Mon, Feb 12, 2018 - Page 8 News List

London’s ‘fatberg’ on show

The Whitechapel Monster, a giant block of grease from the sewers, comes to the Museum of London. Is it a monument to the age of waste?

By Tim Adams  /  The Guardian

The woman charged with curating Fatberg! is Vyki Sparkes, who looks after social and working history at the museum.

“It was like the finger of fate pointed at me,” Sparkes says with well-scrubbed hands and a slightly rueful smile.

Sparkes is unsure yet on how high up her CV “curator of 21st-century sewage” will appear, but she is confident that the exhibition will be a worthy addition to the museum.

“If you went up to someone in the street and asked them to talk about what they put down their toilet they would tell you to bog off, basically,” she says. “But this is a way to open that conversation. We are not here to tell people how to behave, I am here to reflect how we live and to raise questions.”


Those questions are welcomed above all by Thames Water, some of whose employees have begun to feel fatbergs looming over every part of their life, crowding in on them. Alex Saunders has been working on waste networks for four of his six years with the company, but on the Whitechapel Fatberg, and its ripple effects, for most of the past four months. The East End Mammoth was, he suggests to me, “kind of a perfect fatberg storm.” A fatberg needs two principal elements to evolve. The first is a large and regular amount of oil and grease poured into sewers; the second is a population that flushes wet wipes and tampons and condoms and nappies down the toilet.

If you go and stand in Whitechapel Road, Saunders suggests, you could guess it was likely fatberg territory. It is a street lined with cafes and restaurants and takeaway outlets. Then there is the Royal London hospital, “which can lead to the flushing of some sanitary products,” and also a very high density of flats and houses.

When you walk along that stretch of road it seems extraordinary that the fatberg could evolve to such a scale beneath your feet without Thames Water noticing it — or without the sewers backing up and flooding.

Part of the reason for that is the sheer volume of the London network, Saunders suggests. The pipework is “hundreds of thousands of kilometers long” and “you cannot be sticking your head down the same bit of sewer every week.” The Whitechapel sewer, part of Bazalgette’s original brick-built labyrinth, has an inverted egg-shape cross-section; the bottom is narrower than the top so during a time of low flow there is a thin channel to keep it moving and when it rains the sewer amplifies.

The fatberg had formed along the upper part of the tunnel. Below it there was still a good flow and therefore no warning signs. “Then suddenly,” Saunders recalls, “during our normal inspections the guys popped down there and found this thing that turned out to be bigger than Tower Bridge.”

The Whitechapel Behemoth had hardened into a kind of concrete. The flusher teams have a variety of high-pressure jets, some revolving, some with chains and drill bits, to break up the bergs, which they try to use like keyhole surgery, careful not to damage the sewer itself.

“We have lots of weapons at our disposal,” Saunders says, “but sometimes, as with the Whitechapel one, it is so impacted that a lot of it is the teams going down and chiseling away by hand.”

In London, which has a magnified version of a universal problem because the sewers are so large, this work never stops. Thames Water has teams working full time; usually they are aware of five or six fatbergs that are growing. Some cause immediate blockages, others like the one in Whitechapel don’t. Saunders estimates the work costs £1 million a month, but that doesn’t include the collateral damage of “sewage flooding living rooms and public spaces cordoned off and out of bounds because they are contaminated.”

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