Sewer workers find quirky treasures in the muck

JOHNSTOWN – You wouldn’t believe the variety of “stuff” that flows through the Gloversville-Johnstown sewer system and ends up at the Wastewater Treatment Facility, workers there say.

Officials say they wish residential sewer customers would stop flushing inappropriate items down their toilets. Solid objects sent down toilets an dropped into storm drains ultimately find their way to the sewer plant, along with the normal raw sewage that ends up getting processed at the Screening Building for eventual final treatment.

Even big objects such as baseball bats, pieces of lumber and large articles of clothing – not things easily flushed down a toilet -seem to find their way to the sewer plant.

“We’re not quite sure how it gets here,” plant consultant George Bevington says of the larger items.

With an average of 5 million gallons per day of wastewater flowing into the sewer plant from the two cities, sometimes as high as 30 million gallons per day, certain household items inevitably get mixed in with regular household waste.

“It has one place to go,” Bevington said. It makes for some interesting conversation down at the sewer plant on Union Avenue.

Although it happens all the time, the sewer plant encourages the public not to purposefully flush any items down toilets or place them into sewer drains, including pharmaceuticals.

The sewer plant has a collection of items found amongst the grit, gravel, sand and sewage processed at the facility’s aromatic Screening Building. Sewer workers have long dubbed their collection of oddities the “Wastewater Gift Shop.”

Bevington kids that most tours for school children end with a stop at the gift shop, but they always start with one at the sewer plant.

This past week, items on display included two sets of dentures, keys from a motel in Caroga Lake, rings, eyeglasses, a Burger King bobblehead, a medal, several toy figurines, a framed photo, a pacifier and something that looked like purple Mardi Gras beads.

The plant staff eventually tosses older items in the garbage, they have a steady influx of new curiosities for the “gift shop.”

Facility operators Bill Ratajczak and Tom Ambrosino – with nearly 50 years experience between them – say even animals such as dead birds and snakes end up in the wastestream.

“Sometimes we find money,” Ratajczak said.

Ambrosino said the sewer plant is meant to treat wastewater, not “toys and golf balls.”

The workers manually rake waste over large screens, and they have uncovered dangerous items over the years- syringes, even gasoline that someone dumped into the sewer system.

“This entire process could be explosive,” Bevington said.

People occasionally contact the sewer plant and want the staff to look for a valuable item, such as a piece of jewelry that got flushed down the toilet or dropped down a sewer main. Most of the time, that effort isn’t too successful.

“This isn’t a lost and found,” Bevington said. “Very few of the items we can actively recover. We’re not good at [finding] this stuff.”

Every item discovered at the sewer plant probably has a story behind it, but most remain mysteries.

Bevington said a little boy came to the sewer plant with his grandfather, and they wanted to know if sewer workers found the boy’s Harold the Helicopter from the “Thomas the Tank Engine and Friends” TV series. The toy accidentally took a nosedive into the swirling waters of the family toilet.

“We’re still looking for it,” Bevington said.

Bevington and his staff showed off the screening process and explained how caked-up deposits in the wastestream quickly accumulate into piles every minute of the day. Inside those piles can be anything; for example, he displayed kernels of corn and pieces of gum coming through on Wednesday.

Raw sewage enters the plant at the Screening Building via a 42-inch-diameter gravity sewer. A trash rack and three mechanically cleaned bar screens remove large solids, half-inch or bigger items. The flow then passes through the grit channels adjacent to the Screening Building. Heavy inert solids such as sand, stones and grit are removed from the grit channels by mechanical collectors and pumped to cyclone degritters and grit washers located within the building.

“There’s always little grit pieces coming through,” Bevington said.

Fortunately, the waste stream isn’t as clogged as it used to be with byproducts from a bygone era.

Bevington said the sewer plant is seeing less of the leftovers of the old leather industry that made this area so famous.

He said 30 years ago it wasn’t uncommon for entire cowhides to enter the wastestream, eventually reaching their final destination – the Glove Cities sewer plant.

Michael Anich can be reached at