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Burb's Eye View: Appreciating the job of sewer workers

January 28, 2014|By Bryan Mahoney

If you were to ask me where the worst place is to start your career as a sewer worker, I might have said behind a chili restaurant. That’s where mine started.

My career lasted only a morning, and I didn’t actually do any sewer work. That was fine considering I wasn’t getting paid. Yet, in just a couple hours, I learned that everything I thought or assumed about the life of Burbank’s sewer crew is exaggerated and steeped in more myth than muck.

We passed by the peeling paint of the old Chili John’s restaurant sign and Jerry Ellegood pointed down the road with a thick, tattooed arm. Like all the sewer workers I met, he’s solidly built — a former Marine who can also easily toss aside a 240-pound manhole cover like it was a wafer.


As the collections supervisor for the city, he spends a lot of his time driving his pickup to work sites — usually a truck parked at a manhole where the real work begins.

The sewer truck is gleaming white. Two workers are loading its tank with water from a hydrant, their shoes and pants clean and dry. This sewer clean-up gig is a highly sophisticated, computer-controlled job that only gets dirty if you’re doing it wrong.

It also can be dangerous — especially when operating the giant vacuum fueled by its own 10-cylinder engine that rotates three giant fans.

“It’ll rip your arms off,” Ellegood said.

The two-man crew, Kelly Kusch and Armando Ruiz, both of Burbank, will use the hydrant’s water to fill a hose on the truck that can reach 800 feet into the city sewer line. When the hose is turned on, the water cuts like razor blades. What results is a liquefied gray goo that used to be tree roots sneaking their way through the pipe joints.

Just seven people work on the city’s sewer lines — roughly the same number for the past 70 years, Ellegood said. It used to be a more hands-on job, before technology hastened the process of speed-cleaning the pipes.

Every September, they begin their route at the outer edges of Burbank, snaking their way through the streets toward the sewer treatment plant at the geographic center of Burbank. The route, all 225.5 miles of it, takes between 10 and 12 months regardless of flood or drought.

“People are gonna flush,” Ellegood said.

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