Saturday, November 22, 2008

Living in a tank, diving in a tunnel

Last April, a friend and I were in Scranton, Pennsylvania for the Spring 2007 meeting of the Mid-Atlantic Regional Archives Conference. After the meeting ended, we went on the Lackawanna Coal Mine Tour. A retired miner shepherded our group into a mechanized mine car that took us approximately 300 feet below ground into a mine that had opened in the 1860s and been shut down over 100 years later. We then spent about half an hour walking through a modern section of the mine, which had electric lights and current safety equipment; it was nonetheless damp and dimly lit, and the air had a petrochemical smell that one could almost taste.

The tour emphasized the horrors of nineteenth-century mining life -- long hours, wretched pay, employment of boys not yet in their teens, omnipresent danger, utter indifference to worker safety and welfare on the part of managers and owners -- but it was abundantly plain that mining is still an incredibly demanding job. Throughout the tour, I kept thinking about my late uncle, a taciturn, gentle man who spent almost all of his working life as a coal miner and whose decades of exposure to coal dust hastened his death, and all of the other men on my mother's side of the family who worked in the mines of southern West Virginia.

After the tour ended and we were once again enjoying the warmth and sunshine above ground, my friend turned to me and said, "What a fascinatingly horrible job!" I knew exactly what she meant. Mining is physically and psychologically arduous, but people do it and become accustomed to it -- and the rest of us are thoroughly dependent upon the fruits of their labor. Miners (and others who perform other fascinatingly horrible jobs) make modern life possible. Even this little blog, which is brought to you via electricity (a little less than half of New York State's electric power is generated by coal-burning or nuclear power plants), metal wires, and computers with metal parts, wouldn't be possible without it.

Those of us who are fortunate enough to have reliable and safe running water and sewage systems are also dependent upon people who do grueling work. The system of reservoirs and tunnels that supplies water to the five boroughs of New York City extends over one hundred miles to the north and west of the city, and maintaining and upgrading the system is a complicated and never-ending task.

One of the tunnels that forms part of this system -- the the Rondout-West Branch tunnel that moves water from the Catskills to the city -- has been leaking rather badly: according to the New York Times, the New York City Department of Environmental Preservation (NYC DEP) estimates that the tunnel loses an average of 20 million gallons a day and that on some days as much as 36 million gallons have been lost.
After tiptoeing around the problem for many years, and amid mounting complaints of flooded homes in the Ulster County hamlet of Wawarsing, the city’s Department of Environmental Protection has embarked on a five-year, $240 million project to prepare to fix the tunnel — which includes figuring out how to keep water flowing through New Yorkers’ faucets during the repairs. The most immediate tasks are to fix a valve at the bottom of a 700-foot shaft in Dutchess County so pumps will eventually be able to drain the tunnel, and to ensure that the tunnel does not crack or collapse while it is empty.
If the fixing of this valve isn't fascinatingly horrible work, I don't know what is:
. . . . The city has enlisted six deep-sea divers who are living for more than a month in a sealed 24-foot tubular pressurized tank complete with showers, a television and a Nerf basketball hoop, breathing air that is 97.5 percent helium and 2.5 percent oxygen, so their high-pitched squeals are all but unintelligible. They leave the tank only to transfer to a diving bell that is lowered 70 stories into the earth, where they work 12-hour shifts, with each man taking a four-hour turn hacking away at concrete to expose the valve.

. . . . Three divers at a time climb into the steel bell, an orb that is lowered down the shaft for 20 minutes to reach the pumping equipment in the tunnel. The bell is tethered to a bundle of cables carrying air, communication lines, electricity and water. Each diver works for four hours and rests underwater for eight before returning to the tank at the surface, where 32 more employees of Global Diving and Salvage, the Seattle company running the project, pass meals, clothes and books through an air lock.

. . . . The divers can request whatever food they like, including steak and fresh salads. But the air pressure in the tank dulls the taste buds, so they use a lot of Tabasco, salsa and jalapenos; bread goes flat, more pita than challah. Once the operation is complete, the divers must remain in the tank for a week to gradually wean themselves off helium.

“They lose a lot of weight because they’re burning so many calories,” said Robert Onesti, who is running the project for Global Diving. “It’s not for everybody. It’s heavy construction work, and it’s deep.”
According to Global Diving and Salvage, living in a pressurized tank for the duration of a project is actually better for the divers, who are less exposed to the threats associated with decompression. However, as the firm points out, it's also better for the company and for governments and corporations that contract with the firm: the divers spend less time acclimating to pressure changes and more time working, and they can work in shifts around the clock.

I wonder how many New Yorkers ever think, in any sort of serious way, about the source of their tap water, the complexity of the infrastructure that delivers it to them, and the human sacrifices that are needed in order to keep the system running. Of course, New York City isn't unique in this respect: running water is one of the everyday miracles of modern life, and all of us owe a debt to the people whose hard and unpleasant work makes it possible.

Owing to the sheer size and scope of the New York City water system, archival records documenting its development and maintenance are held by the New York City Municipal Archives, the New York City Department of Environmental Protection (NYC DEP hired its own archivist/records manager several years ago, but I don't know if she's still with the department),
the New York State Archives, county, town and village clerks' offices throughout the region (the Ulster County Clerk's Office has created an online exhibit relating to the Ashokan Reservoir), and historical societies, college and university special collections departments, and other historical records repositories throughout the region. Here's hoping that someone develops a comprehensive guide to these widely dispersed holdings, that Global Diving and Salvage has a good records management program and is keeping records of enduring value, and that some enterprising oral historian interviews at least a few of those divers . . . .

Update, 28 November 2008: As I was preparing to send a link to this post to the friend who found mining to be a "fascinatingly horrible job," I noticed that I had forgotten to link to the article that inspired this post and from which all of the block quotes come. I've amended the body of this post so that a link to the article is incorporated, but for the record here's the full citation: Ken Belson, "Plumber's Job on a Giant's Scale: Fixing New York's Drinking Straw," New York Times, 22 November 2008, online edition.

This inadvertent and mortifying error is the end result of blogging while overly tired, which I'll try to avoid in the future; the "Save as Draft" feature in Blogger exists for a reason.

No comments: