Dirty Jobs

Published 8:46 am Monday, February 18, 2008

When a toilet flushes in the City of Natchez, Renard Wimley knows about it. Maybe not immediately, but eventually he is made keenly aware that the city’s toilets are working just fine.

Wimley, along with five other crew members, man the city’s wastewater treatment facility. Day in, day out, rain or shine, they make sure the city’s brown, sludgy wastewater is clean enough to pipe into the Mississippi River.

“There are residents down river that use it as their drinking water supply,” Wimley said. “So it has to be clean.”

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The process of getting raw sewage clean enough to dump into the river is no easy task.

“When it first comes in, the sewage passes through a screen that catches most of the debris, rags and trash,” Wimley said.

This screen is where one of the dirtiest jobs at the facility takes place. Several times a day, an operator has to manually rake the screen clean and deposit the debris onto a dump truck.

James A. Williams Jr. is one of two operators at the plant and every other day it’s his job to make sure the screens are clean — or at least as clean as sewage filters can be.

“It can be pretty nasty,” Williams said. “Let’s just say I don’t wear my clothes home.”

After the sewage is initially screened, it is then pumped into a grit chamber where rocks and sand are removed. From there it passes through another screen that catches anything that wasn’t caught before. Williams and his fellow operator make sure this screen stays clean, too.

From there the sewage is piped to a holding basin where Mother Nature lends a hand in the cleaning process.

“We add diffused oxygen to the sewage to grow bacteria,” Wimley said. “The bacteria feeds on the solids and breaks them down.”

The bacteria basin is the site of another less-than-clean job. Once a day, an operator throws a jug into the basin to collect samples for testing. You can only imagine what that jug must smell like.

The wastewater is tested when it enters the facility and again when it leaves. Somewhere inside the facility, a lab technician weighs samples of sewage to give the operators the information they need to properly calibrate the facility’s pumps.

After the sewage leaves the bacteria basin, it is pumped into clarifiers that further clean the wastewater. At this point, it looks, for the most part, like water. It’s fairly clear and the distinct sewage smell is gone.

As most would imagine, the facility has a very unique odor. Wimley and Williams both said they were used to it and didn’t really smell it anymore. But without a doubt, the smell is there, and it’s everywhere.

From the clarifiers, the almost clean water is pumped into another basin where chlorine is added to kill any pathogens. Once the pathogens are killed, the chlorine is then removed before it is pumped out to the river.

On any given day, an operator could be just ankle deep in sewage or completely covered in the stuff.

“Sometimes, when we go out to check a pump, it might still have pressure in it,” Wimley said. “When you open it up and let the pressure off, it blows all over you.”

Thankfully, Williams said, the facility is equipped with what the crew calls a safety shower for just such an occasion.

“I’ve spent time in there before,” he said. “Just last week I was waste deep in sludge.”

Williams said none of that bothers him though.

“You just get used to it,” he said. “Of course, you’ve got to keep your gloves on though.”

Both Williams and Wimley said they learned the hard way that it’s better to leave their work clothes at the plant at the end of the day.

“My wife started complaining about the smell,” Williams said. “So they stay here now.”

Dirty jobs are everywhere. Some, like a sewage plant operator, are obvious. Others however, are not.

Dr. Byron Garrity has been dirty his whole life. He grew up getting dirty and now, as a veterinarian, stays that way most of the time.

From dog vomit to cow manure, Garrity has seen and smelled it all in his 25 years as a vet.

“There are a lot of very dirty, nasty jobs in this business,” he said. “Things like blood getting on me, that doesn’t bother me. But if it has a bad odor, that’s when it’s dirty to me.

“One of the worst jobs around here is expressing an impacted anal gland in a dog. That smell is horrible. If it gets on your skin, you can’t get it off. It sort of smells like a dirty, wet dog but much stronger.”

When the impacted gland is released, it can spray across the room, Garrity said.

“A lot of vets wear face shields with this procedure, but I don’t,” he said. “No guts, no glory.”

Without a doubt, the dirtiest, smelliest job is helping a cow deliver a calf that has been dead for a few days, Garrity said.

“That smell can be 10 times as bad as the anal gland procedure,” he said. “I once took a bath in Clorox water to try to get that smell off of me.”

Sick horses, vomiting dogs, cows with diarrhea — Garrity rattled off several dirty, horrific jobs he deals with on a daily basis. Apparently, in the vet business, it just comes with the territory. Garrity even helps out with the kennel cleaning, which can be as dirty as any job anywhere.

“All of these dirty things really don’t bother me,” he said. “Staying clean wasn’t a priority of mine when it came to choosing a career.”

In spite of the dirt, or maybe because of it, Garrity seems to love what he does. He has an obvious passion for helping animals, no matter how dirty or smelly.

“Animals have a special place in our lives,” he said. “I like figuring out why an animal is hurting and how to help it. Being a vet is really a desire to help people as much as it is to help animals.”

Garrity said he has no plans of leaving his dirty vocation any time soon.

“I plan on doing this job as long as I can,” he said. “I don’t plan on quitting until I’m at least 75.”

By that time, who knows how dirty he will be.