LocationALCOSAN’s sewage treatment facility on the North Side at the McKees Rocks Bridge

Featured guests: Doug Jackson, director of operations and maintenance for the Allegheny County Sanitary Authority (ALCOSAN)

3 things that surprised me:

1. Doug explained that ALCOSAN’s facility dates back to 1959. Before that, all of Pittsburgh’s wastewater went right into the river. As we walked through the various structures, I was especially drawn to all the colorful mid-century sewage monitoring equipment. Most of those pieces are no longer in operation but have been kept around for historical purposes.

2. After sewage enters the facility, its first stop is the “wet well,” a massive 100-foot-deep tank with a 40-foot diameter. Doug explained that there’s usually around 60 feet of untreated wastewater in there. The wet well was constructed with the rest of the building in 1959 and has been in continuous operation. A few years back, they did have to replace a few valves on the side of the wet well, which required sending a team of divers into the sewage-filled tank to complete the replacement.

3. I imagined it would take a few days or a week before wastewater was clean enough to be returned to the river, but Doug explained that it only takes a dozen hours or so. I was also shocked that there were very few chemicals involved. Most of the work of separating waste from water is done with gravity and naturally occurring bacteria.

One thing that didn’t make the final cut: The water that ALCOSAN sends back into the river is even cleaner than the rest of the Ohio River. It’s also a little warmer than the surrounding water, which makes it a great spot for fish to hang out. Because of that, Doug says fishing enthusiasts like to put down their lines near the facility’s discharge area.

Additional info: ALCOSAN created a website called Follow the Flush where you can find out how long it takes for the contents of your toilet to reach their riverside facility. ALCOSAN has started a $2 billion Clean Water Plan to address the problem during heavy rains when the sewage system becomes overwhelmed and excess stormwater and sewage pours into the rivers.

Want more Yinzer Backstage Pass? Check out our tour of the Liberty Tunnels fan house and learn how they keep the Tubes free of toxic air.

Boaz is the host of NEXTpittsburgh's Yinzer Backstage Pass video series. He is also an author, filmmaker, advertising copywriter, teacher, experiential storyteller, talk show host, gardener, kazoo museum curator and so much more.