In London’s 19th-century sewers, crews in coveralls are waging a 21st-century battle. They’re blasting away a monster that feeds on grease and garbage, and its name reflects the beast’s potency for revulsion: Fatberg.
The monstrosity — a foul-smelling, congealed mass of grease, oil, fat and garbage — is born innocently enough. Londoners flush away wet wipes, diapers or condoms. They pour grease down the kitchen sink. And in a city of 8.7 million, the Victorian-era sewers can’t cope.
“The Victorians built a really good sewer network for us,” said Alex Saunders, waste network manager for London’s water treatment utility Thames Water, standing near a crew battling a fatberg in the city’s Chinatown.
But, he adds, “the pressures of modern living, with our fatty diets, the takeaway [food], combined with things like wet wipes, that’s what causes the really big problem.”
Biggest fatberg of them all
Though the congealed blobs have appeared in other cities’ sewers, London water treatment crews were the first to come up with the name “fatberg.”
Thames Water deals with hundreds of blockages daily, but none like the recent Whitechapel fatberg, named after the neighbourhood in East London. The 132-tonne hard blob blocked the sewer and damaged its walls. Thames Water estimated its length at 250 metres — “longer than two Wembley football pitches,” the company said.
“The Whitechapel one,” Saunders said, “really does take the award for the biggest fatberg.”
Workers spent nine weeks this fall in the hot, smelly sewer breaking it up using high-pressure jets. Crews equipped with hardhats and facemasks worked in what the company described as “cramped and extremely challenging conditions” in Whitechapel’s metre-high, egg-shaped sewer.
“It’s quite humid down here, it’s quite…