Underground Ugly

The latest breakdown in Cleveland's aging infrastructure turned East Ninth Street into a river. And it's only a matter of time until the next flood strikes.

The pipe died violently at the age of 110.

Without warning, it split in two, opening a wound seven feet long. Water surged out onto East Ninth Street, creating Cleveland's Great Flood of 2000. Across the city, taps ran dry or dribbled out only a trickle of water. Downtown traffic snarled, schools closed, and panicked people rushed to grocery stores, buying all the bottled water.

The situation could have been worse, except for a lucky accident. As the ground below East Ninth turned into mud and washed away, an underground Ameritech vault toppled over and crashed into an old brick sewer main, punching a big hole in it. Most of the water that poured out of the pipe went straight into the hole in the sewer, saving downtown from an even bigger flood. The water department lost 25 million gallons before it shut off the pipe; the sewage plant downstream picked up 20 million gallons of it that night.

Six weeks after the mid-January break, the broken water pipe lies in a garage at the Cleveland Division of Water's Westlake plant, waiting for forensic tests that may determine its cause of death.

The corpse is ugly: weathered and dark, caked with globs of rust, clay, and hardened dirt. Where the top of the pipe tore off, the exposed rough edges meet at the spot of greatest violence. The jagged tear looks as if it had been mangled by a giant claw.

The Westlake plant has become a morgue for dead pipes. Another set of remains rests next to the Ninth Street pipe, wrapped in plastic and marked with a sign: "Notice Evidence Do Not Destroy." Next to the garage, in view of the cars roaring by on I-90, lies a concrete pipe killed by a careless driller; exposed steel bands recoil from the puncture. One pipe has been autopsied many times, judging from the precise slices cut from its top. Someone has spray-painted "E. 12th and Superior" on it; it's the remains of another huge water main break in 1995.

"The boneyard," says a water official, gazing down at the pipes.

Talk to people who keep water and sewer flowing, and you'll hear over and over that old pipes aren't necessarily bad pipes. They may even tell you about the cast-iron pipes that fed Louis XIV's fountains at the Palace of Versailles for 330 years. But press them a little harder, and they're likely to admit: Yes, older stuff is more likely to break down. Pipe-makers of a century ago didn't have all the materials and technologies their successors use today. And the longer that cast iron or brick lies buried in the ground, the more it can decay. Cracks widen, metal corrodes, and pipes strain from internal pressure and the weight above them.

That leaves older cities like Cleveland vulnerable to unnatural disasters: a downtown flood and, more recently, a waterfall of sewage cascading down a hill and into a creek. What's more, practices that seemed like a good idea a century ago, like mixing wastewater and storm water in the same pipes, cause big problems today, when the pipes overflow after storms and push untreated waste into Lake Erie.

Forensic Evidence

Water main breaks are as unpredictable as earthquakes. The city never knows when the next big one will strike.

"I broke a blood vessel in my hand. There's a bruise there," says Water Commissioner Julius Ciaccia. "How the hell would a doctor have ever predicted that blood vessel was going to break? Same thing with the distribution system. You've got 5,000 miles of pipe out there."

Like the constant tremors on a fault, small pipes are always snapping. Three to four water mains break every day in the Cleveland water system, which stretches through almost all of Cuyahoga County and beyond. The number goes up to 10 or 15 during cold snaps.

The problem is hardly unique to Cleveland. Three weeks after the Ninth Street break, a water main break in downtown Chicago opened up a 20-foot-wide sinkhole and shut down elevated train service. Cleveland has been averaging about one large-scale break a year, says Ciaccia, though nothing had happened for a while before the January break.

"Every now and then, I'd even say it out loud, and my staff would cringe: "Man, it's been a couple years since we've had a big break.'"

A lot of factors can cause a main to burst: age and structural weakness, sudden spikes in pressure, drilling and digging, and the freeze and thaw cycle. Stray electrical current, rock salt, and some soils can corrode iron and steel mains. And pipes are hard to inspect, since they're underground and filled with pressure.

"To actually go down there and decide this particular main is showing signs of fatigue -- there's no tool yet in order to do that, at least no proven tool that we know of," says Ciaccia, who chairs a national waterworks organization that's trying to develop new technologies to find weak pipes before they snap. But until new tools are ready, he says, the only options are to study pipes' break histories and test broken mains.

