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May 7, 2018 | by  | in Features | [ssba]

What the Shit?

CW: nauseating content, don’t read post-meal if you have a sensitive stomach

Two hours and 10 km away from the Moa Point Wastewater Treatment Plant and I keep getting whiffs of that smell. I’ve washed my hands twice, given my clothes a thorough sniffing, checked my notebook and backpack for rogue splatterings, and have come up with nothing. There is no reason for me to be smelling of anything other than myself. But every so often I will turn my head and a whiff will take me back. Back to standing in the centre of a room surrounded by the seething slosh-piles of Wellington’s bodily refuse. I have an intense headache and my stomach is hurting. At the time of my visit my nose was pretty blocked in one nostril and well on its way in the other. But since the student media had put their trust in me as correspondent, I leaned wide over the protective banister, sniffing loud breathy inhalations to be able to faithfully report the stench. I leant over stool and slime, the gas hitting a primo sour tartness at the back of my throat.

In hindsight this may not have been the wisest move.

The MPWTP crouches sinisterly atop a hill overlooking both Lyall Bay and the Airport. The industrial structures look like a nuclear/chemical weapons plant one would expect to see in an evil villain’s lair. The only villain to be found in this wasteworks is the strange stench which hangs like a grim spectre over the plant.

I am greeted by the friendly staff who allow me to sit in the conference room while I wait for the Salient photographer and eat a peanut butter and feijoa jam sandwich (I can understand how certain readers may be revolted by this combination but I was hurried for time in the morning and didn’t have a lot of spreads to choose from. I also think the reader’s understanding of the contents of my stomach, as I spent 2 hours looking at what was previously in other people’s stomachs, is an integral element of the narrative). As I waited for my guide, who another employee had referred to as “Frank the Tank”, I read the various infographics that lined the walls, trying to get a grip on the wastewater treatment process.

Disclaimer: The following paragraph is the result of my reading of the above-mentioned infographics, Frank (the Tank)’s explanation, and a perusal through the M.P.W.T.P. employee handout courtesy of VeoliaTM. Having read all this information, I still am very confused as to how the process truly works, so please take my amateur explanation with a generous pinch of salt.

Raw sewage enters the plant through the Inlet Pumping station at a rate of about 750 litres per second. Sewage is described by the Wellington City Council website as “waste from all sinks, toilets, laundries, kitchens and bathrooms”, but is probably more aptly put as everyone in Wellington’s shit, piss, vomit, cum, and greywater all mixed into one juicy concoction. The sewage is first filtered through a series of step screens where the grit (or to use Frank’s much more emotive term, “ragging”), which consists of the largest inorganic matter, is removed from the slosh. The sewage is then moved into the primary settlement tank. This is an Olympic sized swimming pool of bodily waste where for some reason the sludge, (aka “non-liquid effluent”, defined into two types; 1. Primary (scum, fat) and 2. Biomass  (faecal matter, vomit, bodily discharge)) must be separated into floatables and sinkables. The sludge is then pumped 9 km away to a de-watering station in Carey’s Gully, where the liquid is pumped back to Moa Point and the sludge is buried god knows where. The sewage is now effluent (non-solid wastewater) and is pumped to biological treatment tanks where micro-organisms Frank calls “tulips” remove the contaminants left in the solution. These tulips are already present in your shit when it is squeezed out of your ass, and are merely encouraged by the pumping of oxygen into the waste to do their god-given duty of getting the nasty stuff out. If I have this right, your shit pretty much cleans itself (shame to all those people wasting their time wiping their ass).

From there the effluent is pumped through clarifiers, which are tanks where solids (or “activated sludge” – what a name) settle out from the final effluent. The last stage is that the effluent is blasted by UV light, which kills the microorganisms, before being jettisoned out into the ocean, 1.8 km into Cook’s Strait. The MPWTP handout claims that the discharged effluent meets the standards for swimming beaches, which says more about the standards than anything else. The whole process is largely automated and takes about 2 hours.

Back in the conference room, I did not even have the tentative grasp on the process that I have now and sat blank-eyed and confused staring at a poster of a gigantic wave (possibly of treated sewage) with the caption, “clean effluent, clean ocean, clean environment”. Because I was so lost I was forced to put complete and total trust in my tour guide, Frank the Tank. (Disclaimer: Frank never referred to himself as Frank the Tank, I heard it from another employee and thought it was too good not to put in the article. I hope to god that Frank doesn’t mind the name because I would be very upset if I was inadvertently hurting his feelings by using it, on second thought maybe I will hereby just call him Frank.)

Frank is somebody who you can’t help but have the utmost respect for. He is an expert in his field and has an impressive breadth of knowledge about everything to do with the plant. He has a great sense of humour and was an incredible tour guide. I could gush about the man for hours.
Frank suited me and Benji (the Salient photographer) up in a hi-vis vest, powder-free disposable gloves, and wrap-around splatter-protection shades. With a final instruction not to touch your face inside the plant, we were off.

The tour started at the Lab, where currently absent scientists did mysterious tests on things. The most notable part of the room was not science related at all. It was a series of photos on the back wall of days back in the 90s before there was a pipeline taking the sludge to landfill and the job had to be done by truck. One day an absent-minded truck driver had forgotten to properly secure his load and had driven off, causing a literal truckload of semi-dehydrated shit to fall on the driveway. The photos were quite detailed, and the shit reminded me a lot of the dinosaur poo that Jeff Goldblum sticks his hand into in Jurassic Park 2. From the Lab we enter through caution marked doors, up some stairs, through a death-star-esque control room, and into the plant proper. The first room is a gigantic steel warehouse that smells like shit. Frank takes me over to a large steel box and lifts open a panel and we take a look at the step screens.

