Thousands enter to win tour of Portland’s sewage treatment plant

25 January 2023

PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) – Last week, more than 300,000 fliers were mailed out to residents of Portland, Oregon, with a curious offer: a chance to win a tour of the city’s sewage treatment plant. 

“Ever wonder what happens to what you flush?” the flier asks. “Enter to win a tour of the city’s main wastewater treatment plant and see for yourself.”

The primary clarifiers at Portland’s wastewater treatment plant. In these tanks, the wastewater solids, known as scum, sink to the bottom or float to the top. These solids are sent to the plant’s “digesters” for their own separate processing. (Portland Bureau of Environmental Services)

The contest presented by the Portland Bureau of Environmental Services in its annual mailer is, in fact, real. Bureau spokesperson Diane Dulken confirmed that, like Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory, 10 lucky Portland residents will be invited inside the Columbia Boulevard Wastewater Treatment Plant in North Portland in the spring of 2023.

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The intriguing mailer quickly caught the attention of Portland Redditors, who reacted to the contest with excitement, surprise and an expected amount of toilet humor. As of Jan. 24, Dulken said that more than 2,000 contestants have applied for the tour. 

“Quite frankly, we’ve been pleased by the response,” Dulken said. “People are interested in a behind-the-scenes look of how we clean up that dirty water.”

The collected scum and sludge is sent to cylindrical tanks called digesters. The digesters heat the waste to 95 degrees while microorganisms dine on Portland’s poop. This process kills pathogens and reduces odor. (Portland Bureau of Environmental Services)

Once offered regularly to all members of the public, the treatment plant tours were halted during the last three years of the COVID-19 pandemic. The facility is also in the midst of a $400-million upgrade to its aging infrastructure, which is expected to be completed in 2024. The contest, Dulken said, is a way for the Bureau of Environmental Services to stay connected to the public as it prepares to reopen the facility to citizens on a larger scale.

“We’re a wastewater and stormwater utility,” she said. “Portlanders rely on us every day but don’t think of us. We want to communicate with the public we serve.”

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During the tour, contest winners will learn how Portland processes its waste. And then, how that waste gets turned back into clean water, energy, and manure for livestock pastures.

“This is an operating wastewater treatment plant,” the contest entry page warns. “Certain areas of the plant may have a strong odor.”

Interested residents who aren’t selected for the tour can also watch the Portland Bureau of Environmental Services’ informational video, titled “After the Flush.” In the video (provided at the top of this article), the city gives a step-by-step look at its water treatment process. The bureau plans to announce the contest winners in February, and is currently considering a larger number of winners based on the public’s level of interest.

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