In this premier episode of Engineering Legends, we’re joined by Mike Beattie, an operations specialist with a 30-year wastewater industry background. Mike has witnessed and heard anecdotes about a variety of interesting items that have come through treatment facilities and shares some of his best stories.
Kelly Rogers: Have you ever wondered what happened to that toy your child accidentally, or perhaps purposefully flushed down the toilet?
Tiffany Long: Let’s find out on today’s episode of Engineering Legends.
Kelly Rogers: Welcome to today’s episode of engineering, legends hosted by Brennan Caldwell. My name is Kelly Rogers and I’m joined today by Tiffany Long, Tiffany and I both work at Brown and Caldwell, as part of their marketing team. And we’ve been in the water and wastewater industry for about 25 years. So, definitely developed a few gray hairs working with engineers over the years.
Tiffany Long: Yes.
Kelly Rogers: Tiffany, I remember I met you in Columbus. What was it like 10 years ago?
Tiffany Long: Yeah, it would have been 10 years ago that you came to town and trained me.
Kelly Rogers: Yeah. So, I headed to Columbus, Ohio, and it’s a pretty memorable day because I got to meet Tiffany, of course, and we’ve been working together ever since, but during a little break that we had, she took me to see the Field of Concrete Corn in Dublin, Ohio. And I’m one of those people, I love roadside attraction, I was pretty excited about this. It’s an art installation and it’s an entire field of concrete corn, and each ear of corn is about the size of a person, it’s about six foot tall, I think. And there’s a whole field of about 80 of these concrete ears of corn. So ,it was a pretty cool stop for the day and it was a lot of fun.
Tiffany Long: Yeah. It’s always a great photo op. We love our corn here in Ohio. So, yes, welcome everybody. Thank you so much for joining us today. We’re really glad to have you with us on our first episode of Engineering Legends, where we will be telling the human interest stories or legends of the water and wastewater industry that we know and love so well. In our marketing roles, our workdays are spent working with engineers. We help them tell their stories and share their ideas with our clients.
Kelly Rogers: Yeah, and Tiffany, we also have a shared history of working as disc jockeys prior to our engineering days. And this podcast offers a great opportunity to get back to our roots and combine our work in the engineering industry with our past experience behind the microphone. More recently, Tiffany and I have really bonded over our love of podcasts, particularly true crime, and you’ll see a theme of that today in our podcast. We’re definitely enjoying this chance to bring these unique opportunities from our workplace into the realm of podcasting.
Tiffany Long: Absolutely. I think we can both agree that with the part of the job that we love the most is hearing those different conversations or stories that happen over a cup of coffee, or while you’re having drinks after a long day of working together with technical teams in our pursuit. We both have that passion for storytelling, And we’re just getting, we’re really excited to have the opportunity to take our love of the engineering industry and share some of the great stories that we’ve gotten to hear over the years. These are the stories that we’re referring to as “legends,” and these are the stories that we’re going to share in this podcast.
Kelly Rogers: And talking about legends, I think a legend is defined as a story that’s been passed on from person to person, and it has meaning and symbolism for the culture from which it originates. For those folks that are in the engineering industry, you know that we are our own little subculture. It’s a small world. I think everybody knows everybody.
Tiffany Long: Very much so.
Kelly Rogers: Very much so. We’re pretty special little group. A legend is generally a genre of folklore that’s focused on like human interest stories, like Tiff said earlier, and it describes things that are plausible, but a little more extra ordinary,
Tiffany Long: Right? These extra ordinary stories are the ones that we want to be sharing with you during our podcast.
Tiffany Long: Today’s episode is focused on things that end up in the wastewater treatment facilities, things that go bump in the sewer. During our research for this podcast, we uncovered a number of different stories and tidbits of information on this topic. Kelly, do you want to share a couple of examples to give our listener a flavor of what ends up in the sewer?
Kelly Rogers: I would love to. Let’s start with those things you might expect. Children’s toys are a wildly popular item for obvious reasons.
Tiffany Long: Yes.
Kelly Rogers: I think there isn’t a child in the world that doesn’t want to just do a little experiment to see what can go down that drain.
Kelly Rogers: The Southerly facility in Columbus, Ohio has a Wall of Weird that includes this whole arrangement of children’s toys, everything from Ariel from the Little Mermaid, you’ve got Spider-Man, Woody from Toy Story. And right next to that is this bizarrely, creepy display of various pairs of dentures, which it surprises me that so many dentures make it down the sewer.
