September 7, 2012

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“One requirement for this project is you got to talk southern,” snickered Wynn Morgan, senior project manager for the Jefferson City Tunnel Project. Delivered in his lolling, southern Alabama drawl, Wynn’s joke elicits plenty of laughs around the standing-room-only conference room, as we chosen ones milled about while eating pulled pork sandwiches and coleslaw.

On behalf of Missouri American Water, we had all been invited to take a strange journey where few Missourians have ever ventured: under the Missouri River. The tunnel is the main vein of the Jefferson City Tunnel Project, an $11 million upgrade to replace an obsolete water-intake system that is more than 100 years old and likely dug by hand.

Fortunately, we were all in good hands. Layne Christensen, the company tapped to do the digging, is the same company responsible for rescue operations that saved the Chilean miners. Despite the project being classified a “non-gassy tunnel” and a 46-page safety manual reassuring us in bold, capital letters, “THERE IS LITTLE TO NO LIKELIHOOD OF ENCOUNTERING METHANE OR FLAMMABLE GAS,” bad thoughts linger, evoking a few last-minute fatalistic gulps.

My decision to don my steel-toed Wolverines proved to be a wise wardrobe choice, for no one is allowed into the tunnel without them. Those without proper footwear were lent steel-toed boots courtesy of Missouri American Water’s stash of personal protective equipment, which we were all issued. Once outfitted in hard hats and Day-Glo reflective vests, we were ready to go down the hole.

The entrance of the tunnel is at the bottom of an 80-foot shaft with a gaping mouth 22 feet in diameter. To reach bottom, one must take a ride in the “man cage,” a steel carriage painted hard-hat yellow and used to ferry workers in and out of the tunnel, four or five at a time.

Bearing a passing resemblance to Walt Whitman, Missouri American Water operations supervisor Kevin Eveler beckoned us into the man cage. At his signal, a brontosaurus- sized crane lifted the man cage into the air. An air-horn blast alerted workers below.

Dangling there like bait while being lowered into an 80-foot throat in the earth, my kneecaps turned to pudding. As we descended, shadows swallowed us. The cool musty air, familiar to anyone who’s been in a cave, enveloped the man cage as we hit the shaft floor. Underfoot was a muck of silty, pulverized limestone, saturated by the nonstop trickle of water seeping through the walls.

Workers had just finished welding parts to an intake valve. The whiff of blowtorched metal hung in the air as we entered the tunnel, rimmed with ropes, hoses, ventilation pipe, and other mining equipment. Ducking along the string-lit walls of the arched tunnel, sound is compressed yet strangely intimate, almost absorbed into itself, making conversation a disorienting task.

Behind the oak planks and iron ribs that support the shaft’s seven-foot ceiling, the limestone walls wept river and groundwater tears. Because the tunnel is built on a 2.7-degree slope, those tears collect in streams along the tunnel floor, burbling to the end only to be pumped out.

Following our Whitman-esque leader, we plunged farther into the rusty murk. From the end of the shaft, workers’ commands tremoloed down the tunnel as they heaved pipe. All right guys, on three. Lift. The clanking of iron and steady drip of water was everywhere—a reminder the underground is saturated with life. The deeper we went, the more a loud drone blossomed and could be felt in vibrations of the jaw and breastbone.

Exactly how is it possible to dig a tunnel under a river? It’s best to let the mind’s theater answer that question. Let your mental projector distract you with fl ashes of miners in their cap lights. Look at their smudged faces, grimacing as they auger a limestone wall with their jackleg drill. Hear the diesel growl of their bobcat skid steers hauling rock back to the open pit. Breathe in the dank vapors and watch them work.

Broken out of my proletariat daydream, 80 feet in, I heard a muffled voice ask, “Where are we now?”

“This is the end,” said Kevin. “We’re under the river.”

We flinched as we eyeballed the tunnel’s ceiling for leaky flaws. Marveling at the notion, our mouths were agape as we tried to visualize the catfish, carp, and barges that were possibly floating above us. The bone-rattling drone I felt, apparently, was the hum of the ventilation ducts, but I’d like to think it was the powerful sound the Missouri River makes when surging 20 feet above your head.

—Nic Halverson

September 7, 2012


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