Monday, April 24, 2006

The salty air is thick with the smell of the Pacific and the nearby kelp cooking in the morning sun. Until a rust red door swings open, and an enveloping sewage-smelling cloud oozes out.

Five feet below, a chocolaty river rushes past – San Diego’s sewage in its rawest form. Thousands of gallons careen through a filter at the Point Loma Wastewater Treatment Plant. A motor kicks in, oily gears churn. A mechanized rake dives down and slowly reemerges from the muck with a soggy armful of crud.

The rake rises and pulls back the curtain on a filthy mystery: What do San Diegans flush down their toilets?

The answer is equal parts evil and innocence. Body parts and action figures. Rattlesnakes and Legos. Syringes and half-eaten carrots.

Every day, behind those rust red doors, five filters pull out about 650 pounds of stuff that isn’t meant for the city’s sewers. It sneaks in there somehow, and it must be removed before sewage gets treated and pumped four-and-a-half miles offshore. At two pump stations, big items get pulled out: logs, tires, purses, rocks, wallets, possums, rats and small cats. Workers there once fished out the front end of a Volkswagen, says Michael C. Scahill, spokesman for the city’s Metropolitan Wastewater Department. (No one knows how that got in there, though most big items get dumped in manholes.)

The messy tangle left over is mostly an indistinguishable grayish-black blob. Inside are glimpses of things people have flushed and forgotten; the detritus of the city’s daily routine: a cigarette butt, a razor, tinfoil and whitefish – that’s sewage parlance for condoms.

“At some point, nothing really seems strange when you’re dealing with it on a daily basis,” says Joe A. Cordova, superintendent of the Point Loma plant, the city’s largest. Cordova is sitting in the plant’s conference room. Just outside the door, the floor is decorated with tile artwork of a toilet bowl and the lower intestine.

Cordova leans back in his chair and reflects on 25 years in the San Diego sewage business. He’s seen a lot flushed down the toilet or shoved into manholes that shouldn’t have been.

The rakes and the filtering process are mechanized and unsupervised. No one monitors the mess. But those who work there long enough inevitably catch glimpses.

Sometimes, Cordova can imagine the stories and the drama behind the discoveries made at the plant: Cops ready to bust down a door, people inside caught in a frantic scramble to flush drugs and money down the toilet. Maybe that’s why $1,100 turned up one day.

Sometimes, he can’t imagine what drives people to discard some of the things they do. He calls it “the darker side of humanity.” He quietly says he once found a full-term fetus. That, Cordova says, was the saddest thing he’s ever seen. That’s when the police get called. Same when they find fingers and hands, something Scahill says happens about every two years.

The job has moments of levity. About four times a year, people call the plant and ask about missing wedding rings. The conversation goes like this:

Um, I got mad at my wife last night and flushed my wedding ring down the toilet. Did you guys find it yet?

Scahill and Cordova trade glances as they tell this story. Find a ring? In 650 pounds of sewage-smelling foulness? Like finding a needle in a haystack, Cordova says. Still, they leave callers with a bit of hope: “We’ll keep an eye out for it.”

When a sewage plant in the Midwest actually did find a diamond ring in its sludgy mess, phone calls picked up at the plant. Hopeful callers asked: Are you sure you haven’t found my ring yet?

Please contact Rob Davis directly with your thoughts, ideas, personal stories or tips. Or send a letter to the editor.

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