Chris Matthews kneels by the tank lid of the lift station that PRWID operates in Carbonville. Matthews has to deal with the things local residents put down the drains in many areas of Carbon County,
The tank at the lift station in Carbonville is controlled by electronic instrumentation. The equipment located in a control building. The building has had a great deal of vandalism to it in the past.
It all may seem simple to local residents.
Water from the tap goes down the drain, flows into a pipe in the street. The waste liquid then flows into bigger pipes farther down the line to the water treatment plant in Wellington.
Yet the path it takes to get to the treatment plant can be difficult and trying for the people who operate the sewage collection system in the county.
The Price River Water Improvement District was formed in the early 1960s primarily as a sewage treatment entity.
Water supply issues came as an afterthought.
The point of PRWID at its formation was to get to an organized system of collection and treatment to not only meet federal regulations on what was being released into the Price River drainage, but protect the health of local residents.
Hence, outhouses and septic tanks in many areas of the county disappeared and a new piece of infrastructure was born.
Today, the system contains 83 miles of sewer line, three lift (pump) stations, five siphons, 1,441 manholes and one recreational vehicle dump.
Basically, a sewage collection system consists of pipes with three different purposes.
The lateral lines are the pipes that run from a home or a business to what is called the main line that is usually buried somewhere beneath the street that runs adjacent to the building it is serving.
Laterals are the responsibility of the landowner; they own the line until it reaches the main line in the street and that is where PRWID's responsibility begins.
The mains that collect from buildings eventually end up at a large trunk line that takes the sewage to the water treatment plant in Wellington.
However, it's not all free flow right to the plant.
"We have a lot of various kinds of stations in the system that help with the flow," said Clay Wright, supervisor of maintenance at PRWID. "Presently we have three lift stations and four five siphons. The flow can be impeded by any number of factors, including what people put down their drains."
That's where Chris Matthews comes in. Matthews is the collection system operator and he has some interesting tales to tell about the underground system that takes away the stuff from showers, sinks and toilets in western and central Carbon County.
"It's amazing the things we find in the sewer lines and at places such as the lift stations," he said as he bent over one of the lift station tanks in Carbonville.
Matthews has found everything from a full sized bath towel plugging a pipe to ice bags full of surgical gloves crammed into collector lines.
"I even foun a pair of coveralls in a line one time," he said.
Many people seem to think the sewer is a garbage dump that can take anything. But the system that handles sewage is much more prone to damage and problems than people think.
"What people put down their drains really affects the way we have to do maintenance," said Matthews. "Garbage disposals actually cause us a lot of problems. While people think that ground up carrot and potato peelings are fine when they go down the drain, they aren't. Those along with grease and egg shells create many problems in various places in lines because they are heavy and settle to the bottom."
Grease from restaurant and garage businesses is generally well controlled. Traps are installed outside of businesses generating that type of waste to catch the grease and keep the material from going down the sewer system.
However, some houses also generate a lot of grease.
"We were getting a lot of grease out of this one area and we sent a camera up the line find out where it was coming from," said Matthews. "We found a lateral that came out of a house that was just oozing with grease so we approached the people about it. We just tried to educate them as to how grease affects our system. However, they denied that it was coming from their house even though we had the video tape to show it."
But the use of the lines for disposal, even inappropriate use, pales in comparison to the vandalism that occurs when people invade the spaces only meant for PRWID personnel.
Sometimes it occurs by kids pulling up manhole covers and dumping logs, rocks, dirt, toys and once even a shopping cart down into the hole.
The debris and discarded items can cause backups of the sewer system before it is discovered.
But some of it is vandalism directed at facilities. For instance the lift station in Carbonville has been the target of various kinds of vandalism over the years, so much so that the control building at the station has been reinforced like a bank vault to keep people out.
The building has a double door. One is a regular steel door with a knob lock and a heavy duty hasp with a lock. The second is a quarter inch steel plate door with a heavy duty lock over it.
This has had to be done to protect electronic control equipment to keep the lift station operating properly to serve the people of the Gordon Creek area.
"We have seen the fence pulled down around this building by four wheelers and the ventilation system to keep the electronics cool during the summer knocked off the roof," stated Matthews as he pointed to the building. "All we can do is to try and secure it more."
But if vandalism and poor judgment by consumers using the sewer system are not enough, the original part of the district's infrastructure installed more than 45 years ago is now beginning to deteriorate.
And there are some parts of the system that are even older than 45 years.
"We have all kinds of pipes in our system," said Wright. "We have clay pipes, the old orange composite pipe, concrete and of course plastic. Some of the oldest stuff is deteriorating and the concrete is starting to have problems in some places, too."
The problem is that nothing lasts forever, particularly heavily used infrastructure. Hydrogen sulfide gases created by sewage attacks concrete and after almost 50 years of operation, some of it is nearing the end of its life.
Besides the deteriorating structures, some lines also have inherent problems. Low areas in four places in the county require cleaning out with the vacuum truck at least quarterly, and sometimes that operation in those areas takes days.
But the low places aren't the only ones that need attention with that piece of equipment.
"National recommendations are that we clean out the entire system at least every three years," said Matthews. "We are trying to do a third of our collection system every year, but it is hard to get that done with all we have to do."
Emergencies are also a big problem. Those happen when a line backs up because a pump station fails, someone puts something down a drain that clogs up an entire section of the system or when huge rainstorms hit. Contrary to what many people believe, sanitary sewer lines are not the same as storm sewers, yet water from storms do get into the lines and cause huge problems.
"Part of our job is to be sure all those manholes are sealed properly to keep out rain water," stated Matthews. "When a road is repaved we need to raise the manholes so the water doesn't go in them. They also sometimes get hit by snowplows and that can make them susceptible to water getting in them. And sometimes during construction projects, manholes get buried. Doing those things take a lot of our time."
With more than 1,400 manholes, doing that is a big job. Matthews has only one person to help him full-time unless there is an emergency.
On top of all the collection system management, Matthews is also the meter reader for the water system. He takes care of the notices and shut offs for people who haven't paid their water bills.
All this adds up to a big job, the one of getting the sewage from the county to the wastewater treatment plant in Wellington, where the flow of culinary water from the mountains above halts momentarily before it is put back into the Price River drainage.