Smith packs us back in his pickup and we drive to a parking lot and a box truck with a picture of a fish on it. The three guys in the truck are going to TV a pipe: Mike is preparing the camera and the screens in the back of the truck while Wayne and someone who introduces himself only as "the Rev" open the manhole, popping the cover off easily with a metal hook. Wayne and the Rev then retrieve the camera from the truck. With six tiny rubber wheels and an inquisitive single eye, it looks a bit like the Mars rover vehicle, only tiny and dangling at the end of a wire. When they come back to the manhole Wayne and the Rev are shocked to find it suddenly filled with sewage. This kind of backup indicates a block in the 6-inch pipe at the bottom of the manhole, though it drains away as fast as it backed up.
A few moments of observation shows two things: The backup comes and goes rhythmically, meaning there's a pump station upstream that sends a pulse of wastewater every couple of minutes, and the blockage is a bunch of pieces of some solid substance that nobody can identify. Out come spoons--hooked, perforated shovels on the end of 12-foot handles. Wayne, Robert Smith, and Eddie, another supervisor who has arrived, take turns scooping, pushing things back and forth between rushes from the pump and pulling them out with an awkward hand-over-hand motion that keeps the gunk barely balanced on the edge of the spoon unless you knock the handle against an overhanging tree branch. It's like using an iced-tea spoon to fish olive pits out of a bleach jug at the back of a cupboard. "And people think it's Ty-D-Bol that keeps their bathrooms clean," Wayne says.
The stuff turns out to be congealed grease, and pieces of it are sufficiently solid--and sufficiently far up the 6-inch pipe--that they block the progress of the camera every time the Rev dangles it down there and tries to get it running. The vacuum nozzle can clear the manhole but can't pull grease out of the pipe and it resists everything else they've got, so the crew finally gives up on TV-ing that pipe for the day, until they can clean the pipe--possibly by using a bucket truck (which feeds a cable past the debris and drags a bucket from one manhole to the next, pulling before it the kind of grit and large debris flushing just doesn't get) or possibly by sending someone down there in the hope that a simple scoop into the pipe will clear the debris. (Sending someone down a manhole, though it's only about 8 feet deep, requires confined spaces training, extra supervision, and ventilation equipment--sewer gas contains methane and hydrogen sulfide, and it has killed workers as recently as 2008.)
Smith shows me video footage from another TV-ing expedition that shows long traverses down shiny pipes half full of dull gray water. The color makes sense--much more of it comes from your washing machine and shower than from your toilet. "First thing people say is 'Eew,'" Smith says; "they think I'm walking around in feces." But even the wastewater filling up the manhole that day smelled more like runoff than poop.
Though most blockages are caused by grease or roots, the talk naturally turns to memorable clogs, and I hear about mops, golf clubs, firewood, riprap, and even a refrigerator that have had to be pulled out of manholes. Once a carpet remnant created a block so nasty it took most of a day to clear out. If you're on call and someone calls in a spill, especially one where the overflow is making its way toward a waterway, then it's showtime. "You go running after it like it's a Russian spy," Wayne says. "You chase the spill, pulling hose, four, five, six miles." First the crew finds the end of the spill in the waterway--where the water is still clean--and sets up a block using hay bales, which both dam the flow and filter any water that might trickle through. A pump immediately starts channeling the polluted water into the nearest downstream manhole. And while a crew works on clearing the clog itself, other crews chase the spill, hosing down the sides and bottom of the stream. You can tell when untreated wastewater has hit a stream, Smith says, by the powdery-looking buildup it leaves: "It looks like gray dust in the water," coating the rocks and sticks. The hoses clear the scum off the bottom and stir up the mud. "That muddy water acts like a glue to that stuff--it piggybacks on the mud." Then you pump it out at the end of the spill. "After we go through, that creek looks like nothing ever hit it. It's pretty neat."