Have you ever seen an escalator? Okay, cool, same. Now imagine that same escalator covered in everything that you have ever flushed down a toilet. Alright, so we are looking at quite a lot of shit and piss, a bit of vomit, some snotty tissues, and the odd used condom. Now, times that by 100,000, cuz that’s the amount of people’s waste that the MPWTP caters for at any given second of the day. Let me tell you the image is striking. Stools big and small, healthy and doctor’s appointment inducing, line the screens, and they are janked up the conveyor belt in sharp “steps”. The stools and other bio-waste get carted off to the primary settlement tanks, while the non-biological stuff (like trash, toilet paper, semen-filled latex, lolly pop sticks), called “ragging”, is separated, cleaned, and sent dumpward. The main take from a solid minute of my face within an arm’s reach of this ragging is that it’s a no-brainer that corn is in season. The next room we head into is the primary settlement tanks. Frank prefaces our entrance with a warning that the smell there is as bad as it gets in the plant.

If they weren’t filled with shit, the tanks would be awe inspiring. The size of an Olympic pool and divided into lanes. We walk out onto a steel walkway and out over the open tank to get a better view of the sewage. You would be hard pressed to find a worse spot to be in when an earthquake happened. Although the tank is only 1m deep, you can’t see the bottom through the gloopy liquid that sloshes in the lanes. It is here that biomass sludge (shit) is divided into floatables and sinkables. From our point of view I could only observe the floatables. There were many stools floating languidly in the filth, remarkably held together through the rigmarole of the step screens. There was a thick yellowy white layer of unknown substance coating the surface of half of one channel — it could either be semen, fat, pus, or more likely an unholy combination of all. I asked Frank what the craziest thing he had found in the tanks was, and he told me that one time he found 10 bucks. And apparently that same Kate Sheppard currently hangs in the break room for anyone brave (or desperate) enough to put the shit stained tenner back into circulation.

It would be disrespectful to the smell to use a single catch-all word such as “pungent” as a description. The smell was such a myriad of differing scents and stenches in constant kaleidoscope, creating an olfactory sensory onslaught. The smell of one end of the platform was a mix of syrupy sweet-smelling diarrhoea, while the other of thick alcoholic booze poos. Along the intervening spectrum I smelt off-milk, undercooked sausages, monster energy drinks, Cheezels, imitation crab meat, cool ranch doritos, McD’s Filet’o’fish, salsa, garlic yogurt, flat Fanta, and eggs, lots of eggs. I left the room light-headed and dazed. I told Frank how I was feeling and he laughed, saying that we were here at the quietest time of day and that we should smell it at peak flow (morning, which makes a lot of sense in coffee-obsessed Wellington).

As we are walking from industrial cesspit to industrial cesspit, Frank pointed out that in every room we were in, large green pipes lined the walls. These pipes varied in size but were seen snaking along in every room that smelt bad. Frank said that the pipes are called scrubbers, and their role is to remove odour from the plant. One of the council appointed concessions that the MPWTP must abide by is that no discernible odour is to be smelt at the plant boundary. Not even the whiff of a stray fart is allowed. How the scrubbers achieve this is rather interesting. First, all the stank air is collected by the green pipes in every room and moved to the odour treatment area. This is the deepest point of the plant, some 20m below ground level. There the stank air is passed through three sets of chemical showers. Firstly, sulphuric acid is used to remove amine and ammonia-based compounds (the fishy smells). Secondly, sodium hypochlorite is used to remove acid-based gases such as hydrogen sulphide (rotten egg, fart smells). Lastly, the sodium hydroxide removes the chlorine smell, before the treated air is discharged from a tall stack to be dispersed by the Wellington wind straight into your lungs.

The final stop of the effluent’s journey before it is launched out to sea is the Ultra Violet Disinfection chamber. This room is small in comparison to the cavernous chambers seen in other parts of the plant, and it houses a large sci-fi like contraption that hums aggressively. Underneath the hum is that sound of a large waterfall. This sound gets a visual counterpart when Frank removes a steel panel from the platform we stand on and we both peer down into the gaping maw of thundering whirlpool. This is the treated effluent, all 750 litres per second of it, cascading toward the pipe that will take it to sea. The water is glowing green from the UV light being blasted at it.

I asked Frank, “Why is the water green?” Frank said, “It’s cuz a couple years back when they were filming the Green Lantern at Weta Workshops the cast and crew had a day off so they came here to the plant to have a look around, and to impress them when they came, and to commemorate the occasion, we changed the water to green”.
Frank just laughed at me, and I knew I had been duped by a master trickster.
Frank then attaches a small plastic container to the end of a rod, dunks it into the water and pulls it out. It is clear/ish. About as clear as a public pool water, water that you know has probably been pissed in but are okay with jumping in because at least it smells like chlorine instead of urine.

I ask Frank if you could drink that water. Frank says, “I could, but you couldn’t”.
“How’s that?”
Frank thinks for a second before responding with, “I’m immune to the stuff, you get sick once in this place and then you are good”.
Somewhere in this statement is the key to all that is reportable in the MPWTP. We have Frank, an image of human decency, braving things that few people would dare to for his daily work. He, and people like him carry the weight of our whole society on their shoulders. So often people just flush the toilet without sparing a thought for the tireless workforce that make the safe disposal of waste possible. So, next time you are hunched sourly over the porcelain throne, spare a thought for Frank and the team at the MPWTP. Those silent heroes working at the centre of societal filth, making sure no one has to see your disgusting stomach bacteria but you and the depths of Cook’s Strait.


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