The first chunk of the Sidmouth fatberg, a monstrous mass of congealed oils, grease, wet wipes and other nasties lurking under the seafront of the Devon resort, has been brought to the surface at the start of an eight-week cleanup operation.
A hunk of the 64-metre long object was hauled up into the light in a yellow plastic bucket. A wet wipe – a key component of fatbergs – poked out of one side of the grey-white mess, a cotton bud from another.
Charlie Ewart, a sewer worker, said he and his colleagues could not wait to get rid of the fatberg, which has been gathering unnoticed beneath the Esplanade, a few metres from the sea, for years.
“We’re looking forward to getting it out,” he said. “It’s quite eerie down there in the sewer and and you have to keep an eye out for rats. But it’s a challenge. Somebody’s got to do it.”
The smell – a heady combination of rotting meat mixed with the odour of an unclean toilet – does not bother Ewart and his mates. “When you’ve been in the industry for a while you don’t smell it. You get immune.”
Sidmouth’s fatberg, the size of six double-decker buses, has provoked interest around the world. Visitors have arrived in the town to examine the spot and try to pick up a whiff.
South West Water opened a pop-up shop to explain what is happening and warn people of the dangers of dropping things they shouldn’t down the toilet and sink. Hundreds of people visited and took part in games and competitions. One resident was inspired to write a poem about it.
But now the task of getting rid of the fatberg has begun.
Experts are winched down a small manhole into the sewer, which was built in Victorian or regency times. They have to be careful of the water levels. Work was hampered on Wednesday after rain showers meant that they were suddenly faced with 2.5 metres of water.
The gases are also a problem. The methane levels are high and oxygen low and Ewart and his colleagues wear full breathing apparatus and carry gas detectors to make sure they are not in danger. Detectors are also in place on the surface and alarms will beep if gas is detected above ground.
Ewart and the team hack at the fatberg with small shovels and a mattock – a lighter version of a pickaxe. Special lorries fitted with high-pressure, sewer-jetting equipment will help get the fatberg moving and suck it out.
South West Water’s director of wastewater, Andrew Roantree, said the discovery of the fatberg – which was found about four metres below the surface – had been greeted with a mixture of interest, concern and horror in the town.
He also revealed that since December the beast – which is how some think of it – had shifted. “The guys were quite surprised,” he said. “It has moved. Something has happened – it could have got bigger or the flow in the sewer may have shuffled it a bit.”
Happily, there has been little or no odour and the cleanliness of the bathing water has not been affected.
Scientists from the University of Exeter will take samples of the fatberg to analyse exactly what it is made of. Roantree said he was keen to find out how much plastic – a component of the wet wipe – was in it.
South West Water has used the Sidmouth fatberg as an educational tool. The wet wipes tend to create a matrix that other elements get caught up in, gradually creating a hard mass.
Roantree said the company spent about £5m a year on clearing 8,500 blockages of all shapes and sizes from across its region. He said he was keen to get over the message that only the “three Ps” – poo, pee and paper – should end up in a toilet. “On average we deal with a blockage every hour. This fatberg is a massive manifestation of that problem,” he said.
The hope is that by the summer, when the regency town fills with tourists again, the unwelcome visitor will be long gone.