The city has hired Phil McGrath, a 50-year veteran of the pipe-making industry, to conduct forensic tests on the East Ninth Street main. "As of this time, I've only been there once and looked at the corpus delicti, if you will," says McGrath from his home in Birmingham, Alabama. Since he hasn't conducted the autopsy yet, the pipe coroner gets a bit testy when he's asked what the exam will tell him. For now, he'll say only that he didn't see much external corrosion on the dead pipe, no gouges eaten out of it that would have weakened it.

Soon, a foot-long sample will be sheared off the pipe. McGrath will test the cast iron's strength by using a machine to pull it apart, and he may run chemical tests to judge the quality of the iron. He may also examine the fatal wound, photographing the walls of the pipe through a microscope. But McGrath isn't sure he'll be able to determine why the pipe fractured. "If the evidence is there and it's conclusive, you can do that. There are times when you can't," he says.

Right after the Ninth Street pipe burst, city officials said it dated from 1913; later, they discovered it was actually laid in the ground in 1890. Most of downtown's mains were built between the 1890s and 1920s; the oldest water pipes under Cleveland date from the 1870s, most of them under the Flats and the near East Side. The inevitable question is, if the water mains are so old, why hasn't the city replaced them?

The answer: Replacing all of the 13 miles of trunk mains downtown would cost the city $48 million. By comparison, repairing the Ninth Street break cost the city a half-million dollars. A complete overhaul would wreak a lot more havoc than a couple days of flooding. "If we go out and replace mains just because they're old, well, then, we're going to be driving a lot of people out of business, because we're going to be there for months and months," says Ciaccia.

The city does a few things to keep its pipe network in good shape. To prevent stray electrical current from corroding pipes, it installs current-absorbing magnesium bars on many of its trunk mains. It also spends $6 million a year to improve its pipe network. Some of that goes to replacing old mains that have a history of breaking or are too small for the streets they serve. But most of it's used to clean and line old pipes.

Rust can clog old, unlined iron mains like cholesterol clogs arteries. A pipe that delivered 1,000 gallons of water a minute before it rusted may carry as few as 300 gallons a minute afterward. The water division scrapes rust out of 20 miles of pipes annually, then adds sand and mortar linings to them. The fire department guides the water crews to trouble spots by testing flow from fire hydrants. Most of the trunk mains have been relined, but only about 25 percent of the smaller mains have gotten the treatment. At the current pace, it would take decades to get to them all.

City Councilman Michael O'Malley, head of council's Public Utilities Committee, asks whether the program should be sped up. "I think we've got to look into whether we're investing enough money into relining pipes," he says. New money would have to come from elsewhere in the water division fund, O'Malley says.

But Water Commissioner Ciaccia says that, for now, the water division's first priority is to make improvements to the city's aging water treatment plants. Taking money from plant improvements to reline pipes would "be like skipping heart surgery to do surgery on varicose veins when you've got a failing heart," he says.

Rusting and Crumbling

On a hill just south of University Circle, a huge, dark brick building rises several stories high. Its double set of stairs, set off by dramatic railings, climb from the parking lot. Built on a grand scale in a neoclassical Palladian style, the building suggests some monumental purpose; its imposing wings stretch for hundreds of feet on each side.

The Baldwin Water Treatment Plant opened in 1925 to pump clean water to Greater Cleveland's rapidly expanding East Side, the final step in the city's heroic effort to keep its citizens safe from typhoid fever and cholera. Water flows into the plant through 10 miles of tunnels that start at an artificial island in Lake Erie known as the Five Mile Crib. A hundred years ago, 38 people died digging the tunnel and building the crib -- most of them victims of underground gas explosions -- so that Cleveland residents could drink cleaner offshore lake water instead of the sewer-polluted water at the shore. When the Baldwin plant opened, the whole city had clean, filtered drinking water for the first time.

Today, the Baldwin plant operates almost unchanged from when it opened 75 years ago, except that it's rusting and crumbling.

Step through the two-story-tall entrance, and the antiseptic scent of chlorine strikes you right away, emanating from the building's 40 filtering pools. In the massive 400-foot-long wings of the building, the pools sit in long rows, full of water that slowly seeps down through layers of coal particles and sand that catch dust and dirt.

In front of each pool stands an ancient-looking console topped with cranks and giant gauges. The gauges no longer work, but the cranks are still in use; behind thin double doors in the base of the console, pulley lines dangle from the cranks, through the floor, to the filter's controls. Radiators hang on the wall nearby, completely browned with rust. Rows of windows illuminate a ceiling far above the filter gallery's central corridor. But the filter pools, on each side, are covered by low-lying concrete ceilings, leaving them in shadow.

