Biohazards, sweltering heat and the smell of methane gas and human and household waste.
Those are just a few of the things that greet two city of Stephenville employees as they clock in for a typical work day with the city’s public works department.
Paul Schneider, 55, and Stephen Plumlee, 28, operate the city’s Vac-Con, a sludge-sucking, sewer-cleaning machine that comes with its fair share of dirt and grime. Actually, dirt and grime have nothing on some of the rubbish and waste the men and their tanker truck suck from the city’s sewer system five days a week.
The truck is mammoth, with a tank that holds about 1,000 gallons of sludge and slime. And the tiger tail jet, affectionally referred to as the “grenade bomb” packs a hard-hitting 3,000 pounds of pressure per square inch to help clear the line. The vacuum then sucks stinky, stenchy mess with a force that leaves little waste behind.
Thursday’s routine included making the regular weekly stop at the Erath County Jail, where old rags, plastic bags and whole fruits are just a few of the extras found filling the sewer lines. Keep in mind that what these men suck from the sewer system had only a couple possible points of entry - they were either washed down a drain, flushed down a throne or deposited directly into the manhole.
Standing outside of the county jail, and pointing to the intersection of US Highways 67 and 377, Williams said omitting the hot spot from the crew’s weekly route would eventually build up in the sewer system lying beneath the South Loop.
“If this stuff got caught on the loop, we would have to dig it (the sewer line) up with a backhoe to clear the line,” Williams said, adding that a major repair project beneath the right-of-way would be much more costly and time consuming than the 30 minute routine stop. “It prevents us from having to tear up too many city streets.”
So what are some of the strangest things Schneider has sucked from the system over the last deacade?
“I got a pair of channel locks one time,” Schneider said, adding that the tool was likely left behind when repairs were made to the system. “But I would have to say the strangest thing was probably a motorcycle battery. I can’t imagine how it got there.”
While the men’s work is essential and could be considered routine preventative maintenance, Nick Williams, director of public works, said the men’s dirty work keeps things flowing beneath Stephenville streets.
Simply put, Schneider, who has worked for the city for a quarter of a century and manned the Vac-Con for more than a decade, and Plumlee, who transfered from the water department about six months ago to take the passenger seat, get dirty daily so the rest of the public works crew and citizens can keep clean.
“It is the ultimate quality of life issue,” Williams said, referring to the need for a smooth flowing sewer system and the importance the system plays in protecting public health.
Williams said the manhole outside of the county jail covers just one of the “hot spots” in the city, when it comes to miscellaneous debris being flushed down the pipes. Another stop on Crow Street is an equally sticky situation thanks to regular backup, which Williams attributes to grease from restaurants located upstream from the service point.
And grease, according to Schneider, is just one issue that makes the job a little tougher. Although restaurants are required to have grease traps on location and residents would see fewer plumbing problems at their abodes if they abided by a simple rule - can the grease - the post consumer waste still works its way down drains and into the infrastructure below.
Williams said the two-man crew works hard at maintaining the city’s No. 1 priority - safety first - and said despite the hazards of their daily grind, no serious injuries have been reported.
And the hazards are many. From the manholes and heavy equipment to the spewing sludge, potential falls, injuries and even infections are risks the men face daily. Every morning Schneider and Plumlee don their safety gear, which includes steel-toed boots and a reflective vest, but Williams said some of the precautions have to be taken care of by a medical professional.
“The health risk is very serious,” Williams said, adding that regular vaccinations for communicable diseases such as Hepatitis while not mandatory, are encouraged due to the constant exposure to human waste.
Making sure that the sewer system does not become clogged is essential, according to Williams, who said without the preventative effort, city crews would stay busy with repairs to the sewer system.
“After the city purchased the Vac-Con, just more than 10 years ago, the work load decreased drastically,” Williams said, adding that last year alone, the Vac-Con crew’s daily rounds added up to one million linear feet of line work.
And the job doesn’t stop when the tanker is full. In a typical work week, the crew makes as many as six trips to the dumping point. The dump is the one place where the men get a clear shot at the fruits of their labors as the Vac-Con’s tank is opened and begins spewing the waste into a drying tank.
And the smell? It’s something they say they’ve grown accustomed to.
“The job has its challenges,” Plumlee said. “If it was easy, I guess everybody would be doing it. But I am just proud to have a job with the city and I am happy to work as a sort of public servant to all of its citizens.”