In search of Boston’s worst smell

Our intrepid correspondent travels deep into the bowels of the Deer Island sanitation complex to get a snootful
By TREVOR QUIRK  |  December 3, 2012

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Take the pretty-vacant Blue Line train — twin rows of hard plastic seats, the digestive groan of the train's wheelwork grinding beneath the pitchy whir of its rectified motor — to Orient Heights. Wait for the obscure Paul Revere bus line under a sky that's one vast gradient of high blue to fringe white. Take a deep, deep breath — and prepare for what awaits you during a tour of the Massachusetts Water Resources Authority's treatment plant at Deer Island.

I am expecting wretched, hideously pungent smells.

>> SLIDESHOW: Inside the Deer Island sanitation complex <<

Deer Island — really a peninsula pinched between the Broad Sound and the Massachusetts Bay — is the bus's final stop before it careens around a cul-de-sac and returns to Orient Heights. The Financial District's skyline is bleary and toy-like in the distance. This is the great sewage nexus of the Bay State, servicing 43 different communities and on an average day treating over 300 million gallons. I think of the 4.6 million citizens of Greater Boston and the sheer magnitude of the waste we produce, the waste that presently froths and churns in the piping below my feet. Barring serious constipation, every resident of the Boston area contributes to the daily fecal spume that converges under the treatment plant's 160 acres.

So I'm also sort of wondering why it doesn't reek of shit around here. I'm oddly disappointed. The smells are oceanic, briny, quite pleasant.

I meet my guide, MWRA program manager Charles Tyler, at a spiffy conical security hut. His attire is no-nonsense: sturdy, worn boots, a paint-blotched zip-up over a denim oxford, and a white hard hat. His bearded face bears eerie resemblance to that of Bryan Cranston from Breaking Bad. We depart for the plant's retired pump station, which now houses offices and historical exhibits.

I have yet to smell anything even remotely foul.

Tyler shows me a capsule of raw sewage. By volume, it's mostly water with the exception of one pale filament, which is not brown. Whatever the citizens of Boston choose to flush surges through local pipes that connect at relays called headworks, which then pump the sewage en masse to the Deer Island plant through rotund pipes buried under some 100 feet of earth. The sewage is then filtered through fistulas the size of open hands. Tyler has fond memories of certain items — which he calls "grit" — that have been caught in the filters: "Diapers, logs, tires, bones. . ."

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I raise an eyebrow.

"Oh yeah, bones." He also recounts an MWRA legend in which the filters once caught an intact motorcycle. "People flush everything," he says.

After filtration, sewage enters a vast pool where it's allowed to settle. A head of "scum" is removed along with any remaining solids, called "sludge." After this, the water enters the true intestinal tract of Deer Island: the aerobic reactors. The reactors are filled with the same kind of bacteria residing in human guts, and when combined with oxygen from the plant's cryogenic facility, the bacteria begin to feast on the sewage. When done correctly, this process yields, as Tyler explains, "fat and happy bugs, clean water." The water is treated this way once more, chlorinated, and then pumped out to sea.

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  Topics: News Features , Massachusetts Water Resources Authority, features, Deer Island
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