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Fatberg

I Watched People Dissect London's Fatberg to See What It's Made of

As a new Channel 4 show explores the mysteries of the fatberg, we went along to look at (and smell one) for ourselves.

by Joel Golby; photos by Chris Bethell
24 April 2018, 2:33pm

Don't look directly into The Fatberg. The Fatberg has a way of looking back at you. We have not even considered the smell. Read that back: we have not yet considered the smell.

But no, you must gaze into The Fatberg. Look at what you have wrought. You expect it to be slippy with grease, but it is hard and dense like sand. You expect it to pulsate and slide, but it is solid like the earth is. You made this thing. You made this Fatberg. You did it, not with your shit and piss and vomit, but with everything else you do: the wet wipes, the condoms, the cocaine baggies. You pour grease down your kitchen sink and bond this monster together beneath the sewers. I am gazing at what you made, what we all made. It is gazing right back at me. I hate The Fatberg with my life. Looking into it is like looking into nothing, looking into the abyss. Looking into The Fatberg is like looking into hell itself.

We're in east London! At a repurposed pumping station rented by a Channel 4 show. Fatberg Autopsy: Secrets of the Sewer is a Rick Edwards-fronted extravaganza where Thames Water pull five tons of hell out of the ground beneath us and a team of forensic scientists go through the grease and piss and shit and see what it is made of. It’s fun, in a way. A monster hauled from the deep and splayed out for us to gaze upon, like Victorians conquering a whale.

We are fascinated with fatbergs, is the thing. A small, fun anecdote: I used to work in an office where productivity came to a sudden and total stop whenever a news story about a fatberg dropped. "Fatberg," they would say, in awe, chewing on sandwiches. "There’s another one." Ding the bell for another fatberg. This one is the size of five buses. This one is the length of a bridge. They are underneath us, always, growing. They cling like limpets to the arteries and veins that make up our sewers. There are around a dozen of them in London, right now, growing and growing, snowballing in size, collecting up cotton buds and Snickers wrappers and great fistfuls of fat until they have to be dug out with pickaxes and floated, lump by lump, to the surface from where they came.

Fatbergs glisten inside our sewers like alien eggs inside the newly seized ship. Fatbergs could burst open and bring down unimaginable hell upon us, when we least suspect it. You know the sound you think a fatberg makes, don’t you? Slick, gelatinous. Like a spider screaming loud enough to be heard. Slick–chk–khk. Ye–lowch.

In the east London pumping station, we are being briefed by a no-nonsense man called James about how to act cool around The Fatberg. We have to wear germ-proof suits and disposable green-sheer gloves over our hands. We have to pass through a decontamination station on the way in (so we do not infect The Fatberg) and on the way out (so The Fatberg does not infect… us? So The Fatberg does not infect… the world?).

James seems to think we are all a lot less reluctant to touch The Fatberg than we are. James is briefing us like he imagines The Fatberg to be a swimming pool full of money, and us assembled journalists are Scrooge McDuck, and that without him telling us not to we will put our hands in the sign of a prayer and dive right there into The Fatberg, jetting grey–slurry spurts it it out of our mouths like fish joyfully glubbing for air. "What we don’t want," James is saying, emotionlessly, "is this," and he motions the act of a hand pinching something invisible then bringing it up to the mouth and eating it, like you would perform the act of eating a prawn from a buffet if you were in a particularly weird drama class where you had to do that. I write down in my notes, "don’t eat the fatberg". Okay, yeah, cool. That’s all the briefing required.

FATBERG, A RECIPE

(Serves 1,000)

Ingredients

— A whole mess of wet wipes
— A bunch of sanitary napkins and condoms
— The grease from your takeaway dinner, the orange stuff that clings to the plate
— All the fat from your roast, decanted
— Every time you order chips and the place that makes the chips pours the chip grease away? Whenever that happens: all of that
— Assorted gold teeth, gold watches, syringes, cocaine: just assorted crap
— To serve: a slurry of shit and piss

Method

  1. Flush a wet wipe down the toilet and hope that thing snags on the rough wall of a sewer, or something. Make sure you get "flushable" wet wipes, which every wet wipe technically is. Flushable just means you can flush it down a toilet. It doesn’t mean it degrades in the pipes of our sewers. Literally: like 1 percent of wet wipes on sale in the UK degrade in the sewers. The rest just sit there, pulsating, growing.

  2. Well, see, now you want to flush a whole bunch of grease down after the wet wipe. The wet wipe (snagged, remember) will collect grease and fat around it like a froth, all of it floating above the slurry of shit and piss that otherwise churns its way through the sewers every day.

  3. Okay, now a couple of months have gone by and the wet wipes have been joined by a few more wet wipes, all knotted together, and fat pulses through the proto-berg, and the whole thing is a sort of lump, alive in a way, floating and collecting and calcifying and floating and collecting, more wet wipes, now more fat, now throw a really long trail of toilet roll in there, now more fat, more wipes, fat, wipes, fat, wipes, slurry, wipes, fat wipes slurry fat wipes—

  4. After about a year you’ll have a fatberg some kid has to get out of the sewer with a fucking spade. Congratulations: you did it. You somehow made your waste… more disgusting than it already was.

The Fatberg is A Problem. When a fatberg forms, a team of sewage workers have to perform keyhole surgery on the flesh and bones of London itself, sending down probes and wires to jet high-pressure water into the fatberg, breaking it into lumps. Some of the lumps break down into slurry – everyone keeps saying the word "slurry" to me today – and float away, like the sewage system is designed to do. Other lumps are larger and need to be dug out with pickaxes, attacked by hand with spades.

