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Great Lakes Article:

Crew to begin inspection in sewage tunnels

Team searching for flaws that contribute to pollution


Milwaukeee Journal Sentinel


A 5,000-pound truck will be lowered nearly 300 feet beneath the surface today for the belated first inspection of Milwaukee's sewage storage tunnels, according to sewerage district officials.

Tom Wagner, manager of a team of private firms doing the inspection, said a five-man crew riding on the truck will videotape the entire length of the 17-mile deep-tunnel system, looking for obstructions, leaks and flaws that could contribute to the ongoing problem of dumping raw sewage and pollution of the groundwater.

Rust/Harza, an engineering firm, is heading the team that includes Super Excavators Inc., Quality Videos and Platt Construction Inc. on the $1.2 million project.

The crew plans to inspect two or three miles of tunnel a day and must be done before Feb. 28, when the rainy season begins. Heavy rains, which are not expected this week, could cause problems, but snow melt expected today will not likely be a problem, Wagner said.

The truck will be lowered into the tunnel today at S. 6th St. and W. Cleveland Ave. and brought back up each night at different locations.

Although it was supposed to virtually eliminate the need to dump untreated waste into local waterways, about 13 billion gallons has poured into Lake Michigan and its tributaries since the deep-tunnel system opened in late 1993.

Initially, the tunnels were supposed to be inspected after they filled for the first time and then once every five years. The Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District resisted making a full inspection, but, under pressure from environmentalists and regulators, officials agreed last summer to have the job done.

"Our prime concern is the condition of the air (in the tunnels)," said Wagner, who has worked on the inspection of other smaller sewers in Milwaukee.

Each man will wear protective clothing - but not a biosuit - and will have compressed air available, Wagner said. Equipment will monitor their crew's oxygen levels, and monitors on the truck will constantly check for methane, a gas that can explode, and for hydrogen sulfide, a gas that smells like rotten eggs and can kill if the concentrations are high enough.

If either of the gases is detected, the truck will back up immediately, Wagner said. The vehicle moves at 8 mph.

Three workers were killed in 1988 when methane exploded during the construction of the tunnel system.

Wagner said huge fans began venting the tunnel system 24 hours before the crew was scheduled to enter. Tunnel air is being vented at Jones Island and should not create an odor problem in the area, he said.

The eight-wheel-drive truck is more than 12 feet tall and can maneuver through 16 inches of water. Wagner said preliminary examinations had found as much as 6 inches of sludge at the lowest point in the tunnels but that is not expected to be a problem.

The crew is not equipped to fix cracks or flaws it finds, Wagner said. The entire length will be videotaped, and precise locations will be noted for later work. The vehicle does have a winch and can move some obstructions.

The system has three main segments - one running north-south along the Milwaukee River to Jones Island, one running east-west from near Miller Park to Jones Island, and the third along the Kinnickinnic River.

Bill Graffin, a spokesman for the sewerage district, said it had not been determined whether the inspection tapes would be released immediately or in April, after an analysis has been completed.

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