Felix Carroll: The woe of the flow

From the wastewater treatment plant, a view of the world

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PITTSFIELD — If we can agree 2017 was a pretty crappy year, perhaps something might be gained from spending a little time with the man who deals with more crap — and makes something good come from it — than anyone in Berkshire County.

Meet Carl Shaw, 47, the imperturbable superintendent of the Pittsfield Wastewater Treatment Plant, who has a little New Year's advice for the world.

His credentials can be stated in gallons: He's on the receiving end of 10 million to 12 million gallons of wastewater a day from about 50,000 residents in Pittsfield, Dalton and Hinsdale, as well as parts of Richmond and Lanesborough, plus a camp in Peru.

Three hundred miles of sewer lines convene in the subterranean world under Pomeroy Avenue, collecting into a single 6-foot diameter pipe that barrels beneath a bird sanctuary and arrives at his workplace a stinky mess.

If you think there's no correlation between the shambolic world of geopolitics and the task at hand at the Pittsfield Wastewater Treatment Plant off Holmes Road, step into this city's bottomlands.

This is where the miracle of nature meets, greets and treats the effluence of humanity.

Shaw keeps his office high in a turret set square against the sky. Known as Building 11, it resembles an air-traffic control tower, windows on all four sides. From this perch, he's got sight lines to almost the entire 120-acre property where the city's wastewater has been treated in one way or another since 1902.

In the foreground stands the industrial assemblage of pipes, pools and tanks that, through swift biological means, transform wastewater into clean water — safe for fish, safe for swimming. That water is decanted into the east branch of the Housatonic River.

In the background, on all sides, lies perhaps the greatest view in the city.

"You've got October State Forest there and Greylock Mountain there," says Shaw. "On a clear day, you see the windmills on Jiminy Peak. It's a great place to work. It's quiet."

But this perch also affords a window into the human soul — particularly the proclivity to not entirely give a tinker's damn about the effects of one's actions on the wider world, which, Shaw notes, is not sustainable for the species.

Shaw is not being preachy when he says the following: "Quit flushing baby wipes down the toilet. Condoms: Quit flushing condoms. Tampons: Quit flushing tampons."

He adds to that list Q-Tips, catheters, kids' toys, disinfecting wipes and underwear.

Underwear?

"Yes, underwear. "

Yeesh.

"All those things belong in the garbage can," Shaw says. "It's bad for our equipment here. The toilet is not the garbage."

In the world of wastewater treatment, this muck must be trapped with giant screens and shoved into what's called a "muffin monster," a grinder that prepares such trash for disposal in a landfill.

"I fill a two-yard dumpster every week with screening — mostly condoms, sanitary napkins and baby wipes," Shaw says. "Baby wipes are the worst invention."

Before wastewater entered his life, Shaw was on track for a career in computer programming. But then a girl he knew who worked at the treatment plant suggested he look into the field of wastewater.

"I went, `Whoa, whoa, whoa. Why would I want to be in that type of an environment?' She said, `It's not what you think. You need to come down and take a tour of the facility.'"

He took a tour and was blown away by the science of it all. He took classes in wastewater management, and the city eventually hired him in 1996 as an entry-level plant operator — then shift supervisor, then chief operator, then superintendent overseeing the staff of 24 employees.

"My main job is to protect the river," Shaw says. "I'm the last stop. Anything can be coming to us, and we have to be prepared at any given time to handle whatever comes down the pipe."

The reason Shaw refrains from getting too preachy is because he grew up in Pittsfield flushing the toilet and, like most people, not caring about where it all went. To be fair to his younger self, he also never flushed things that would make the folks at the receiving end shake their heads and wonder about humanity.

And, yes, when you work at the wastewater treatment plant, it does make you wonder about humanity.

One time they discovered a puppy (deceased) in the mix of effluence.

Yeesh.

It's enough to make a wastewater treatment plant superintendent introspective. Which brings us to Shaw's advice for the world for 2018.

Shaw — who, by the way, fishes downstream in the very waters he cleans — would like to see a nationwide effort to have the subject of water (the clean stuff and the dirty stuff) taught in schools. If we all learned to care about water, we would care about the planet, and if we cared about the planet, we'd care about each other.

That's the theory from the tower.

"And I think people need to get back to what's really important," he says. "I don't think money makes a person. I don't think net worth makes a person. If you have enough money to pay your bills and have a family, you're a rich man.

"I think people need to get back to that — family first," says Shaw, who has one grown son who works as a plumber's apprentice, upstream.

One more thing: He loves to give tours of the facility. Call first.

"People would be amazed," he says.

Felix Carroll is The Eagle's community columnist. He can be reached at fcarroll@berkshireeagle.com.

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