It is long and dangerous work. Thames Water's Alex Saunders is telling me the worst way a fatberg could kill you if you wanted. "As soon as you hit into a fatberg, you release all the gasses that are stored within it," he explains. He points to sewage workers in full head-to-toe protection, Vader-esque breathing apparatus around their faces. "So we force down the ventilation so they can keep doing it – otherwise, as soon as you hit it, the gas alarms would go off, they would come out and you’d never get any work done."

The Whitechapel Fatberg – the most famous fatberg, the one the sewage workers here refer to almost fondly, sweetly – was the weight of 11 buses and the length of London Bridge. It took two months to break apart. "Will the fatbergs ever take over the sewers so much that we can’t shit, we can’t piss?" I ask Alex. "No," he says. "The worst that’ll happen is some toilets will back up." I look at The Fatberg. It seems like more of a problem than that. "The real problem is the cost," he says. "The Whitechapel Fatberg cost £220,000 to break up. That gets reflected in your water bills."

I hate paying for water at the best of times. I sure as shit hate paying for a lad in a hazmat suit to clang a load of old takeaway grease with a spade or hammer.

EXCERPTS FROM THE TRANSCRIPTS, #1

VICE: Has fatberg broken an arm? Has it claimed any victims?
AS: Um. No. Not that I know of.

VICE: Could you hide a body in a fatberg, do you think?
AS: Um. [interview ends]

There is something quite gothic about The Fatberg. The room it is contained in seems to be exhaling a fog of steam, and intricate architecture climbs the high ceilings. We’re in a decommissioned pumping room that used to work to surge the sewage up towards the surface so it could start to descend again, and it seems haunted by the ghosts of the turds that came before it. London sewers work mostly on gravity: they tip slowly downhill, and the sludge and slurry and turd all follows, and when the sewage has gone about as deep as it can go it is "pumped" up again to slide down the next section of sewer.

How fast does it go, I ask Thames Water's Will Randall. "About walking pace," he tells me. "It depends on the flow of the sewer. It’s a bit like a river flow: if you get a busy river, on a rainy day it’s quite thick, and on a calm day it flows a bit slower. And that’s essentially what sewers are. They’re pipes... but they’re underground rivers." Full of shit and piss, and fatbergs, but rivers nonetheless. "What’s your favourite sewer?" I ask him, and he thinks hard for a second. "Lower Level 1," he says. "If you go to the toilet in Acton – in west London, Ealing sort of way – your shit, piss and toilet paper will flow all the way by gravity – get pumped a couple of times – then come to Barking. Does a little tour."

Thank you, Lower Level 1, for taking my piss to Barking.

They’re letting me hit The Fatberg with a hammer. Previously we’ve been gazing at The Fatberg, like a slain monster, from the top of a balcony, but now we’re down here close to it, amongst it. I asked Will earlier if it is quite satisfying hitting a fatberg with a hammer, and he said it is – "It’s like hitting… rocks. soft rocks. Looking for blocks of gold." – but now I am being faced with the reality of the turdy grease beast, I am more repulsed than ever.

I want to hit it with a hammer – I want to destroy it, scrub it away, turn it into particles, dust – but also I am repelled by the very idea of it. I didn’t think I’d be this squeamish – "Aha, a fatberg!" I said to my editor, before I came here. "Imagine! All turds and that!" – but The Fatberg has a vibe to it: it is all of our waste, all of our sins, all of our mistakes, clogged together with fat and left to ferment and grow beneath the streets of us. I hit it with the hammer until debris flies up into the air.

Is it OK to inhale fatberg debris? "Yeah," a very bored-looking medic tells me. "Only thing that can go wrong is if you prick yourself with a needle." A used syringe, I imagine, weaponised with all of London’s bacteria and shit. You’d have to throw the whole arm away if you got done by that. "Yeah," the medic says, distantly. "That’s what I’m worried about."

EXCERPTS FROM THE TRANSCRIPTS, #2

VICE: What sort of things to you find in a fatberg, then?
AS: Err… yes. So it depends what’s going into it: it’s not just the fats and the grease, you find some other pretty quirky stuff going in there. So, the big Whitechapel fatberg – you know those small blue pens you get at the bookies? We found lots of them… someone had obviously had a bad day at the bookies and flushed away their sorrows. We find false teeth, glasses, gold watches, gold teeth… you name it. We even found a toilet.
VICE: A toilet?
AS: Yeah, they obviously hadn’t flushed it down the— they lifted a manhole and shoved it down the sewer. But yeah.
VICE: Suppose there’s some sort of logic to it, in a way

Both myself and the photographer need a minute after looking at The Fatberg. We’re both sat at a linoleum table in a catering truck just staring, silently. Breathing, too. The smell of The Fatberg isn’t the worst – everyone talks about the smell, about it being Less Bad than expected, and we roughly settle on it being a 6/10 on the Bad Smell Scale: everyone who works at Thames classes it as a 1/10, and has some adjacent horror story about when they ever smelt a 10 – but still, that first great lungful of fresh air after you escape The 'Berg feels like something: feels like you’re cleansing your body, from the inside out, flooding it with good where bad had managed to worm its way in.

The Fatberg is not alive, but it feels like an object that once had life: it feels like an enormous, horrid corpse, rather than a prosaic collection of filths and wastes. It feels like it had to be killed to be here. It wriggles with worms and bombproof bacteria. It convulses with stray condoms and syringes. We made this, all of us, together. The Fatberg is our large adult son. Please, please, so I don’t have to go look at one of these again: please. Please don’t flush your grease and wet wipes down into the sewer system. It becomes something horrid down there. It becomes something like a monster.

Fatberg Autopsy: Secrets of the Sewer is on Channel 4 tonight at 9PM and will be on All 4 catch-up.

@joelgolby

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