This Time, No Metaphor – A Genuinely Hellish Hole – September 14, 2010

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

At least those lowered into this Hellhole have something to look forward to – dismantling a 42-year-old pump and extracting a sewage-soaked rag that someone flushed. KLH | Eye

Kevin L. Hoover

Eye Editor

SAMOA BOULEVARD – The Arcata Eye’s popular Hellholes of Arcata series usually highlights some trashed forest campsite, illegal dumping on the Bottoms, a neglected property situation or toxic waste site on which some developer wishes to install family homes. Not this time.

This week’s Hellhole of Arcata is just what it says it is – a hellish hole in the ground. The damn thing even glows with infernal red light.

And it gets better (worse, that is). This particular Hellhole is one into which City of Arcata Public Works employees have to crawl down into three times a week to perform a grisly task – extracting a clog from a sewage pump. Claustrophobes need not apply. In fact, they may have trouble even looking down into the concrete pit without shuddering.

On top of all that, this Hellhole is about to suck down close to $567,000. It’ll still be hellish, too, except that the City’s people won’t have to go down there quite as often.

All the fun takes place out at the Samoa Boulevard Lift Station, the little hut with the goofy mini-Mansard roof next to the old Industrial Electric Building. The Lift Station is where 60 percent of Arcata’s sewage flows via pipes from the distant reaches of Valley West, California Avenue, Westwood, the Arcata Bottom and part of central Arcata.

Unfortunately, residents flush modern items like baby wipes, Swiffers and condoms, even rags that don’t quickly break down like toilet paper. In fact, these confections make their way – intact and poop-infused – all the way down to the 1968-vintage pumps that live in the Hellhole, which then jam up and require loving kindness from the Public Works techs.

It looks like a medieval torture device, and in a way, it is. Strap in and descend to the depths for a sewage-tastic experience. KLH | Eye

While the City’s other 10 lift stations also get clogged, extracting the jammage at the Samoa site is an elaborate and expensive process, requiring three workers up to two hours to pull off. Confined-space entry procedures are uncomfortable and time-consuming, even dangerous.

One worker is secured in an emergency extraction harness, and then monitored while making the descent into the 24 foot deep pit. An air-sampling “gas sniffer” is checked before the downward journey, but you never know.

“The other two people are there for someone who has been overcome by noxious fumes,” said Morgan Kessler, deputy director of Public Works.

Nightmarishly, the system could well go dark while people are down in the Hellhole, since even the lift station’s electrical system is corroded and failing. Fortunately, there is a less distressed emergency generator standing by.

This person then has the unenviable task of dismantling the cantankerous old pump and extracting the sewage-soaked clog. And if parts are needed, good luck – they don’t make them any more. “A modern pump wouldn’t quit with these things,” Kessler said.

Apart from the discomfort and danger to City workers, the elderly pumps present a huge financial risk to the City. Given the wretched state of affairs there, it’s not likely that the jury-rigged contraption will make it through another wet season. That’s because stormwater gets into sewer pipes during the winter, massively increasing the volume of water that runs through the system.

Were the pump station to go out of action, emergency pumps would have to be installed to bypass it and push the sewage out to the wastewater treatment facilities at the Marsh. That, in turn, would present a whole new and costly slew of complications in terms of cost, reliability and person power.

Worst case, sewage would leak into Humboldt Bay. That would surely trigger huge fines from water quality regulators. City officials believe that they still, to this day, hold institutional resentment against Arcata for not building a conventional wastewater treatment plant back in the 1970s, and are spring-loaded to pounce on Arcata for the slightest violation of discharge regulations.

“It’s nasty, and it’s long overdue,” said City Manager Randy Mendosa of the Samoa Lift Station and its rehab. That’s going to involve a $567,000 replacement project to fix. The contract was originally awarded by the City Council July 21, and revisited by the council last week to address an error in the way funds are distributed for equipment acquisition and installation costs. There was no change in the price tag.

Humboldt State University, which has purchased and is soon to convert the nearby Industrial Electric Building into a new Plant Operations facility, donated land for the new pump station. The new station and the newly refurbished Plant Ops building will be given similar outside appearance as well.

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