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Fixing Sewage Backups, Pandemic Or Not, Is Essential Work

The problem that Tony Marinello fixes is always urgent.

"When you have a sewage backup, it’s kind of hard to miss," he said.

Marinello is an expert in blocked drains. He’s not a plumber, but he knows how to remove a tree root that’s growing into a sewage pipe, clogging it and flooding a basement.

"Sometimes you may have, you know, feces and and raw sewage and toilet paper all over the floor," he said.

Marinello, 30, has been unplugging clogged drains and pipes since he was 17. His father, who owned Fletcher Sewer & Drain in Ludlow, died at a young age. Then Marinello and his entire family, including his two brothers, went to work.

"My mother took over the company after my father passed," he said. "And after we graduated from high school, we kind of carried the torch."

Carrying that torch has sometimes been dangerous.

"If you can imagine what it's like to open a pipe that is holding hundreds of gallons of raw sewage," he said, "you can have a firehose of sewage blasting all over you — your body, your face, your mouth, your eyes, your nose — you name it."

Add the COVID-19 pandemic to the mix, and Marinello said there’s even more to consider.

For instance, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has said the virus has been detected in wastewater, although it’s unclear if someone can get sick from it.

Even so, Marinello said, he’s more cautious.

"Now the 'ick' factor has increased," he said. "Because the smell and the look of it might not disgust me like it does a normal person. But what might be inside that water is enough to make me, you know, kind of withdraw — take a step back, and say, 'You know, what way can I approach this to not get any of this on me?'"

Tony Marinello stands in front of a sewage pipe that he had just finished unclogging in the basement of a residential customer. Before the pandemic, masks were not part of his protective gear.
Credit Courtesy Tony Marinello
Tony Marinello stands in front of a sewage pipe that he had just finished unclogging in the basement of a residential customer. Before the pandemic, masks were not part of his protective gear.

Marinello said that when he’s waist-deep in wastewater now, he fits as much protective gear as he can on his body: a Tyvek suit, puncture-proof waders, a mask, safety glasses, face shield and rubber gloves — covered by leather gloves.

"But the biggest thing that's changed is just the — I guess you could call it pandemic screening," he said.

The company now screens customers, asking if they’ve been sick, or if they or a family member have traveled outside of the country — and screens themselves.

Marinello sometimes does jobs in nursing homes or other housing for seniors.

"We have to make sure that if we are asymptomatic ourselves, that we don't spread that to the residents at those homes," he said.

Being safety-oriented is nothing new.

"But now," he said, "this is not the time when you want to mess up, because it could mean... myself or someone else’s life."

Marinello and his colleagues try to keep at least a floor away from customers.

"Could you just give it one more flush, please?" he called upstairs from a basement to a recent residential customer. "I’m just getting wrapped up. There was some roots in the line, but I got them pulled off pretty good."

"Awesome," the customer responded.

Once he’s finished on a job, Marinello has a new way of arriving home.

"I do not walk through my front door anymore," he said. "I go through the basement, immediately [put my] clothes in the laundry, and jump in the shower before I even get a chance to hug my baby girl."

That’s his daughter, Olivia, a toddler. He’s trying to protect her and his wife, Kayla Marinello, another essential worker — a medical assistant — who is pregnant.

Marinello said he has always felt rewarded by this work, because he’s helping people. Now, customers seem more thankful about what he does.

"It's not nearly, I would say, as essential as those health care workers out there," he said. "But if I can keep somebody’s living situation sanitary, that's a health improvement right there. And I'm very proud that I can offer that service to people."

Back at the work site, Marinello whistled as he completed the job.

"I’ll bring the paperwork in for you," he said to the customer. "And I’ll just ask if you have a pen that you can use [it] yourself, just [so] we’re not swapping pens and all that."

Not swapping pens, but unclogging sewage pipes: another essential worker during the pandemic. 

Nancy Eve Cohen is a senior reporter focusing on Berkshire County. Earlier in her career she was NPR’s Midwest editor in Washington, D.C., managing editor of the Northeast Environmental Hub and recorded sound for TV networks on global assignments, including the war in Sarajevo and an interview with Fidel Castro.
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