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From left, Colton Hicks, Connor McClay, Eileen Pedrizco and Bianca Hooker of Mount Erie School inspect a settling tank at the Anacortes wastewater treatment plant May 30. (Richard Walker/Anacortes American)

The annual open house at the Anacortes wastewater treatment plant Thursday, May 30 was an introduction to the science of turning sewage into water clean enough to be pumped into the bay.

But at his work station, Ken Hargett provided a tour of sorts of underground Anacortes.

Hargett operates a remote-controlled camera to regularly inspect the city’s labyrinth of underground pipes that carry wastewater to the plant for treatment. The images seen in the camera video tell a lot about the city, its history and its residents.

In one video segment, the camera navigates a network of modern pipes in Old Town when it comes across a brick-lined manhole and clay pipes installed more than a century ago, Hargett said. Trenches were hand-dug then, he said, and are at some points 20 feet deep. The pipes are still functioning, he said.

No alligators or snakes lurk in city sewer pipes, but earthworms get awful big down there feeding on all those nutrients we flush away, Hargett said.

He has found change, jewelry and Hot Wheels — possible evidence of a child’s amazement at the now-you-see-it, now-you-don’t magic of the flush toilet, he said. In another inspection, he found a set of false teeth and some underwear. How those got there is anybody’s guess.

Dollar bills, which are made of cotton and linen, don’t degrade like someone might think.

“It’s a pretty resilient piece of paper,” said Steve Doebler, maintenance supervisor. And neither do so-called flushable wipes. “They’re woven in such a way that they don’t break down in the collection system, and they can clog pumps, can clog grinders and cause pump failures,” Doebler said.

As Hargett put it, “If it’s not poop, pee or TP, don’t put it in there.” No hazardous materials, no dental floss, no clothing, just toilet paper and water from the sink, tub and toilet.

Enough said on that.

Residents and children from local schools visited the treatment plant last week and got a close-up look at the plant’s workings, as well as other city services. Children rode in a fire engine, sat behind the controls of a backhoe, operated the sewer-inspection camera, peered through a microscope at bacteria that eats and breaks down waste, learned how remaining solids are separated from the wastewater and incinerated into ash, and learned about how the remaining wastewater is treated and made clean enough to be released into Guemes Channel.

The plant treats at least two million gallons of wastewater a day, plant manager Becky Fox said. By day’s end, all that’s left of what was flushed is ash that can fill a small dumpster, and clean and disinfected water that is returned to the sea.

The ash is carted away to a landfill, although, according to operator Lou Zurcher, it could be used to make bricks.

“It’s totally inert,” he said.

Rachel Hofheimer, a teacher at Mount Erie School, said the annual event is a great teaching tool.

“Learning about the community, learning what this building does, meeting some of the people who work for the city, that’s what I’m most excited about,” she said. “We were just talking about that yesterday: When you brush your teeth, when it goes down that drain, when you flush the toilet, where does it go? Most of them had no idea.”

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Kent Bolton of the city water treatment plant  fresh water, not wastewater  explains to students how water from the Skagit River is treated and made ready for the tap, May 30. (Richard Walker / Anacortes American)

The event also gives treatment plant workers an opportunity to talk about the importance of their work and how it contributes to a healthy environment.

The big takeaway: “I enjoy boating, fishing and crabbing in the sound, and so I think it’s important that the water we’re sending out into Guemes Channel and into the Puget Sound is clean and is not going to harm the environment,” supervisor Harry Whyte said.

Fox added, “We need to take care of our environment. Wastewater treatment is a big part of that.”

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