Kelly Rogers: One of the other things they talked about that often come through the sewers are photo IDs, which absolutely fascinates me. I mentioned that we love true crime podcasts. I would love to get my hands, once they’re cleaned, on those IDs and figure out if any of them are missing persons and really dig into that. So maybe, that’s a future podcast topic.
Tiffany Long: Absolutely. How did they get there? On a personal note, my son swears that one of his Matchbox cars is probably down on the Wall of Weird here in Columbus at the Southerly facility.
Tiffany Long: But back to true crime. We also, captured some stories about how prisons are a source of weird items in the sewers, which makes a lot of sense. If you watch TV or movies, you know that people are always flushing things. I was actually watching an episode of Breaking Bad, the other day, and they were doing exactly that.
Prisoners apparently use their toilets for a wide array of different things, including drink coolers, washing machines and trash cans. In fact, while a single family household may flush 10 to 12 times a day, inmates have been known to flush their toilets up to 60 times a day.
Kelly Rogers: I hope that, at prisons, they get a break on the water bill. Holy cow.
Tiffany Long: Yeah. That’s just crazy. Things that frequently get flushed include clothing, food, wrappers for the food, medical supplies and even shoes, which I don’t totally understand.
Kelly Rogers: Yeah, either prisoners have really tiny feet or really big toilets.
Tiffany Long: Right.
Kelly Rogers: I don’t see how that even works.
Tiffany Long: Right. At a present in Monroe County, Washington, the plumbing supervisor actually had to devise a hook mechanism to catch items before they got too far down the pipes and created real problems.
Kelly Rogers: I think he needs an honorary engineering degree.
Tiffany Long: Yes. Instant PE.
Kelly Rogers: My favorite story that I read was about in Los Angeles, there were remains of a murder victim that were actually found at two different wastewater treatment plants that were 30 miles apart. This certainly isn’t the first body that’s made its way into the sewer, but the part that was fascinating is that it ended up at the two different plants and investigators said that the body was likely dumped into a manhole and then made its way down the sewer line.
I’m not going to get into too many gross details, but basically anything that’s coming down the sewer line before it gets to the plant, it goes through a centrifugal pump, and so the remains were likely pulled apart at that pump before heading off to the two different plants. If you’re familiar with the area, one was located in Carson and then the other was located in Bassett. That certainly, I’m sure, made it hard to solve that homicide when you have the remains so far apart.
Tiffany Long: Yeah. I’d hate to be the person that found that. You would not believe the drug related stories. There’s a plant in a state that borders the US and Mexico that gets wastewater from both countries. Apparently the rumor is that bales of drugs got caught in the plant headworks, and our understanding is that the plant staff had to drop what they were doing and leave the plant premises just for a little while. When they returned again, the rumor is the drugs were no longer on the premises.
Apparently, a local cartel that was supposed to retrieve the drugs from the sewer, missed the connection, and they ended up having to make their way to the plant to retrieve them. Not surprisingly, our source for that story did not want to be interviewed. But speaking of stories about drugs and the sewer, we’ll be right back with our guest, Mike Beatty, who will share his real life experience of figuring out what do you do when drugs make their way into the sewer.
Kelly Rogers: Today, we are lucky to be joined by former Brown and Caldwell employee, Mike Beatty, who now works for a large wastewater utility in Minnesota. Mike’s professional life in the wastewater industry started about 30 years ago. He started with the US EPA, and since then he’s worked for utilities, both as an employee and as a consultant and has managed operations at many large facilities. His experience has allowed him to gather quite a few stories along the way, but in keeping with our theme of things found in the sewers, Mike’s here to share with us one of his personal best.
Mike Beattie: We had a family of skunks make it into the sewer, so mama and five babies. They somehow made it all the way down to the head works and they were not happy at all. They must’ve crawled in a manhole or something. And once they’re in, they’re in. It’s not like baby ducks. I mean, with ducks, everybody panics, and everybody’s there trying to get them out. But I suppose if you saw a bunch of skunks go down to the sewer, you’re probably not going to deal with it. But, that was like the very first experience, right? And it’s like…
Kelly Rogers: Please, tell me you saved the baby skunks.
Mike Beattie: Yeah. Well, I did not. We, chose to turn that one over to animal control.
Tiffany Long: There you go.
Mike Beattie: We deal with enough stinky stuff at our treatment plant. And there was like, “You know what, we’re not touching them skunk with a 20 foot pole.” And they blasted our headworks building. I mean, they all made sure that their little a warning was functioning properly, right?
Tiffany Long: Oh, boy.
