Tim Brunson was leaving a Rotary Club meeting at Coosa Country Club when he noticed what most people might think was a dip in the pavement on Branham Avenue.
But the assistant director of the Rome Water and Sewer Division recognized it for what it was: A failure due to escaping gas from a sewer main buried 16 feet under the road.
“If Tim hadn’t seen that sinkhole opening up ... the whole thing could have collapsed,” Division Director Mike Hackett said. “It would have been a whole different job.”
The job underway — which is becoming a different job almost daily — is to replace the 50-year-old concrete main with new PVC pipe. A 2,200-foot pipe weighing 5,000 pounds was purchased, but it looks like they’re going to need more.
Brunson said when they finally got the deteriorating pipe cut out and removed Tuesday, another section collapsed without the support. As they dug up more of the road Thursday, he said they found other issues.
“This is probably the worst job we’ve had in 25 years. It’s fought us every step of the way,” Brunson said.
And it’s dangerous — and disgusting — work.
Hackett explained that the original hole allowed hydrogen sulfide gas (formed in wastewater collection systems) to escape and ride across the top of the pipe. When it mixes with moisture it creates an acid that eats through concrete.
It’s also down in the 16-foot trench where the six qualified crew members are working, sometimes up to their knees in untreated sewage.
“We send them down with monitors,” Hackett told the city’s water and sewer committee last week. “At 10 parts per million they can stay up to eight hours ... but when it’s 30 parts per million, and we hit that a lot, it’s only about 15 minutes.”
There are more safety concerns than just the gas, however. Brunson said the first thing they did after excavating 30 feet of roadway was to install trench boxes to hold back the dirt. A cubic yard of soil weighs about a ton and a cave-in would be catastrophic.
Crews also wear protective gear including hard hats, rain suits, chest waders and face shields. They often have to get into the pipes. There are two fans pumping in fresh air and one sucking out the gas.
“These are young men working in dangerous conditions,” Brunson told the committee.
Hackett said one crew member quit rather than commit to the work. OSHA, the federal occupation safety agency, also came out to the site on an anonymous tip. While it’s not their jurisdiction, Hackett said, he welcomed an outside inspection — which determined the conditions met safety standards.
Right now the project is nearing the $500,000-mark, but there’s more to come. Hackett said the first pipe collapse meant they’ll continue around Branham toward Virginia Circle, but they don’t know what’s down the road.
“After it’s done we’ll have to go in and investigate, and there’s a good possibility we’ll have to do more or rehabilitate some ... It’s 50-year-old pipe and it doesn’t last forever,” he said. “People are complaining and we hate that it has to be done, but it does.”
And the six Rome city crew members are working as fast as they can.
“I’m very proud of every one of those young men,” Brunson said. “Through this heat, through this rain, they’re down there working.”