Terry O'Brien had the map of Ireland on his face—I always thought he bore a resemblance to Rich Daley, though with a lineage of service to the city that goes back even further: both his father and grandfather worked for the water department, and he rose to be president of the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago, where he served for 16 years and I would sometimes bump into him, in always cordial and informative encounters. So I was sorry to hear he passed away this week at the too-early age of 64. He and I had a mutual friend, the great Ed McElroy, publicist for the MWRD. Ed made sure that our paths crossed from time to time, so it was not accidental. And out of deference to Ed, I would try to find something to highlight. I particularly remember when O'Brien ran for Cook County Board president in 2010, I met with him, an awkward conversation—he was not a natural politician, which speaks to the quality of the man. But I just couldn't find a way to write anything about him, which perhaps speaks to mine. I had better luck when there was infrastructure around to add interest. Though even then, the subject matter could prove a challenge, as this chestnut demonstrates. And yes, I meant the headline as a kind of pun.
ANNALS OF THE LOWER WORLDAfter you have made your deposit, so to speak, after you have performed the final step in the alimentary process, to use a fancy term, after you have completed the necessary paperwork, to be coy, and flushed, to be blunt, the end result, no pun intended, is shot by a gallon or so of water into the secret netherworld of pipes criss-crossing beneath Chicago.
There, it joins similar contributions from each and every Chicagoan. The gallons add up quickly—to give you an idea how quickly, the pipe carrying this material is about 21/2 inches wide when it leaves your house, but 13 feet in diameter when it reaches the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District's Stickney plant.
Stickney is not only the largest of the seven wastewater treatment plants in the Chicago area, it is the largest such facility on earth, serving 2.38 million people in a 260-square-mile area including Chicago and 43 suburbs.
I have an affinity for matters infrastructural, for pipes and conduits and the overlooked underpinnings that make a great city work. I'd like to tell you that it was my idea to hie out to Stickney and watch the sewage flow in, but it wasn't. They invited me, though I happily blocked out a day because, really, how often does one get the chance to stand on a metal walkway 40 feet above the dark gray River Styx of sewage as it begins its transformation back into clean water?
"The scum rises to the top," said Reed Dring, an engineer explaining the complex process of screening, settling and treating the waste.
"As it usually does," I said, before I realized that I was sitting next to the reclamation district's able president, Terry O'Brien. I flashed him an apologetic smile and quickly added, "Present company excluded."
About 800 million gallons come into the plant every day on average—since the storm sewers are also connected, that number spikes up when it rains.
What you dump down the drain does have an effect on water quality—the reclamation district has been trying to keep Chicagoans from flushing old prescription drugs down the toilet, because their complex compounds resist being removed and build up in the water.
Industrial polluters can really foul up the works, the most extreme case being in 1989, when the P & H Plating Company on West Belmont poured 4,000 gallons of cyanide into the sewers. The poison killed off the bacteria used for filtering waste in the district's Skokie plant—not to mention 20,000 fish—shutting the plant down. The company's owner eventually was sent to prison.
If you want to drop a dime on anybody pouring poison into our wastewater, you can call, toll-free (800) 332-DUMP.
"We don't ask people's names," said O'Brien. Although they do take just about everything else.
— Originally published in the Sun-Times, Nov. 28, 2007