It looks like a truffle, it smells like a rotting whale, but there’s something oddly alluring about the lump of Whitechapel fatberg that I’ve found myself cradling.
The fatberg baby is unequivocally disgusting, yet the sheer size of the behemoth metres below my feet is awesome. The chunk has been passed up from the 19th-century Victorian sewers where Thames Water’s high-pressure water jets are blasting a 140-ton mass of solid fats, oils and greases — the biggest to have ever been found in the city’s sewers (well, the biggest yet).
It’s the length of two football pitches and the weight of 11 Routemaster buses. I peek my head down the open manhole, squinting for the source of the smell, holding on to a winch rail. This is gutter journalism.
Yet this primordial-seeming ooze is a very modern creation. “It’s covered in cracks, and it looks like it should fall apart, but it doesn’t,” says Alex Saunders, a waste network manager at Thames Water, here on site to help begin a four-week clear-up operation beneath the bustling market stalls of Whitechapel Road. “As soon as you get inside you find there’s this stitching of wet wipes, condoms, tampons and other sanitary items holding it all together. It’s a perfect storm. The combination of those things create a really solid, concrete-like fatberg.”
Does this one have a name yet? “Fatberg is the nickname,” says David Mimms, the field manager who is leading the eight-member team here to stop the tunnels flooding into neighbouring basements. “It’s now in the dictionary. People have been calling this one Bertha, The Donald, and also Piers Morgan. It’s just solidified fat.”
It’s also your fault, London. This concentrated mass is the worst you have to offer, flushed and compressed into the 4ft-high sewerage system beneath us. “We spend a million pounds a month on clearing blockages, across the Thames Valley,” says Mimms. “It’s just a continuous plugging away: breaking it up, sucking it up, breaking it up, sucking it up, breaking it up.” After it’s removed it’s packed off in trucks to Stratford.
But what lies beneath grabs us. From Ghostbusters to Stephen King’s It, we leer watchfully at the waterways beneath our metropolises. In Don DeLillo’s Underworld, a character argues that human civilisation began as “self-defence” against the unstoppable rise of garbage beneath our cities.
Appropriately, the Museum of London has already made a bid to keep a piece of this fatberg for posterity. News of London’s fatbergs goes global (others in 2011 and 2013 garnered worldwide attention). Russia Today, Al Jazeera , NBC, Swedish Radio and an Italian TV station have all sent news crews.
“There’s a natural fascination when you can see a glimpse of something but know there’s more lurking beneath. It’s beneath the streets but you never quite know what’s there,” says Saunders. Think of icebergs and their blockbuster appeal to the Titanic-loving British public. Size impresses and appals us.
Yet Saunders argues that this very real blockage also taps into the city’s folklore. “People see it as a monster, this evil thing lurking under the streets. There’s a fascination with London, which had the first modern sewers. We’re also in Whitechapel, famed for villains like Jack the Ripper — and we now have one under the street again.”
It’s a dirty business — and dangerous too. The eight-man team evacuate the tunnel rapidly just after two o’clock as rain starts to fall, bringing a tidal wave of excrement along the tunnel from the surrounding tunnels. Flammable and poisonous gases, such as hydrogen sulphide, ammonia, methane and sulphur dioxide, can build up; there are deep voids hiding beneath knee-deep water to fall in to; dangerous chemicals are often dumped; tunnels are riddled with “sharps”, such as flushed needles, glass, bones, shopping trollies — and even, in Hoxton, a machete. “Then there are the rats,” says Mimms. “The rats are huge.”
Is this stuff harmful, I ask, wiping fatberg residue from my overalls (the pungent smell begins to fade as I get used to it — it now smells faintly of clay). “Worst-case scenario: you could die,” says Saunders. He’s only half-joking: Weil’s disease is a severe form of leptospirosis that causes headaches, chills and muscle aches, which you might contract if you came into contact with the urine, blood, or tissue of rodents that are infected with the bacteria. It doesn’t sound much fun.
Walking the clear sewers too is a daunting experience. “You’re acutely aware that your life is in the hands of the team — the guys guiding you down there, and the guys up top,” says Saunders. Oxygen and carbon monoxide monitors strapped to belts beep regularly. “If something goes wrong you need to get your gas mask on quick. You’re sending people into a confined space where if something does go wrong, it’s very hard to get them out.” They can be 30 metres along a tunnel — although the fatberg in this tunnel, which is only three feet wide and four feet tall, is mercifully only eight metres from the manhole shaft. “I sleep fine at night because we have all the right checks and send people home safe.”
So who’s to blame for the sheer size of the fatberg? There’s already a likely suspect. “Every other property is a food services establishment,” says Saunders. “It doesn’t take a lot for them to start chucking waste fats and oils away.”
Flooded basements in the same properties alerted Thames Water to the lurking fatberg. “If you are within 50 metres of a fast-food establishment you’re eight times more likely to be flooded with sewage in our network,” says Saunders. His job is also about education, as his team is called out to handle hundreds of smaller deposits a day. (Thames Water has tried to put fatbergs to good use — some are converted into biodiesel fuel.)
The work, though, is immensely satisfying. Colin Hewitt, who sends his “crawler” — a camera on tracks — down the tunnel first, has worked on the job for four years after coming out of retirement to do it. Ronnie Floodwater, who passes me bits of ’berg as he winches them up, says that with a name like his it’s the best job he could ask for. “Once it’s done and once it’s clean, it’s like redeveloping a house,” says Mimms. “It’s great seeing a before and after. You feel overwhelmed at what you’ve achieved.”
Hewitt agrees: “It’s an absolute nightmare, but we’re a team, we’ll always be a team.” Then he eats his lunch. Now we just need to christen this baby. Fatty McFatface, anyone?