City men­aced by gi­ant ‘fat­berg’

Toronto Star - - WORD WEEKLY | DISPATCHES - AMIE TSANG THE NEW YORK TIMES

There is a mon­ster be­neath the streets of Lon­don, men­ac­ing the East End un­der­world.

What has been named the “Whitechapel fat­berg” is a rock-solid ag­glom­er­a­tion of fat, dis­pos­able wipes, di­a­pers, con­doms and tam­pons. It was dis­cov­ered to the east of the city’s fi­nan­cial dis­trict, oc­cu­py­ing 268 me­tres of sewer un­der Whitechapel Rd.

Thames Wa­ter, the cap­i­tal’s util­ity, said the fat­berg weighed as much as 11 of the city’s dou­ble-decker buses: more than 140 tons. That was 10 times the size of a sim­i­lar mass that the com­pany had found be­neath Kingston, in south Lon­don, in 2013, and de­clared the big­gest ex­am­ple in Bri­tish his­tory.

To pre­vent the con­tents of the sewer from flood­ing streets and homes nearby, the util­ity is send­ing an eight-mem­ber team to break up the fat­berg with high-pow­ered jet hoses and hand tools. The task is ex­pected to take them three weeks, work­ing seven days a week.

“It’s a to­tal mon­ster and tak­ing a lot of man­power and ma­chin­ery to re­move,” said Thames Wa­ter’s head of waste net­works, Matt Rim­mer. “It’s ba­si­cally like try­ing to break up con­crete.”

Such block­ages are not unique to Lon­don. New York City has spent mil­lions of dol­lars on prob­lems cre­ated by dis­pos­able wipes. Even the ones branded as flush­able were com­bin­ing with ma­te­ri­als such as con­gealed grease to up­end their plumb­ing. Hawaii, Alaska, Wis­con­sin and Cal­i­for­nia have strug­gled with sim­i­lar prob­lems.

Lon­don’s sewage sys­tem, how­ever, presents spe­cial chal­lenges. The back­bone of the net­work was built in the 19th cen­tury, af­ter a series of cholera out­breaks and the “Great Stink” of 1858, when law­mak­ers aban­doned the Houses of Par­lia­ment be­cause of the stench of raw sewage from the nearby River Thames.

That 1,770-kilo­me­tre sys­tem, orig­i­nally de­signed to serve four mil­lion peo­ple, has been strug­gling to cope with the waste of about twice that num­ber. Work is un­der­way on a new su­per sewer.

Joseph Bazal­gette, who de­signed the Vic­to­rian net­work, prob­a­bly did not ac­count for the dis­pos­able di­a­pers and wipes that, in a mat­ter of days, can mate with oil and grease to cre­ate fat­bergs big enough to block tun­nels that are 1.8 me­tres tall.

The sewer un­der Whitechapel Rd. is about 1.2 me­tres high and less than one me­tre wide, and Thames Wa­ter en­gi­neers found the fat­berg there dur­ing a rou­tine check. They reg­u­larly walk through the sys­tem to look for prob­lems. Lee Irv­ing, a spokesper­son for Thames Wa­ter, de­scribed the ex­pe­ri­ence of en­coun­ter­ing a fat­berg as over­whelm­ing, with a smell that mixed rot­ting meat and pun­gent toi­let.

The util­ity is try­ing to pre­vent fat­bergs with public­ity cam­paigns urg­ing res­i­dents to dis­pose of wipes and fat in the garbage can. It has said that it clears three block­ages from fat, and four or more caused by items such as wipes, every hour. It has also tar­geted restau­rants, en­cour­ag­ing them to use grease traps.

And there is a chance that a slice of the fat­berg will be pre­served for gen­er­a­tions to come. The Mu­seum of Lon­don said on Wed­nes­day that it hoped to ac­quire a cross-sec­tion of the blob for its col­lec­tion.

“It is im­por­tant for the Mu­seum of Lon­don to dis­play gen­uine cu­riosi­ties from past and present,” the di­rec­tor of the mu­seum, Sharon Ament, said.

ADRIAN DENNIS/AFP/GETTY IM­AGES FILE PHOTO

Sewage work­ers have found a 130-ton ball of con­gealed fat — dubbed a “mon­ster fat­berg” — clog­ging a Vic­to­rian-era sewer.

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