Four Orange city workers are about to become environmental gumshoes as they embark on a high-tech mission that will take them into the city's deepest and darkest sewers.
The project was approved last week by the City Council and will take at least five years to complete. The workers' assignment: Inspect and videotape the city's vast sewer and storm drains network in search of illegal sewage dumping.
The workers will also check for damages in the labyrinth-like system, portions of which were built 90 years ago.
At their disposal will be $140,000 in the latest video equipment and a large van to be stocked with computers and video screens.
The City Council authorized the inspections to comply with state and federal clean-water laws, which require that sewers be periodically checked for unauthorized hookups into the system. Orange needed to develop an inspection plan by April 1 to avoid being considered "out of compliance" with the laws and subject to fines.
This will be the first time Orange's entire sewer system has been probed, said Philip R. Pierce, the city's street division manager.
The workers will not actually climb down into sewers or storm drains. Rather, they will send an automated camera with high-powered lights into the sewers and it will travel along a special track that runs between manholes.
The whole system will be controlled by workers inside the van. Video monitors will display color images from the sewers; the computers will chart the camera's path and record descriptions of each area.
"This way, we don't have to keep going back to the videotape," Pierce said. "We will have a hard copy (from the computer) on hand."
Inside the van, workers will monitor the live video feed in search of breaks and cracks in the sewer lines.
The workers will also search for illegal sewer hookups by using maps of the system, which note all authorized hookups. Any that don't appear on the maps will be investigated.
The van will be operated by two workers, who will be replaced by a substitute team during vacations and days off.
If the city had contracted out the inspections, the bill would be nearly $1 million, Pierce said. By using city workers and equipment, the most costly element of the project will be the $140,000 worth of video and computer equipment, which officials are now pricing.
"We are saving quite a bit of money on this," Pierce said.