Kelly Rogers: That had to be a smell and a half.
Mike Beattie: That and hydrogen sulfide, oh my goodness. But you know, there’s been all kinds of things that have, that have come into the plant. I think the biggest thing I’ve ever seen was an entire dump truck of a load of asphalt. We kind of traced it back and the street department was filling a pothole. Well, they just kept shoveling it in. It wasn’t holding on to anything that was going into the sewer and ending up in our headworks.
Kelly Rogers: Did that stop operations? Did you have to….
Mike Beattie: Yeah. I mean, that was another one where we were down in the sewer was shovels and you try to take as much of it out as you can, but you kind of looked at it and said, “Well, why didn’t you stop putting the stuff in the hole in the street when you did the first dump truck load?”
Tiffany Long: Right.
Mike Beattie: But then everything in between, we’ve seen a lot of wedding rings. We always had like two, three, four wedding rings. Fortunately, usually those ended up in the trap in somebody’s sink, but on occasion, they did end up in the sewer.
Tiffany Long: Did you find any?
Mike Beattie: Let’s just say the success rate’s not really good. It’s something that’s really small and really light. And once it gets into a pipe, I mean, it’s going to flow. False teeth, in my town, our population was a little bit older. I bet we’ve got at least two or three calls on false teeth a year where…
Kelly Rogers: People would call to try to retrieve them?
Mike Beattie: I don’t know why they wanted them back.
Kelly Rogers: Well, they’re expensive, I guess.
Mike Beattie: Maybe. We would let them know…
Tiffany Long: You don’t want these.
Mike Beattie: It was in raw sewage, you might not want something like this back. But sewer crew fellows are a unique bunch. And when they find trinkets and stuff, sometimes there are guys who want to collect that stuff. So, there would be like, one of our sewer vehicles had a Buzz Lightyear doll on it that they had found, and then they decided to mount it on the dashboard of the truck. And other things, another one that was actually kind of funny, it was actually kind of personal, was we found a very large cache of golf balls in one area of town, which was kind of like, what is going on here? Why are we finding all these golf balls in the sewer? The golf balls are ending up in this little storage pond that we had, they were ending up at the pump station that we had. We went and cleaned this pump station out and there were a number of golf balls in there. And there was a guy, apparently, and it’s kind of a personal story, it’s my dad, actually.
My dad lived in this part of town and he had this huge field for a backyard. And he’s very interested about golf. And he would sit and hit golf balls all the time, but he never retrieved every single one. “Well, I can’t find a golf ball.” So, where these ended up? It’s like, these have got to be my dad’s golf balls.
Tiffany Long: So, the source was your own father? That’s hilarious.
Mike Beattie: So, I collected them and put them in a bucket. I brought them to him. I said, “Hey, you know what, are these yours?” He’s like, “Yeah, I’ve been looking for those.” And I said, “Well, you have been hitting them in a field that’s got an open man hole and every time it rains, your golf balls are ending up in the sewer and clogging up my pump stations.” That wreaks some havoc. You have an overflow now you’ve got to deal with, and paperwork you’ve got to deal with. And, sometimes the newspaper is involved.
Kelly Rogers: So, you have to fill out paperwork when stuff comes into the sewer like that?
Mike Beattie: Well, when it comes in, no, but if stuff comes back out, it’s considered an overflow. It’s considered a sanitary sewer overflow. Now, when you write that report for the state that, if you give them the circumstances, its just, “Yeah, what are you going to do about it? We’re not going to ding you on your permit for it.” There’s not much you can do about it. You’re not going to, I’m not going to post security at all your manholes. But they might make a recommendation and say, “maybe you should weld that one down so nobody gets in again” or whatever. Friday and Saturday nights, a lot of glow in the dark stuff.
Kelly Rogers: Oh my goodness.
Mike Beattie: Yeah. Lot of glow in the dark stuff on Friday and Saturday nights, you would be, “Oh, okay, somebody was having good time last night or the night before.” Those types of things.
Kelly Rogers: Any money, you ever see any money come through?
Mike Beattie: Well, so there’s a couple times we had. I had one instance where one of our sewer crew found a couple of gold coins on the floor. And so, he’s down cleaning, he’s down in the pipe doing his thing, he did, of course followed all of this confined entry and everything and he went in and he was down there crawling around, cleaning everything out. And he came up to my office that day, and he says, “You got to check this out, what I found.” And he found like three gold coins. And these were like, we couldn’t tell what they were because they had been in the sewer for so long. But when we put one under the microscope in the laboratory and saw 1885 stamped on it.
Tiffany Long: So, you had a Golden Eagle, right?
Mike Beattie: So, he had three golden Eagles that he found from way back in the day. And we let him keep those just because he was the one down doing all the digging and everything. And he did pretty well when, when he, when he cashed those in, that was probably at the time probably, and Gold Eagles at the time were solid gold. So, it was like three ounces of gold.
Tiffany Long: Wow.
Mike Beattie: Right.
Kelly Rogers: So, what’s the value?
Mike Beattie: I think at the time, I think he probably pulled in about $3,000.
Kelly Rogers: Wow, awesome.
Mike Beattie: Yeah, it was really great for him. And I was actually very happy for him because he earned it. He really earned it that day.
And then we had another time and I was telling Tiffany about this. We had a fellow, local guy, I don’t know if he’s a local guy or what, but he called the treatment plant one day and said, “Yeah, I lost something in the toilet. I was wondering maybe if you guys could come out and maybe look for it and help me find it.” “Well, what, what did you lose, sir?” And he just kind of muffled something about his phone or something, accidentally dropped his phone in the toilet and flushed it down. And, which was kind of a weird thing because at the time those were flip phones.
Kelly Rogers: Yeah.
Mike Beattie: I mean, I don’t think you could flush an iPhone down a toilet right now either, but he was kind of like, “Well, okay,” he says, “yeah, could you just let me know when the guys, where they’re going to be and where they’re going to look, because I’d like to give them a reward if they find it and everything.”
Tiffany Long: Was he calling you out to his house, his personal residence?
Mike Beattie: No, he was staying at a hotel and we’re like, “Yeah, sure, no problem.” And I talked to the guys and we had still had a couple of guys on shift and we sent the guys out and said, “Here’s what happened. Here’s where I think it’s probably going to end up.” There at the hotel he was staying at, there’s a pumping station that’s associated just with the hotel. So, you’d think, “Okay, it’s probably going to end up in the pumping station.” And so I said, “Yep, this is where they’re going to be. You can meet them there. I’ll send a crew out. They’ll pop the cover of the pumping station. Then you guys can route around, I guess, maybe” Though you don’t want to pump things down because you might end up pumping whatever you’re looking for away, whatever he was looking for.
And I got a call on the radio from my crew and my crew was like, “Yeah, there’s something going on here. I mean, this guy’s out here and he’s kind of fidgety. And we’re thinking there’s something going on.” I said, “Well, what do you mean by fidgety?” And he said, “Well, he’s fidgety.” I said, “Okay, so like meth fidgety, or just fidgety like my dad? And they’re like, “Probably meth fidgety.” And I said, “Okay, all right.”
So I said, “Look, put in the time, show him that you’re putting the effort in. And if you find something, let me know before you give it to him, okay? and if you don’t, then fine. Put a half hour into it or 45 minutes and dig around. And if you can’t find it, you can’t find it.” So, the guys are digging around and digging around. They can’t find anything. One of them says, “Well, let’s pump the station down and see if we can get the water level down to where it is.” They can’t find anything.
Kelly Rogers: Boy, they’re dedicated to figuring this out though.
Mike Beattie: Well, they want to know what it is.
Kelly Rogers: Well, exactly.
Mike Beattie: While they’re talking to him and chatting with him on this, he kind of admitted, “Hey, I flushed. I thought my room was getting raided and I flushed a bunch of drugs down the toilet. And I flushed a bunch of cash down the toilet. And they’re like, “Well, okay, well, we’re going to look for it for ya and whatever.” Well, of course they never found it in the station. And they finally got rid of him and he wasn’t getting raided. I mean, he was paranoid because of the drugs. Somebody knocked on his door, I think, and he panicked or whatever. But, I called one of my crew members a couple hours later and he answers and when he answers, he’s in a bar. They’d come back and dropped off their vehicles and they were thinking and had gone out afterwards. And I was like, “Yeah, so what was the deal?” And he says, “Yeah, we found the cash.”
Kelly Rogers: Oh my goodness.
Mike Beattie: Well, I say, “Really?” I said, “Well, how much did you find?” And he says, “I’m not telling you.” “What do you mean? You’re not telling me.” He says, “Well, we’ve been at the bar for a couple hours and it’s already spent.”
Kelly Rogers: Oh my gosh. So, did they tell the guy they found the cash?
Mike Beattie: Oh, no. That was, these guys right there, they’re just a little different, right?
Tiffany Long: They found the money and it was drinks all around.
