s opera company claims to be a champion of accessibility—they were early adopters of English subtitles—but community outreach ends at the edge of the stage. Intentionally odd angles, shimmering glass and meandering curves probably make more sense if you stab out your eyes and live for acoustics. Through some devious corruption of eminent domain the Bureau has usurped the second floor.

There is a counter to fend off opera enthusiasts. There is a bell sitting on the counter. There is a girl behind the curtain who patiently listens, then points to the sign three feet away explaining how to use the lobby phone. I was pacing around trying to make sense of construction paper and gluestick production posters when a gaggle of theater patrons burst through the doors, hardly pausing their chuckles and clucking to pound the bell. A woman from upstairs found me cowering in the corner and led me away.

Like glittering brooches and crushed velvet cloaks refinement is a facade. Ever been in the basement of Le Louvre? Looks like Freddy Krueger’s bedroom.

My escort apologized for her sprained ankle and clawed at railings, leading us past walls caked with institutional paint, up staircases of metal and concrete, and through the lingering reek of Ajax and bleach. She left me at the gates of cubicle hell and limped by pasty office drones stapled to their seats in search of the project manager.

She found me a human. Paul was perfectly suited to guide me through a nightmare world. Over the course of an hour he sculpted construction cranes sinking shafts deep into the earth. Crews lowered rebar cages an injected them with slurry. Divers plunged into murky silt while laborers churned concrete. Imported mechanized worms carried human attendants as they carved pathways beneath office towers and freeways. A monolithic pump station sprouted through the paper clutter of his desk, collecting runoff and sewage from an entire city.

TBM Scale Model

At times Paul’s excitement outpaced my feeble comprehension but he didn’t mind frequent backtracking or stunted explanation. If I got lost in the wilderness he sketched stick figures on a whiteboard, which I later wished I’d copied down. We poured over the sediment charts which lined the cramped confines of his glorified cube and dug through an endless number of bluer binders for figures and statistics. He never expressed annoyance or let on that I’m an idiot, even as he ran an animatronic scale replica of a tunnel boring machine while I fumbled with my camera’s video capabilities. After wandering the deprived expanse of cubicles on a quest for Land-Sat maps he left me at the door with a handshake an a head swollen beyond capacity.

Subterranean Denizens

I used to work at a video store which neighbored a used car lot. When the dealership changed hands the new owner paid a visit of introduction. My name is Boris, but you can call me Boris the Blade.

Years later I was in Kiev in an attempt to keep EU border agents on their toes and to research an article on Chernobyl. My editor had arranged a fixer tasked with sneaking myself, a friend and a photographer into the nuclear exclusion zone.

The fixer’s name was Vlad, and he didn’t need to add The Impaler. When he called from a pay-phone to alert me that his car had exploded, stranding him on the far side of Ukraine, I accepted this as commonplace. When he suggested that the photographer could find a car on his own I found his reasoning sound. When Vlad told me that we would drive hundreds of kilometers to meet strangers at dawn in some dusty border town and entrust to them our safety and well being, sight unseen, as they smuggled us into restricted territory my instincts of self-preservation kicked in. Janice thought it was a terrible idea. Our photographer, steeped in the nefarious dealings of Eastern Europe, cocked an eyebrow.

Meeting a complete stranger in the middle of an isolated industrial wasteland isn’t the smartest idea, but it’s not the dumbest.

Swan Island Pump Station

Swan Island has long been conjoined to the mainland but the sensation of separation persists. The Army Corps of Engineers dredged one shipping channel to close the other in the 1920’s, dumping enough landfill to accommodate Portland’s first airport. Charles Lindbergh christened the fledgling airstrip in 1927 and planes circled above the Willamette for a dozen years before they grew too large to land. During WWII Liberty Ships and oil tankers were churned out and the island became home to over 7,000 workers, an all night daycare center and a trade school. With peace came dry-docks and repair facilities, then later the mighty forces of FedEx and UPS brought acres of warehouses and trucks. McDonald’s maintains a 24-hour presence, and I was to take a left there.

Through an unmarked chain fence, past the electrical substation, and towers angles of concrete piercing the ground. This is the Swan Island Pump Station, the lynchpin of the entire sewage overhaul. Julius met me under roaring ventilation shafts with a helmet, neon-yellow safety vest and a place to stash my bike. I changed into boots in a room occupied by wall-sized computers monitoring pumps nearly two-hundred feet below.

Swan Island Pump Station

Although recently constructed the facility is rapidly adopting the uniform of industrial decay. You can’t taste rust on your tongue yet but at a depth of one floor, at the very edge of smell, grease and grit are beginning to make a home. Julius led me along steel catwalks, down ladders and through a maze of pipework. Water-born debris clanged against metal, ducts shuttered and both bounced off one another and the walls. I watched my guide’s gesticulations and mumbled nonsense questions about capacity and methane build-ups. The voice recorder lay lifeless in my pocket.

The deeper we crept the higher the humidity climbed. Orange spores colonize concrete walls an viscous drippings pool in the corners. Engines the size of ponies were pointed out, details of turbaned a floor below shouted, and everything landed uselessly at my feet. By the time we reached the bottom I was left gaping beyond comprehension. We rode to the surface in a freight elevator to discuss budget and processes and construction delays in an office of blue binders while a couple workers handled hedge-trimmers and hated me for stealing their chair.

Julius reclaimed the helmet and neon-yellow safety vest but let me keep the goggles and earplugs. I’m pretty sure he realized that I’m an idiot.

Pesky Details

Two interviews down, one sewage facility toured and a head so choked with information it would take a season of The Golden Girls to resume normalcy. I cut open a shopping bag and crafted flowcharts of facts, populating gaps with time signatures and research quips. I spent an awful amount of time looking up terms and reading about slurry.

But you don’t give a shit about the intricacies of a public works project. You want to hear about the newest Facebook privacy agreement. You want the latest Apple gossip. You want to know what was announced at this year’s CES. But my beleaguered editor cleared some space in the calendar and, after a last minute call to one of the local labor unions, we were ready to plug in some pictures and roll.

Swan Island Station Pump Monitors

Until the city’s archivist coughed up a lung. Too many pictures. An intern changed all the file names when they uploaded things to the website. Intense negotiations roped in the photographer, and she exchanged passable photos for the promise of fame and fortune. The article ran.

Not my greatest success. Not my most talked about story. No bonus or public recognition for a job well done. But a solid piece of something or other that now exists. My editor was happy, and that’s good enough for me.

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