Fat Through Infrastructure The Sewerfat Crisis

The movement of discourses about fat from the individual to the city level has, as we have seen, involved the mobilization of a range of actors into programmes of slimming down American individuals and slimming down American cities. It would be a mistake, however, if the relationship between individuals and cities, as both environment and site for collective action, ignored the role of infrastructures. Infrastructure is, by its very nature, often defined by its very hidden presence with apparent reliability and stability, as if it represents an almost neutral intermediary between the individual and the city. Yet, understanding the city as a socio-technical process points to the "constant effort" required to keep infrastructure working (Graham and Marvin 2001). The social, technical and spatial-temporal characteristics of infrastructures become more acutely revealed during times of crises when the material embodiment of different sets of social, political, economic or organizational relations are ruptured (Graham and Marvin 2001; Summerton 1994). This is true of fat and its relationship to sewerage infrastructure: the sewer-fat crisis is a crisis that points to the, otherwise largely hidden, complex interconnectivities between, for example, the food industry, local waste disposal systems, and global food oil markets. Sewers, as Gandy (1999) argues "are one of the most intricate and multi-layered symbols and structures underlying the modern metropolis, and form a poignant point of reference for the complex labyrinth of connections that bring urban space into a coherent whole" (p. 24). A crisis in the sewers is more than a technical malfunction. It is a crisis that reveals the instabilities between the geographies of city infrastructure and the unbounded interdependencies of city metabolisms.

In October 2001, Randy Southerland wrote about the growing numbers of sewer blockages and overflows across cities in the United States as restaurants and fast food chains pour cooking residue into drains while local governments lack the resources to monitor grease disposal and enforce the relevant regulations (Southerland 2002). The solidification of fat, oils and grease, he writes "choke pipelines, eventually clogging them and causing them to cough up rivers of raw sewerage". He cites how, in January 2001, the US Environmental Protection Agency sued Los Angeles for 2,000 sewer spills over five years, 40 percent of which were caused by fat. In the Wall Street Journal Barry Newman (2001) writes how in New York there are about 5,000 "fat-based backups a year with several big gum ups". For reasons that range from the decline in global markets for waste fat and the increased costs of fat disposal, following Mayor Giuliani's crackdown on the garbage Mafia (Methvin 2000), more grease is illegally disposed of into the sewers:

Fat won't pollute: it won't corrode or explode. It accretes. Sewer rats love sewer fat; high protein builds their sex drive. Solid sticks in fat. Slowly, pipes occlude. Sewage backs up into basements—or worse, the fat hardens, a chunk breaks off and rides down the pipe until it jams in the machinery of an underground floodgate. That to use a more digestible matter causes a municipal heart attack.

(Newman 2001)

While there are hotspots around restaurant areas there are also, however, sewer fat problems around residential areas, particularly where large numbers of multifamily units are located and where residents discharge their grease into the drain. And in some cases attention is turning to schools and prisons (Southerland 2002). Just as with obesity then, there are different distributions of sewer-fat problems across different publics.

In contrast to Men's Fitness who made visible the problem at the level of the city collective, making visible the problem in sewers continues to be a challenge for local authorities and utilities charged with sewer maintenance. A variety of techniques have been developed for identifying blockages, including CCTV, smoke infrared thermography, and even radar and sonics (National Association of Sewer Service Companies website). Having made fat visible, cities are developing strategies to combat the fat in the sewers. High-pressure hoses can remove blockages, but dislodged blocks of fat may then cause new problems downstream. Large vacuum trucks are also used to either suck or blow fat out of congested sewers. In New York an enzyme product that reduces grease build-up is routinely used, and a liquid emulsifier can now tackle larger build-ups (Pagano 1999). Similarly in New Bedford, bacteria developed by a bio-technological company are used to metabolize the grease, breaking it apart into water, carbon dioxide and free fatty acids, that can be washed away from metal, concrete and brick (Allen 2000).

When the crisis hits, the problems becomes all too visible in sewer overflows but prevention is more problematic. Ultimately, the concern of cities is to avoid the grease being put into the sewers and making visible the practices of restaurants and households distributed throughout cities raises different challenges. New "lean sewer" ordinances have been developed, but the cost of monitoring and enforcement is high (Southerland 2002). Not surprisingly then we see also the emergence of appeals to the city collective once more to reshape the deposition of fat. In New York, for example, the Environmental Protection Department guidance makes the following plea: "Sewer back up damages property and damages public health—the city needs businesses and individuals to do their part to maintain the system" (City of New York 2002). Indeed, across US cities brochures promoting "fat free sewers" show homeowners what they can do to keep grease out of the sewers (Water Environment Federation 1999).

Fat is not just a problem for bodies and the public health of cities, it is also a problem that involves the processes of city infrastructure. The sewers crisis has given us a pertinent example of this, but the arguments can also be understood in relation to other infrastructures. Indeed, resolving the problem of fat being disposed in the sewers can lead to problems in other infrastructures. A traffic jam in San Francisco, one of the fittest cities in the US according to the Men's Fitness league, was caused by a spillage of cooking oil from an overturned truck. It took cleanup crews nine hours to re-open the lanes of the highway according to the California Highway Patrol (Sfgate 2004). It was reported the truck was carrying used cooking oil collected from restaurants. Just as fat in the sewers solidifies as it cools, so too on the highway, in the cool weather, the fat had solidified into a gel making the clean up harder: "it got into the grooves (of the road) and was difficult to extract" a spokesman from the truck company said.

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