S.F. gets off the crapper

Deep underground, "The Mole" burrows a hole from the grassy hills by the Great Highway beneath the Presidio. Nothing can stop this round, rock-eating machine, whose tungsten-carbide teeth carve through 80 feet of shale and sandstone a day. The Mole is on a lofty environmental mission to save San Francisco Bay by digging an 18-foot-wide, two-mile sewer tunnel. But the mudcaked miners laying concrete walls behind this rumbling beast must keep their minds on the job at hand. One miner recently lost a finger, though his co-workers say he didn't feel the pain.

The chomping noise from the Mole is so loud it's almost impossible to hear operator Dan Garrett, who stands at the control levers chewing his cigar butt. "My job is to keep it on line. No sense digging a tunnel if you don't put it where you want it," Garrett says with a smile. "I've been on a lot of these [digs] and I've never missed. If I did, I'd have to start looking for another job."

The tunnel beneath the Richmond is the final piece of a 20-year Clean Water Program that's the pride and joy of the Department of Public Works. The bureaucrats, engineers and miners who have upgraded and built treatment plants, pump stations and transport structures rarely get the chance to hold their heads above the stream of crap and claim an environmental victory. But in March 1996, the expected completion date for this massive tunnel, these workers will fill their hardhats with champagne -- or maybe Budweiser -- to celebrate victory over one of the city's messiest pollution problems: When it rains, San Francisco literally shits into the bay and the Pacific Ocean.

"The overflow of raw sewage at Baker Beach is ugly as hell," says Steve Maiolini, a DPW project manager, from his trailer at the tunnel's muddy entry point at Balboa Avenue and the Great Highway. "There are 40 overflows a year there," he declares -- discharges that flood the popular stretch of sand with coliform bacteria, long con-sidered a health hazard to swimmers and surfers.

But Baker Beach hasn't been the only shithole. For years the dumping occurred at some 37 spots around the circumference of the city nearly every time it rained. The problem stemmed from San Francisco's decision decades ago to save money by building a single sewer system (rather than two separate ones) that merged sewage and rainwater during heavy storms. The limited storage capacity of the sewer system never adequately handled the load, particularly during wet winters; the result is the annual discharge of an estimated 1.7 billion gallons of raw sewage, mixed with polluted storm water and industrial wastes, into surrounding waters.

The Mole may be an unlikely environmental champion. But the 10 million-gallon-capacity tunnel will significantly reduce the coliform dumping. (The overflow pipe will also be moved from Baker Beach to the less-trafficked Land's End.) The new and improved system has already cut down overflows citywide, prompting predictions that the city, finally, will be in compliance with the federal Clean Water Act by 1996. (Just when things seem to be flowing smoothly, an alarming new sewage problem has floated to the top of the environmental agenda, but more on that later.)

Spitting and snarling somewhere beneath the 17th green of the Presidio golf course, the Mole deposits small chunks of rock onto a conveyor belt that moves the material to the "muck cars" of a waiting train. The train then shuttles back and forth to the tunnel mouth at breakneck speeds, requiring passengers to duck their heads under the airshaft at the right moment or risk being knocked out. Other than a computer-aided laser beam that guides the Mole, the miners' job, for the most part, hasn't changed much over the years.

"We're going to be drilling and dynamiting on this job," explains foreman Curtis Bahten, who's standing at the tunnel's portal. A 39-year-old law school dropout from "the motherlode," the Gold Country that is, Bahten is known as a hard-driving boss who nonetheless respects his men. "Mining is every bit as difficult as it was when we mined 50 years ago," he yells over the roar of the nearby crane. "We're still the hardest working men around. This isn't a situation for the meek."

Miners are a cliquish lot. "The boys," as Bahten calls them, travel from job to job, state to state, working for about $23 an hour. Many never see the light of day during the week, entering the tunnel before sun-up and going home after the sun's last rays sink into the Pacific. "It's dark to dark," says the foreman. The seaside jobsite does provide enticing views of winter waves for those working at the portal.

To the untrained eye, contemporary mining seems horribly dangerous, with the Manitowoc crane lifting, swinging and dropping 60,000-pound muck cars and 24,000-pound cement tunnel sections next to the miners. Sitting above the portal, crane operator George Sausedo can't see the workers down below as he maneuvers the deadly loads into their waiting grasp. "It's all done by radio," stresses Bahten. Somehow the casual-looking, cigarette-smoking miners seem to turn their heads just in time to catch the cargo before it strikes them. "Exactly," smiles the proud foreman.

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