John Metcalfe

Your waste goes on a magical journey from becoming "mixed liquor" to "sludge cakes," as this photographic tour of Arlington County, Virginia's newly renovated wastewater plant reveals.

People – I have been to the smelly mountaintop that is Arlington County, Virginia's Water Pollution Control Plant, and I come back bearing this message: Stop flushing your tampons, Kleenex and condoms down the toilet, dammit!

While doing so might seem like a quick way of getting rid of incriminating evidence, flushing does not, in fact, disappear this stuff from the face of the planet. Rather, it courses down through yawning sewer pipes to your city's wastewater treatment plant, where all the public-works employees get to stare hard at it while machines lift it away for incineration. That's if it doesn't clump up and clog the system, causing a massive sewage overflow in some hapless business far away, as was the case recently at an Arlington Harris Teeter. (The culprit: non-biodegradable "rags and debris.")

Frank Corsoro is one of the guys who sees all the dirty little secrets you think you've safely flushed away. As an operations specialist at the pollution control plant, he's responsible for helping neutralize an average of 30 million gallons of sanitary-sewer water per day. He is, in the words of his boss and pollution-control bureau chief Larry Slattery, "sort of the magic silver lever, you pull it and everything goes away."

A breviloquent native of New York, Corsoro speaks authoritatively about the ascending ladder of odors wafting around the plant ("pristine," "musty," "putrid," "unbearable") and waxes poetic about the chocolate hue of what waste-management pros call "mixed liquor," a microbe-stuffed fecal milkshake you definitely don't want to do a shot of. He sometimes gives tours of the plant to his church group, although he draws the line at 9-year-olds for fear their little bodies might stumble and slip into the bubbling waste.

In a coup of journalistic planning, last Friday I asked Corsoro to guide me around the plant on the year's hottest day yet in Washington, D.C. The stink, in the 104-degree heat, was remarkably not so abysmal. At worst it resembled the foul bouquet of a heap of feces from every animal in the zoo, but on average it smelled like the ocean on a poor-water-quality day or the C&O Canal on any day. We didn't gag even once.

The relative lack of fetor is due to Arlington's recent efforts to rehabilitate the 1935 facility to come in line with tightened state and federal regulations. The county has put $568 million into upgrading the plant, making it Arlington's priciest public-works project to date. So what does a top-of-the-line wastewater-treatment facility look like in America? Click on the gallery to begin your tour, keeping in mind that this diary of doody is best enjoyed while sitting on the toilet.

About the Author

John Metcalfe
John Metcalfe

John Metcalfe is CityLab’s Bay Area bureau chief, based in Oakland. His coverage focuses on climate change and the science of cities.

Most Popular

  1. Postcards showing the Woodner when it used to be a luxury apartment-hotel in the '50s and '60s, from the collection of John DeFerrari
    Equity

    The Neighborhood Inside a Building

    D.C.’s massive Woodner apartment building has lived many lives—from fancy hotel to one of the last bastions of affordable housing in a gentrifying neighborhood. Now, it’s on the brink of another change.

  2. Life

    Why a City Block Can Be One of the Loneliest Places on Earth

    Feelings of isolation are common in cities. Let’s take a look at how the built environment plays into that.

  3. Design

    The Military Declares War on Sprawl

    The Pentagon thinks better designed, more walkable bases can help curb obesity and improve troops’ fitness.

  4. Members of a tenants' organization in East Harlem gather outside the office of landlord developer Dawnay, Day Group, as lawyers attempt to serve the company with court papers on behalf of tenants, during a press conference in New York. The tenant's group, Movement for Justice in El Barrio, filed suit against Dawnay, Day Group, the London-based investment corporation "for harassing tenants by falsely and illegally charging fees in attempts to push immigrant families from their homes and gentrify the neighborhood," said Chaumtoli Huq, an attorney for the tenants.
    Equity

    Toward Being a Better Gentrifier

    There’s a right way and a wrong way to be a neighbor during a time of rapid community change.

  5. Equity

    What CityLab Looks Like Now

    Bigger images, fewer ads—and a recommitment to telling a very important story.