Sewage Collection and Treatment

Before you let the headline run you off, take note that multiple people asked us to write a short sewer primer.  And even though we wanted to write about baseball (now that our non-disclosure agreement with Minor League Baseball has expired) we decided to dedicate today’s column to sewage.

Specifically, we’re speaking of that oxymoron known as “sanitary sewer,” which is the stuff which flows through the drain in your kitchen sink (because it would be gross to talk about toilets).  So our story begins at your kitchen sink, and the sewage flows through drain pipes to a low point in your house.  From there, a service line carries the sewage out to your property line.  For most people, the service line runs downhill so no pump is necessary, but for houses which sit below street level a pump might be required.  The key point here is that inside the property line, all of the equipment is your responsibility.  If something breaks or gets clogged, you’ll have to hire a plumber to fix it.

But beyond your property line, things are our responsibility.  We operate a collection system which aggregates the sewage from all those service lines in Town.  Most of the sewage is taken down to Sandy Bottom to those two nondescript brick buildings by the mini-golf course.  Between your property line and Sandy Bottom, lots of things can go wrong.  Those darn “flushable” wipes can accumulate and form a blockage.  Turkey grease and cold temperatures combine to create plenty of blockages in late November (even though it’s illegal to put grease in your drain).  The older parts of our system are terra cotta, and tree roots can crush those pipes.  We fix all of this ourselves (though if we can identify a grease dumper, we have a chat).

Once the sewage gets to Sandy Bottom, responsibility changes again.  Those brick buildings at Sandy Bottom belong to the Harrisonburg-Rockingham Regional Sewer Authority, which treats our sewage, along with that of neighboring jurisdictions.  (If you can ever wrangle a tour of the treatment plant near Mt. Crawford, it would be well worth your time.) Sunday’s leak was in HRRSA’s pipe coming out of Sandy Bottom.  As you probably surmised, they don’t call it Sandy “Bottom” for nothing, and pumps in those brick buildings pressurize HRRSA’s line to push the sewage uphill.  So when a hole developed in that line on Sunday, the effect was like one of those oil gushers from the movies.  HRRSA doesn’t have crews capable of handling that kind of gusher, so essentially they hired a crew from Bridgewater and a crew from the City to repair it.  Thus HRRSA is responsible for the cost of the repair and the cost of the cleanup, and we will pay our share, just as we do with all HRRSA expenses.  (Our share is based on our portion of HRRSA’s total sewage, or just under six percent.)

We all wish that the leak had not occurred, but some good did come of it.  It took a while for us to get the right people on the phone, and we will be working with the County, the City, HRRSA, and other jurisdictions and utilities to build a database of 24-hour phone numbers, so we can all react more quickly in the future.  Hopefully, none of us will ever again see a large pressurized line burst, but even though this Sandy Bottom line is made of ductile iron, it is 45 years old.  And as your author’s knees can attest, things start to go bad about then. Ductile iron should last a good bit longer than that, but obviously, issues can develop. [Edit requested by HRRSA, and in fairness, ductile iron is much stronger than the author’s knees.]

We hope this primer helps explain what happened and why a bunch of strangers were doing the cleanup.  (And we will write about baseball soon.)

Note:  We describe the service lines and responsibility demarcations typical for most houses.  There are some outliers out there.

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