Fatberg fighting in Havering with sewer heroes

PUBLISHED: 12:00 21 November 2015

A drain in Romford which is blocked up with fat and cooking oil

A drain in Romford which is blocked up with fat and cooking oil


Reporter given glimpse of sewer system under siege

Gruesome sighting of my first ‘wild’ fatberg

On the second job of the day, I finally saw a fatberg in the wild.

A blocked U-bend meant a drain in front of a house in Rainham was in danger of overflowing.

As David lifted up the cover, I felt a pang of regret that I’d cheerily volunteered to come out with the team.

The drain was almost overflowing with dark water and big white balls of fat.

The smell became pretty unpleasant as David used the rods to break up the blockages.

Photographer Ellie, who accompanied me on the trip, accurately pinpointed it as “eggy farts.”

It was clear what the problem was - balls of fat larger than a tennis ball were blocking the pipes.

Strips of dish cloth and paper towels were wadded up in the fatberg, making it look like a slimy jellyfish.

Watching David clear the drain highlighted how important it is to be mindful of what goes down the drain.

A lot of these blockages could be avoided if we all make the extra effort.

From now on I’ll be more careful about making sure “bin it – don’t block it” is followed.

Gruesome balls of cooking oil, waste and wet wipes called “fatbergs” are congealing in Havering sewers.

The problem is so bad that 12,386 blockages were cleared from Havering sewers in the past five years.

The borough is the second worst across London, only topped by Bexley where 13,386 fatbergs were cleared.

With the sewer system under siege from unflushable products, I visited Beckton Sewage Treatment Works to learn how we can correctly dispose of waste.

Fatbergs in numbers

Thames Water has 68,000miles of sewer pipes across the whole network.

Beckton Sewage Treatment Works treats the waste of 3.5 million people.

1881 fatbergs were cleared from Havering between September 2015 to 2015.

Thames Water spends £1 million a month clearing blockages

Half a Mini Cooper was once discovered in the sewers underneath London.

The sewer facility is one of the largest in Europe and I was introduced to the team of drainage experts responsible for clearing the blockages.

The Thames Water team of engineers would be top of Christmas card lists if residents knew how hard they worked to ensure their toilets never overflow with unpleasant contents.

Before we head out, I attend a safety briefing where I am kitted up in a flattering fluorescent orange jacket and sturdy boots.

The outfit makes me feel like I’m playing dress-up but the safety briefing about falling down manholes reminds me of the dangers present.

Reporter Rosaleen Fenton with 22-year-old drainage engineer David MimmsReporter Rosaleen Fenton with 22-year-old drainage engineer David Mimms

Drainage engineer David Mimms, 22, who I’m going to accompany on blockage jobs around Havering, asks if I’m ready to see “the bowels of London”.

On the way to our first job of the day, David explains that the most common blockages are caused by fat or by wet wipes, neither of which should be disposed down drains.

He said: “The pipes are big enough to allow for sewage to flow through.

“However, when people pour fat down the sink, it congeals in the pipes.”

David flushes out a wetwipe from a drain in front of a house in HornchurchDavid flushes out a wetwipe from a drain in front of a house in Hornchurch

The gross conglomerations of congealed fat clump together with other waste products to form solid concrete bricks in the sewers.

There are two techniques to unblock the drains – either engineers can use rods to smash a hole in the middle of the block, so it collapses in on itself.

Otherwise they use jet washers to “pummel the fat into smaller blocks”, as David eloquently puts it.

Neither solution is particularly hi-tech but it’s effective at clearing the blockages.

On a regular day, the team of engineers attend 15 to 20 jobs, but this varies depending on how bad the blockages can be, says David.

He says: “I’ve seen all sorts in the drains – syringes, tights, clothes, condoms.

“Last week I found five kids ball pit balls somebody had managed to flush down. Why?”

What Thames Water would like to encourage, as part of their “Bin it – don’t block it” campaign, is for residents and businesses to dispose of oil safely.

After cooking, everyone should wipe used cooking oil from pans with kitchen roll and bin it, or add it to compost in the garden.

Nothing should be flushed down toilets except human waste or toilet paper.

This includes wet wipes that are advertised as flushable.

Across the borough, billboards and posters are encouraging residents to change their habits.

For more information on how to keep your drains clean, visit

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