I inquire about the disappointing lack of smells, and Tyler assures me they exist. He explains that a significant portion of the plant's efforts are dedicated to mitigating odor. The plant runs a 24-hour Odor Hotline (617. 660.7633) for the unfortunately proximal town of Winthrop. He says that I'm sure to experience plenty of smells on the tour.

Unaccountably — and for the first time — I have become excited at the prospect of smelling human excrement.

The perimeter of the plant is composed of concrete roadblocks and black barbed-wired fencing, fringed by high-voltage dens. A dozen bullet-shaped "digesters" loom on the southern tip of the peninsula. Tyler explains that the solid waste, the "sludge," is pumped to the digesters and fed to anaerobic bacteria, this time for much longer — about two weeks longer. The digesters can hold roughly 3 million gallons each, and they collectively yield over 100 tons of methane gas per day, which is fed to Deer Island's thermal power plant. Between thermal, wind, and solar, Deer Island generates almost a quarter of its own power. Far and away the coolest machines, though, are the gravity thickeners, designed to distill the sludge before it moves on to the digesters. They bear a grotesque resemblance to large ice-cream machines, with churning paddles that thicken what I struggle to imagine is anything but cream. The liquid the thickeners produce resembles old car oil, filmy and densely black. Tyler says the thickeners used to operate without covers, and confirms that the adage "the smell is blinding" is true in some cases.

I'm actually jealous of him. I have yet to whiff a disparate fume, and I'm whimsically considering approaching the hull of a nearby gravity thickener to begin sniffing.

This turns out to be unnecessary. As promised, Tyler guides me into the enclosed facilities, where the smells emerge in their noxious splendor. Each building has a unique olfactory profile; the familiar stench of untreated, unadulterated human waste seems compartmentalized among the different steps of the treatment process. The odor pervading the truck-sized tubes that feed raw sewage into the plant is musky, chalk-like. The smell in the odor-control facility has a heady sulfur quality, trailed by the smell of the blue Anotec liquid that fills outdoor latrines. At the grit filters, the air is saturated with a leady, nauseating sick-sweet odor.

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

I emerge from the inner facilities satisfied, wondering briefly if I should be ashamed of being hungry. Tyler returns me to the conical security hut, and I step through the gate to notice the sun-softened plastic of a lonely latrine. I figure I must have overlooked it on the way in, probably because it's been erected outside facility grounds, unwanted even here, banished to a dusty turnaround beside the road.


Note: A previous version of this article incorrectly reported the capacity of the bacteria-filled “digesters”: the digesters hold 3 million gallons, not 300 million gallons. Also, we incorrectly reported that Deer Island gets waste from 43 Massachusetts counties; in fact, the waste comes from 43 "communities."

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