Mike Beattie: They ended up going down a couple of manholes where, where the force main came out for the pumping station. And there, everything was sitting in the bottom of this manhole and they turned the drugs in to the cops. So, which, was a good. Told the cops where they could find the guy, but they didn’t tell anybody about the cash. They never said they took the cash, though. But when I talked to him on the phone, in the bar, it really seemed like they were really having a great time. And we talked on the Monday afterwards, because this was like on a Friday. And I said, “Well, so how much money did you guys actually spend Friday night?” And they said, “Well, we bought the bar, the entire bar a round, four times.” I said, “Okay.” And I knew the bar they were at, I was figuring it was somewhere in the area of probably a hundred people. So, they bought like 400 drinks.
Tiffany Long: I’m just wondering the bartender, taking the money. Were they like, “Ew.”?
Mike Beattie: He had rolls, so, then they were in plastic bags, but I don’t think he just flushed the cash down. But, I’m sure the bartender would be like, nah, if they thought there was something up. But it was just one of those, it’s one of these things. I just think about every once in a while, I was just like, wonder how much it actually was.
Kelly Rogers: And I bet you that guys wondering, “Okay, they found my drugs. What happened to my money?”
Mike Beattie: Judging by his fidgetiness, I don’t think he was too worried about really anything other than not being arrested. And he was out of town, I think he got out of town pretty quick, but it was one of those things you just like, “Wow. Holy cow.” The other thing is this actually goes on in my town. I don’t know why he was smart enough to call the sewage plant though. That one kind of gets me.
Kelly Rogers: Yeah, because he would have had to get out of the phone book or Google it, or you would have had to do something. Yeah.
Mike Beatty: I mean, who would you call? And, I mean, if you’re OF sound mind, you kind of think your way through it I think, “Well, I pay a sewage bill, I’ll call the sewage plant.” Well, maybe he’s done it before though, too.
Kelly Rogers: Oh, it might not be the first time.
Mike Beattie: Probably not the first time you lost the stash. Pretty exciting though. 32 years and doing that and having those experiences, and then I tell operators all the time, and they don’t think about it, “You guys are working someplace that makes clean water every day.” And a lot of guys just don’t take that into account of what they’re doing at wastewater plants. And it’s just amazing to me, just amazing.
Tiffany Long: That’s so important.
Tiffany Long: I was just talking with an operator at the same plant which was one of my last projects with BC and the plant manager had been there for 41 years. And we started calculating out how many gallons of clean water he had been responsible for and it was just like, “Kenny, you’ve done like 650 billion gallons of water, that you’ve been responsible for.” And he just kind of looked at me like, “What?” I said, “Yeah. I just did the math. And this is amazing.” It’s amazing what you guys are. Yeah. I don’t know. You got to think about those things. And then you have these fun things happen along the way, too.
Kelly Rogers: We were talking about it before the engineering community is such like a small community and subculture, and there’s so many interesting stories within the community. So, we’re excited to do this podcast to be able to kind of pull out some of those really fun things that go on.
Mike Beattie: Yeah. There are, there really are. And I think there’s some great stories out there. I think there’s some great challenges out there that people have solved. It’s fascinating. It really is.
Kelly Rogers: We are so glad you joined us today. As we shared creepy stories, stories about criminal things that happen in sewers. And of course, a few living things that were found, we’d like to say a special, thank you to our guest, Mike Beatty, for sharing his stories with us today. Mike, you are an amazing storyteller and we’ve really enjoyed our time together.
Tiffany Long: Yes. Thank you so much, Mike. We know that digging into things that end up in the sewer might be considered a bit of a taboo topic in some circles, but any of us working in the water and wastewater industry, frequently crossed that line in our professional lives. So, thank you for being with us.
Kelly Rogers: And we’ve got some great topics in the works for our future episodes. Want to know what treatment facility can host your wedding?
Tiffany Long: Or my personal favorite, how about some scary stories about supernatural phenomenon.
Kelly Rogers: Or maybe you’re planning that next family vacation and trying to figure out what infrastructure you need to include in your itinerary. These are some of our stories in the hopper. Speaking of stories, I bet many of our listeners out there have their own Engineering Legends. We’d love to hear from you. Please, send us your feedback, stories, and ideas for future episodes. You can reach us at email@example.com. Again, that’s firstname.lastname@example.org.
Tiffany Long: This podcast was brought to you by Brown and Caldwell. It’s our purpose and our passion to safeguard water, maintain infrastructure and restore habitats to keep our communities thriving. Until next time.