Friday, 7 October 2011

My trip into Hammersmith's sewers

My fellow sewer rats and I
This blog has taken me to some eye opening places in our locale, and I found myself wandering underneath Hammersmith in the sewers one afternoon a couple of weeks ago, courtesy of Thames Water. I was there to see Hammersmith's pumping station, which pumps millions of tons of poo every year, descending on W6 from an arc stretching across much of North London including Brent and Camden southwards.

That's a lot of sewage and as any regular reader of this blog will know, the system simply cannot cope. For between 50 and 60 times per year the sewage is simply released into the Thames - we were told before we descended underground that in June this year alone this had hapenned five times. It's this constant pollution of the river that has resulted in London being threatened with fines by the European Union, for example, unless it cleans up its act.

Having visited one of London's other sewers last year, this time the Fleet River in central London, I have to confess to being a bit over-confident of how I'd be able to handle the smell. The Fleet is one of the city's "lost rivers" and the sewer was built in the 1850s by Joseph Bazalgette along with most of the network, I spent most of my time admiring the brickwork which is still very much intact.

But Hammersmith was fields and farmlands in the 1850s so these sewers are just concrete caverns - and without a fast flowing underground river the sewage is sloooooow moving. I have to say I nearly gagged when the smell hit me at the bottom of what was a very deep and narrow climb down into the depths. And then the first thing you need to do is balance, because underneath your feet is what the sewermen showing us around politely referred to as "silt".

sinking feeling
The pumps themselves resemble massive bells about the size of a house which should get across the scale of what they do. When the sewage overwhelms pumping stations even of this size you are talking about 24 tons of raw untreated sewage entering the river - per second. Residents of the Bush, particularly those living on Askew Road, have also been flooded with sewage when the flow is so high it just backs up the pipes and enters properties. In Hammersmith itself that problem is even worse.

The proposed solution is the Thames Tideway Tunnel - and its own scale is also gigantic. A huge underground sewer that flows deep underneath the river and inside which you'd be able to fit two double decker buses would shift the Capital's brown stuff to Beckton in the east to be treated. But to build that, which will take years and add £65 per year to all of our bills, Thames Water need an entrance site. And therein lies the problem.

Nobody wants it in their backyard, which is hardly surprising. Our own Council has not covered itself in glory on this issue by spending lots of taxpayers cash churning out stories that they knew themselves at the time to be false. First they said that Ravenscourt Gardens was threatened, then Furnival Gardens. In fact not only did they know Furnival Gardens was not on the cards, but they now want to destroy it themselves by allowing property developers to build a bridge in it as part of a scheme on King Street that the residents don't want.

Then came the claim that the scheme would make people homeless which they made in a propaganda video - and were promptly forced to withdraw.

As a result of these cack handed tactics our Council finds itself isolated, with the Mayor of London, other riverside councils and both the last and current Government all in favour of the tunnel. It also means that the "independent" commission they have established is widely seen for what it is. I'm told by a mole that the commission will come out and say it's all too expensive and blame the European Union for threatening to levy fines.

Our Council went into propaganda overdrive when Chris Binnie, a former architect of the scheme, appeared to suggest that it had all been a terrible mistake and that really a much shorter tunnel would do. But sources at Thames Water point out that Mr Binnie has not been involved with the scheme since 2006 and in any case is suggesting that flows into the Thames are decreasing - in fact they are increasing. He also does not address how a shorter tunnel would do anything to shift the sewage that would still be released into the Thames - the problem with the river is that it is tidal - and Thames Water have a scary visual that illustrates how a brown slick simply moves up and down the river with the tide, inching its way towards the sea. And that stuff smells.

So expect the fire and fury from Hammersmith Town Hall to continue, especially when their "independent" commission launches its findings towards the end of this month.

But in the meantime spare a thought for the blokes working down the bottom of Hammersmith pumping station, who showed me some of the more bizarre things they find down there, including a plumbers pipe I saw wedged against the wall! They also regularly come across needles and other nasties while spending much of their time clearing the enourmous number of rags, nappies and of course fat that people put down the toilet, in many cases illegally.

One of the things you notice straight away about the people who work down the sewers is a very keen sense of humour - they have words for things that wouldn't find their way on to a family blog like this but are very very funny. And they don't seem to care much about who you are either -you can have as much status as you like on the surface but when your knee deep in poo in a reeking dark sewer, all of a sudden you're all pretty much the same!

Here's a couple of them talking to me in December last year about their lives, and how climate change is already affecting what they do - well worth a watch:

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