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The afterlife of your bath water.

Waste Not, Want Not

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Let's follow wastewater.

Somebody flushes a toilet, somebody tosses a banana peel into the sewer, the local chemical plant dumps waste down the drain (chemicals get dumped down the drain every day, and it's no big deal!).

Then all of this washes down our 75- to 150-year-old underground sewage system to the same holding tank at the Richmond Wastewater Treatment Plant. Style went to visit.

The plant doesn't smell bad and it isn't scary. It's not rat- and alligator-infested. Workers don't wear protective biosuits. You never walk past the slimy bones of a visitor who didn't make it back. It's kind of depressing, but in that boring, safety-goggles sort of way. Much of the process takes place underground, explain our guides, including Clair Watson, superintendent of operations.

The first — and only, really — gross stage takes place in a dredging pit. An automated machine sifts through the murky brown glop here as we look over the railing. It's the only part of the plant that could make you sick, at least if you peered over too long taking deep breaths of the vapors. No one's fallen in here during Watson's tenure (I asked), but they did pull out a dead deer once. The cranes pull out more mundane stuff every day, including clothing, tires and beer cans. Many, many beer cans.

Next comes most of the underground process. Pipes and sifting. Sifting and pipes.

When we get the main pump-station, an elevated perch where the whole process can be observed, I look for a whirring central nervous system where high-tech equipment bleeps and whistles as crack professionals in white lab coats, red-eyed and heavily caffeinated, carefully monitor the entire process.

Nope. It's really just a windowless, gray room with one big computer on autopilot, a humming air conditioner and a guy half asleep in front of his PC. I'm starting to get bored as we walk across another empty field.

What else can we find? "We can testify that there's a lot of people in Richmond having safe sex," Watson says as we get to the settling tanks, where all the smaller solids are finally removed and taken to the landfill. This is the last stop for candy wrappers and tampons. "Lots of rubber products," he says.

The wastewater goes back underground for more pipes and sifting, plus a little chlorinating and dechlorinating. All the sludge has been removed. Only they don't call it sludge anymore. Now the term is biosolids, which sounds worse if you ask me.

The end result is clean water, amazingly crystal-clear clean water. "I'd feel better taking my clothes off and jumping in the final product than in the James River," Watson says.

Once minerals and oxygen are put back, they dump the water back into the James to be drunk by fish and people downstream. All those biosolids (no longer stinky at all!) end up in a black pile that looks like rich soil. It's waiting to be carted off in dump trucks to fertilize farms in Amelia County.

Yep, it's great fertilizer. But don't worry: "It doesn't fertilize the food we eat," Watson says as he squeezes a clod through his fingers. "It fertilizes the food they feed the cows we eat."

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