Saturday, January 30, 2010

A tour of Atlanta's South River Sewer Tunnel

Posted By on Sat, Jan 30, 2010 at 5:15 AM

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Elected officials descended into the bowels of hell today to tour the South River Sewer Tunnel, the last major project of Atlanta's $4 billion court-ordered sewer overhaul.

For more than a year, work crews have dug two 170-feet-deep shafts at the construction site near the South River Water Reclamation Plant in southeast Atlanta. Now, with the assistance of a multi-million dollar "tunnel boring machine," workers will  drill day and night through approximately 9,000 feet of bedrock. Atlanta City Councilwoman Carla Smith, who chairs the Council's utilities committee, said the tunnel route is ideal because the bedrock is soft enough to drill, but solid enough not to crumble. Once complete in July 2011, the 14-foot-wide tunnel will connect the plant to Macon Drive near South River Bridge.

As the machine chisels into the granite, rock is collected and travels hundreds of feet via several conveyer belts back to the shaft. Although it's currently a craggy and muddy work site, engineers say the $111 million project will be lined with a foot of concrete. Pumps will be constructed in one of the shafts; the other will be covered to prevent people from plunging to their demise. And if rains overwhelm the city's sewers, the tunnel will become a massive depository of sewage and rainwater.

"This is the part of the City of Atlanta's investment in infrastructure that people don't get to see," Department of Watershed Management Commissioner Rob Hunter said. "It's unfortunate most of this goes on underground."

After a sleep-inducing video taught tour participants how to don an oxygen mask in case of an explosion, the groups piled eight deep into a "man cage" and were lowered by crane into one of the shafts. Congressman John Lewis, Chief Operating Officer Peter Aman and Atlanta City Councilmembers Natalyn Archibong, Michael Julian Bond, Keisha Lance Bottoms, Felicia Moore, Carla Smith, Alex Wan and Aaron Watson then trudged 100 feet to view the project's progress. Hard hats bumped against machines, photos were taken, ears popped. One councilmember jokingly asked if the excavated granite could be turned into countertops.

"It's OK if you like it," Chief Engineer Wayne Warburton said with a laugh when asked what it's like to spend your workday underground. "If you don't, well, then it's not that great. What's kind of cool is that every few feet, you're going where someone's never been before."

About 30 minutes after everyone was accounted for back on the surface, an explosion in the tunnel could be heard (and felt). No worries — it was a scheduled blast, we're told.

Below are many, many blurry photos. We'll post a complete gallery on Monday.

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Look! Atlanta finally built another transit system! You only have to travel to the land of Morlocks and mutants to find it!

UPDATE 12:29 a.m. A short video that CL shot of the tour finally uploaded. Enjoy!

(Photos by Thomas Wheatley)

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