Wastewater Treatment: It Can Be a Crappy Job

Bolzano peeks inside one of the dumpsters where large debris like human feces and toilet paper reside. Photo by Kristen Bates.

By Kristen Bates

Sitting in the main office at Ward Street Headworks, Tony Bolzano studies the screen in front of him. It’s an outline of the pump and channel system used to filter wastewater coming in. He has an almost empty cup of coffee next to him and an intense gaze. It’s going to rain and Bolzano needs to prepare the facility for the increase in large debris and wastewater.

“So, the flow’s coming in and it’s up to 67 million gallons of water,” says Bolzano pointing at a computer screen, “and when it rains, it can max out to about 270 million [gallons].”

In a contest for who has the crappiest job, Tony Bolzano might just win. He’s been in the wastewater business for 34 years. That means he’s been dealing with all of Boston’s crap for over three decades.

Tony Bolzano at his desk checking the flow of wastewater through the channels at the Ward Street facility. Photo by Kristen Bates.

Ward Street Headworks is nestled between the dormitories at the Massachusetts College of Art and Design in the city of Boston. It looks like a small run of the mill facility on the outside, but it is responsible for filtering wastewater of 43 counties in the surrounding area.

The gallons of water Bolzano has to watch are controlled by channels. Ward Street has four channels that wastewater goes through during the day. If it rains, all four channels can be open to moderate the flow. Bolzano has the job of making sure the facility doesn’t overflow with wastewater.

On top of moderating the wastewater flow, Bolzano orders the chemicals that treats the wastewater and has to keep up with the technology used that makes Ward Street functional. Bolzano says that he has to act like the owner of Ward Street and know everything going on in the facility.

“I have to clean the bathrooms, I empty the fuckin’ rubbish,” said Bolzano. “I do everything in this facility.”

Bolzano usually runs the facility by himself but, since they are preparing for a rain event, there are three other operators at the site to monitor the channels. “I’m like the chief over here,” laughed Bolzano.

Some of the “debris” sifted out of the wastewater. Photo by Kristen Bates.

Charlie Ryan, Manager of Wastewater Operations, says that he is surrounded by some of the smartest people at these wastewater treatment facilities. He’s waiting outside of the facility with a fresh haircut and a smile on his face saying not to worry about the flashing white lights that are going off right now.

Ryan makes sure that all three facilities that clean Boston’s water is functioning properly. Ward Street’s facility has the task of sifting through large debris in wastewater before the water gets shipped in a tunnel underneath the Boston Harbor to the facility on Deer Island. Once the wastewater is on Deer Island, it’s treated with chemicals and processed some more before it’s recycled back into the city.

Inside the Ward Street facility. Photo by Kristen Bates.

Before wastewater treatment plants like the Wart Street facility, the Boston Harbor was considered one of the dirtiest harbors in the country. It was so dirty that then-Vice President George H.W. Bush called it the “harbor of shame” in 1988 during his presidential campaign. With the help of the Massachusetts Water Resource Authority (MWRA) and the Clean Water Act, the Boston Harbor cleaned up its act. According to the MWRA’s annual progress report from 2015, about 93 percent of Boston’s wastewater is treated before it returns to the water.

“A lot of people think wastewater operations is, you know, ‘flush your toilet and it goes away’,” said Ryan. “There’s a lot of technology in wastewater operations.”

There’s a lot of grunt work too. Since the facility is preparing for rain, Bolzano has to double the amount of times he rakes through large debris and cleans out the sifters. So, he makes sure his boot laces are tied tight and grabs a pair of gloves before making his first rounds of the morning.

Bolzano peeks inside one of the dumpsters where large debris like human feces and toilet paper reside. Photo by Kristen Bates.

Bolzano’s first stop is to check the two large dumpsters that are holding the large debris taken from the wastewater. He grabs a flashlight and climbs the steps next to one of the dumpsters before opening a small hatch and peering inside. The steam rising from the large piles of human feces at the bottom of the dumpster makes the inside feel like a sauna. This dumpster is about 25 percent full and the pipes that guide the large debris are free of clogs.

“If these pipes clog or get damaged, the waste won’t make it into the dumpster,” said Bolzano. “Then we will have a different problem to worry about.”

The smell is overwhelming and the heat makes it worse.

Bolzano checks the next dumpster and sees that it’s almost halfway full. Once it’s at maximum capacity, a garbage truck will collect it and replace the dumpster with an empty one. With two dumpsters of human feces sitting in the facility, the smell is so bad that there are large pink air-freshner disks hung all around the place. Bolzano says they do little to stomp out the stench.

However, the stench doesn’t reach past the front doors of the facility. The outside smells like freshly baked cookies with a hint of vanilla.

Ryan says the smell comes from a system inside of the facility that pumps out good scents so the college students walking to class won’t smell what’s going on in the facility. “We don’t want to be bad neighbors,” said Ryan.

After Bolzano inspects the dumpsters, he goes to the lower level of the facility where the process of sifting through wastewater is done. There are two large bins where large debris like toilet paper and feces has built up. Bolzano grabs a rake and begins to move this debris into a small pump where it will shoot through pipes and land into one of the large dumpsters on the floor above. Once he gets the debris close to the pump, he uses a wooden rod to shove as much of it into the pump as possible.

Bolzano heads back to the upper level so he can check the readings on the open channels. He tests out the generator just in case a power outage happens. Outside of the facility, dark rain clouds loom above before rain drops start to hit the window of his office. It’s raining.

Despite the repetitive tasks of dealing with poop and wastewater all day, Bolzano loves his job. He’s been working in the wastewater industry for 34 years and plans to retire after two more years.

“When I retire I want to coach little league baseball,” said Bolzano.