"We've done samples of those roofs. They're in bad shape," says Ciaccia. The department tried to put a chunk of the concrete ceiling through a compression test to gauge its strength; the concrete crumbled before they could run the test. Water officials are worried the roofs could eventually fail and cave in.

From the filter gallery, a side door leads to a decaying, dungeonlike hallway, hundreds of feet long, whose white walls are marked with brown spots. Windows look out on a barren plain pocked with manhole covers -- which lead down to one of the world's largest underground reservoirs, 1,000 feet wide and 500 feet long.

The hallway ends at the chemical building, where Lake Erie water flows in. Here, carbon is sprayed into the water to improve its taste and odor. Alum is added, too, and once it's thoroughly mixed in at a hydraulic jump flume -- where the water speeds down a narrowing ramp, then tumbles and froths at the bottom -- the alum grabs hold of the solid particles in the water, forming dough-like clumps that are culled out downstream.

The Baldwin plant still does the job of purifying Clevelanders' water. But the concrete under the hydraulic flume, too, is decaying.

"Years of no capital investment have taken [their] toll," says Ciaccia. For most of the 1960s and '70s, the water division spent only $2 million to $3 million a year on capital improvements, because city leaders were afraid to raise water rates, says Ciaccia. The water division's four treatment plants deteriorated, and the pipe network didn't keep up with the Cleveland area's growth. In the mid-1970s, many of Cleveland's suburbs, which depend on the city for water, sued to try to take control of the system.

"I can remember standing in the middle of North Royalton on a hot summer day, and people were out of water," says Ciaccia, who joined the water division in 1979. "We just could not deliver the water out to a number of these communities. They had been allowed to expand beyond our ability to supply water to them."

But city leaders resolved to hold onto the water division. In 1981, the city settled the lawsuit, agreeing to expand the water network in the suburbs. The water division floated $375 million in bonds throughout the 1980s and installed three-foot-thick supply mains that stretched southwest as far as North Royalton and Brunswick, and southeast as far as Twinsburg and Solon.

The city's current leaders are more supportive of the water division than were their predecessors. Since 1987, the water division has spent about $50 million a year on capital improvements. Much of that has gone to the water plants.

More than $110 million was spent on the Garrett Morgan plant on the near West Side. Twenty years ago, workers needed to wear hip boots to walk through the plant's basement, which had no drains and had flooded from leaking pipes. The renovations replaced the plant's 1910s technology, fixed its basement, and bolstered its once-shaky foundation.

Recently, the Crown Water Plant in Westlake was totally computerized; one plant worker operates the entire plant from a control room computer. Ten thousand sensors and instruments monitor the water's cleanliness and flow. While workers at other plants have to go around and read gauges every hour or two, Crown's computers notice any unusual readings within minutes.

The water division plans to spend $180 million on Baldwin in the next 10 years, fixing the roof of the filter galleries, deepening the filters in one gallery to double its capacity, then constructing a new chemical building in what is now the other filter gallery. By 2010, the four plants will be adding sodium hypochlorite to the water instead of chlorine, which is hazardous if large amounts of it are spilled. Baldwin and the other two plants will also get the same computer technology now installed at Crown.

"Spaghetti Underground"

On a Monday morning in February, a few weeks after the East Ninth Street water main break, a three-foot-wide, one-foot-deep sinkhole opened up in the same intersection -- probably a cave-in caused by the flood. Water division workers tore open the ground to search for the cause; soon the hole sprawled across two lanes of East Ninth and blocked most of Rockwell Avenue. Police in orange vests waved traffic past the missing piece of road.

Other utilities swarmed to the sinkhole to see if it affected them; their trucks filled all the parking spaces for two blocks along East Ninth. An Ameritech crew watched the water division crew work, waiting to see if anything had to be done to the phone company's pear-shaped concrete vault. A little black cable ran from the vault toward a nearby building. Crisscrossing that was a massive line, covered with brown dirt, that looked like a giant worm. It was a Cleveland Public Power conduit, which led into another vault, a little square one made out of brick and held together with sloppy masonry, obviously not intended for the public eye.

Whenever there's a utility emergency downtown, workers have to deal with heavy car traffic and navigate a dense tangle of other utilities' lines. "The downtown area is spaghetti underground," says Ron Kovach, a vice president of East Ohio Gas. "It's always, obviously, a traffic nightmare."

