As It Happens

'An unpleasant beast': U.K. town discovers massive fatberg lurking in sewer

Workers will don full breathing apparatuses and spend weeks cutting up a huge fatberg of grease, garbage and human waste on the Devon coast in the U.K.

Utility manager Andrew Roantree says a 'fatberg autopsy' will be done to determine what caused the blockage

Utility workers will have to wear protect masks to filter out the gases and smells emitting from the huge fatberg. (Submitted by Andrew Roantree)

Read story transcript

It's big. It's ugly. And it's inside a sewer on the south coast of England. Yes, it's another fatberg.

About a year and a half ago, As It Happens covered a story about a massive fatberg discovered under the streets of London — an enormous hunk of grease, wet wipes and other unsavoury things found in sewers.

Now, utility workers in Devon, England, have found a fatberg that measures about 63 metres long.

Andrew Roantree is the director of wastewater at South West Water in Sidmouth — the small coastal town where the fatberg was discovered. As It Happens host Carol Off spoke with Roantree about the fatty deposit and how to remove it.

Here is part of their conversation.

Mr. Roantree, what does this garbage beast look like?

It looks a bit like a massive amalgamation of sort of fat you might get out of your cooking mixed with some pretty unmentionable things that might end up down the sewer. So yeah, it's a pretty unpleasant beast at the present moment.

What does the beast smell like?

It's not too bad. Above ground, there's no indication of its existence, whatsoever. Down in the sewer, it isn't too bad. It is going to start to emit some pretty noxious odours and gases. So it ends up being a job for full breathing apparatus for the guys who are working down there. 

Can you remind us ... what exactly a fatberg is and how it's formed?

Fundamentally, it's formed of things that we as water companies would say our customers shouldn't be putting down the sewer, that they shouldn't be putting down their kitchen sink, that they shouldn't be flushing down their toilet. 

It's kitchen fat and oil, that sort of thing. So after a cooking process, people washing dishes and pans and just flushing hot oil down the sink, which inevitably cools when it gets into the sewer system. As we all know, fat goes from a liquid to a solid as it cools and so that becomes the sort of glue in process.

And then, in the last, I guess, two or three years, we've noticed a real upsurge of people using wet-wipe materials.

And people seem to think, because some of the packaging says, this is flushable. The reality is it's not flushable. It doesn't break down in the sewer system and the fat just sticks these things together.

Andrew Roantree says scientists will examine samples of the fatberg to determine its exact composition. (Submitted by Andrew Roantree)

So it's 63 metres long, the size of several buses in length. What are you going to have to do to get rid of it? 

It is a bit of physical process. It will require people in there. As I said, they'll have to wear full breathing apparatus in order to operate in there. Some of it will be a question of literally just digging it out.

But then we will have some other bigger machinery with powerful water jetting equipment and tankers to help suck it out as we get it more mobile.

I know that a part of the fatberg in London got sent to a museum and some got turned into biodiesel. What are you going to do with this one?

We've already made some arrangements with the University of Exeter that they are going to do a similar kind of fatberg autopsy to try to understand in a bit more detail, well yeah — what is it? Where has it come from? And indeed, how long has it taken to form?

And then, we are going to take the bulk of it into local treatment works that has anaerobic​ digesters and so that enables us to generate electricity off the methane coming off the digesters. So some good will come of it in the end.

Written by Kate Swoger and John McGill. Interview produced by Kate Swoger. Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.  


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