Sometimes as a journalist you hobnob with politicians, rub elbows with high-profile athletes or musicians or chase down that next breaking story.
And then sometimes you get sent to the sewer plant. It is just the assignment I had last month when the city announced the upgrades were nearly complete to the much more amiable sounding Advanced Wastewater Treatment Plant. Just as Mike Rowe of the show Dirty Jobs put it, I got assigned to write a story on “what separates polite society and your poo.”
In the comfort of the main building, our mayor joked that perhaps the new treatment plant upgrades came just in time for the election. Funny joke, but alas, that was where the laughs ended. Because along with my assignment to write a story, I also had to come up with a photo — meaning I had to go out to the buildings where once you flush your toilet you don’t want to think about.
I, along with another member of the media, was taken by a couple of the employees to set up a photo around some of the new technology. On the walk over I had something set in my mind for the photo of a person pushing buttons, oh gullible me. We were taken into the headworks building and I instantly was hit with an unpleasant aroma and my face turned into one of disgust. My media friend suggested to the employee “let’s not have this too explicit.”
Explicit? I thought. Between the employee’s smirks and their noses seemingly immune to the aroma, I knew this wasn’t going to be good. I mustered up the strength to go in, making sure my free hand was balled up into a fist in order not to touch anything and my other tightly gripping my camera. It was for good reason too. I’ll save you from the gory details, but the sludge this employee showed us that the new machine filters out wasn’t pleasant.
Already grossed out by this horrifying picture-taking adventure and anxiety kicking in on touching anything, I had visions of the sludge particles jumping towards me. So by the time I noticed the operator flip open the lid to the filtering machine, everything seemed in slow motion.
Now, in my mind things were flying out of the machine towards him and on their way towards me. When I screamed and waved my hands in the air like I was doing the dog-paddle, it seemed like a very valid response. As my hands slowly came to a rolling stop in front of me, and my brain caught up with reality, I realized everyone was looking at me and maybe I had overreacted a little.
I was so flustered by the experience that on my drive to the next assignment this reporter, who was born and raised in Penticton, almost drove up the wrong way on a one-way street. I came back to the office telling my editor I think I have post-traumatic stress disorder and I never will cover another sewer announcement, only to remember that the next day there was one in Okanagan Falls. Thankfully, that one hasn’t been built yet.
I have since recovered from this not so glamorous event and have grown to truly appreciate what our wastewater treatment plant employees do for us. These employees treat, on average, 13 million litres of wastewater a day.
Sometimes we forget what to be thankful for, so next time you flush, think about the people who are taking care of that for you. I, for one, salute them. Because as the saying goes, it’s a dirty job, but somebody has to do it.
Kristi Patton is a reporter with the Penticton Western News.