The gas company's lines downtown may be up to 100 years old, about the same age as the water and sewer mains, says Kovach. But gas pipes are easier to test for leaks than water pipes. East Ohio Gas employees walk down every downtown street once a year, testing the air with a flame ionization unit, a handheld device that detects natural gas.

Phone and electrical wires also run under downtown streets. Ameritech has installed extra backup lines downtown to make sure other utilities' crises don't affect phone service, says spokeswoman Ilana Isakov. Thanks to the company's "updated and upgraded networks," she adds, no Ameritech customers lost service because of the East Ninth Street water main break -- despite the collapse of one of the company's vaults.

Even though electric lines run underground near the site of the break, the only power outage came when water seeped into the electrical system inside the Superior Building. Both Cleveland Public Power and the Illuminating Company, which compete to provide power in most of Cleveland, shifted power away from their lines near the break onto backup lines elsewhere.

Overflowing Sewers

Every year in Cleveland, around four billion gallons of untreated wastewater and storm water flow into Lake Erie and area waterways after storms -- probably the most unpleasant problem that the aging utility networks under the city create.

Older sewer systems like Cleveland's collect wastewater and storm water in the same pipes. On good days, the stuff that flows down streets and into catch basins gets the same thorough cleansing as the water going down people's toilets and drains. But on bad days, after heavy rain, the storm water floods the sewers, and the system has no choice but to release untreated sewer water into the environment.

The stuff pouring out of the overflow pipes is mostly rainwater, but wastewater is in there, too, diluted at proportions of about 20-1 to 50-1. That's enough for fecal bacteria to show up on Lake Erie beaches after storms, putting swimmers at risk for gastrointestinal and upper respiratory illnesses. Government agencies test beaches in summer and issue warnings if the counts get high, recommending that children, the elderly, and others with frail immune systems stay out of the lake.

Stopping the flow of sewage won't be easy. The Northeast Ohio Regional Sewer District, compelled by federal clean-water regulations, is now looking at the best ways to drastically reduce how much sewage overflow it lets out. The sewer district expects to spend between $500 million and $1 billion on the problem. (Unlike the city water division, whose improvement money is tied up in the water plants, the sewer district has already modernized all its treatment plants; since the agency was created in 1972, it has spent $744 million on them.) The district has a couple of years to make all its plans, then 15 years to build new tunnels and treatment facilities.

Fifteen years may seem like a long time to let sewage continue to spill into Lake Erie, but it'll take years to dig tunnels large enough to hold tens of millions of gallons of sewer overflow.

It's already taken the sewer district that long to build a different set of massive tunnels: large interceptor mains that form a circle around the city of Cleveland. The interceptors, 5 to 11 feet wide, pick up wastewater from suburbs that have separate wastewater and storm water networks, and take it directly to the treatment plants. Before the interceptors were built, suburban wastewater went into the city's combined system.

"In our early days, our mission was to take the sanitary flow out of the system as best we could," says Rick Switalski, sewer design manager for the district. "We've basically accomplished that by building [the interceptors]." Now, he says, "We're actually trying to capture all the combined sewer flow."

The district has already started its first overflow-collecting project. It's digging a giant 20-foot-wide tunnel through the south edge of the city that will store up combined sewer overflow until a storm passes. Once the tunnel is finished, around 2006, it should reduce the amount of overflow coming from its section of greater Cleveland from 500 million gallons to 14 million.

It'd be almost impossible to completely stop sewer overflows. "You can never design for the biggest storm," says Switalski.

Into the Manholes

On days when the sewers aren't overflowing, crews open up manholes in greater Cleveland and inspect, clean, and repair sewer mains. They use meters to measure flow, and they send remote-controlled cameras through the pipes -- strung on cables, floating on boats, and even perched on top of crawlers that look like little remote-controlled tanks.

Workers also inspect the sewers firsthand, testing the atmosphere, then climbing down 22-inch-wide manholes with emergency air packs strapped to their waists and backs.

Going down into the sewers is not quite as gross as you might think.

"Mostly it's gray water. You don't see a lot of stuff floating around," says Brian Stapleton, a longtime regional sewer district employee. "It's not really that bad of a smell. There's plenty of fresh air being pulled through the manholes. The movement of the flow will suck air through and cause ventilation."

Sewer district workers see a lot in the mains. Raccoons get caught underground sometimes. Cockroaches are pretty common; for some reason, they especially like to swarm under Lakeside Avenue. Rats usually hide as soon as a manhole opens, but the remote-controlled cameras catch them on tape. Sometimes, sewer crews find objects people have thrown down manholes: TVs, tires, hot water heaters, 50-gallon drums -- even, about 20 years ago, the body of a murder victim.

The workers try not to slog through too much sewer water ("schmeg-water," one worker calls it), even though, in the city, the unpleasant ingredients are usually diluted by storm water. Even pure wastewater contains much more shower, dishwasher, and sink water than -- in sewer professional speak -- "biosolids" or "floatables."

Still, sewer work is "not a glamorous position by any means," says Bob Gow, sewer maintenance manager for the district. "Any time you're working in sewers, it can be a dirty job, and it can be a physical job."

Every day, the regional sewer district sends out nine crews to work on the 220 miles of large mains that run to its wastewater treatment plants. The City of Cleveland's Water Pollution Control Division, which owns 1,400 miles of smaller mains, fields 28 inspection and cleaning crews on an average day. (Suburbs in the sewer district also maintain their own small mains; those outside the district either maintain all their sewers or pay the county to do it.)

The inspection crews look for sewer main breaks and blockages. The city patches 100 to 150 sewer main breaks a year and unclogs several hundred blocked pipes. They clear blocked mains with buckets that hang on cables or with giant hoses that can shoot out high-pressure water, then reverse and vacuum up debris.

Grease from cooking is a major cause of blocked sewers.

"By the time it gets to us, [grease has] cooled off, it coagulates in the pipe, and everything else that's coming through the system catches on to it," says Water Pollution Control Commissioner Darnell Brown. "At some point in time, it becomes just one big mass of gook.

"That's the primary challenge we have. The other one is tree roots, looking for nutrients to survive off of," Brown says. "They find the weakest point of the system."

Sewer district workers spend most of their time inspecting and cleaning older brick mains. Some brick walls collapse as their mortar decays. And some older sewers are built in level ground, so they get choked with debris. One low-lying interceptor running through the Flats and the near West Side fills up so quickly with gravel and sand that cleaning it is a never-ending job.

"We're there daily with our bucket machines, and we just keep moving on down the pipe," says Gow. It takes three to four weeks to clean the stretch where debris collects. "When we get down to [one] end, it's time to move back."

Contractors inspected almost all of the sewer district's mains within the last four years, and the district's crews check about five to six miles' worth of troubled mains a year. With so much inspection going on, the sewer district tends to catch small breaks before they widen into big ones. Most of the time, anyway.

Unnatural Wonder

The waterfall cascading down the black hill is almost beautiful. Thirty feet tall, it rushes in a blur of white over two sudden drops, then froths in a pool.

Farther down the hill, Mill Creek sparkles as it flows by. Downstream, the edge of a south-side Cleveland neighborhood stands atop a 120-foot cliff made of rippling dark shale. It's almost the sort of dramatic view people would hike miles to see in a state park.

But the waterfall is made up of storm water and wastewater, and the hill is the site of an old construction landfill. The dirty water, welling up from a break in a three-foot sewer main under the hill, has cut a deep gouge in the black ground. The rainwater, mixed with sewage, crashes and roars past tires, bricks, twisted metal, black rubber pipes, and tarps.

"You'll never see an emergency like this ever again. Ever," says Switalski, the sewer design manager.

Switalski says the failed main, built in the 1930s, probably gave out at a bend, where it briefly levels off before plunging down below the creekbed. The aging brick wall had probably taken a beating from falling, crashing water for decades.

But he can't say for sure, because the main escaped the sewer district's inspections for years. A manhole somewhere on the hill was buried under the landfill long ago, and water flows too fast down the steeply sloped pipe.

"Several years ago, we put a camera through [the pipe]. It ended up at our treatment plant," Switalski says.

A nearby resident discovered the waterfall and called the sewer district. Workers found the rain-and-sewage mixture flowing down the hill, spreading out into a plain of mud, and washing into the creek.

Contractors on the sewer district's emergency-response list built an earthen dam to contain the water, then ran a pipe under the dam to a manhole below the break.

"We're on the fly, trying to design and build [a new main]," Switalski says. "It's probably the largest effort we've ever had to do. The topography is the worst we've ever had to deal with."

The remoteness of the break, on the steep landfill-hill almost no one ventures onto anymore, makes this flood of sewage especially intense and hard to fix. But it also means that few Clevelanders are inconvenienced; no one's street or house or office building is flooded.

For now, the sewer simply flows overland -- another random urban disaster that struck when another elderly pipe, after years of straining under its burden, collapsed and spilled the liquid that coursed through it into the ground.

Erick Trickey can be reached at [email protected].