Dirty jobs of Midland: How snow, water and refuse service makes the city tick each winter

While Michigan’s cold weather months create a colorful and crisp backdrop for our favorite outdoor adventures, they also bring on a yearly set of challenges. We find ourselves spending countless hours behind a leaf blower or rake for a good portion of fall. And once we’re finally done cleaning up the leaves, the snow arrives and we can be found grumbling while shoveling off our driveways or scraping off our car windows. It’s true, some of the least glamorous jobs are the most necessary.

Yet, the dirtiest of jobs are some of the ones that keep our community the cleanest. Here is a look inside a few of the roles that function to make your everyday life safer, easier and cleaner each winter.

Refuse and Yard Waste 
In order to maintain collection, the City of Midland has five refuse and yard waste trucks. Each truck is occupied by one person that does both the driving and collecting at each of the five to six hundred stops… per day.

The dirtiest of jobs are some of the ones that keep our community the cleanest.

“It’s not a fully automated system,” says Jan Yurergens, Assistant Director of Public Services for the City of Midland. “Only about half of the garbage bins are equipped to be raised by the trucks themselves. So, the other half of the bins and bags are being handled and lifted by the collectors.”

“Add yard waste in the spring and our workers get a crazy workout while collecting,” says Karen Murphy, Midland’s Director of Public Services. “And they never know what's at each stop. It could be one bag of trash or 17 bags of yard waste.”

Either way, one person has to collect it all for over 500 stops each day. Two daily loads tends to average out to about 20,000 pounds of trash or yard waste per day, per truck.

Days and shifts can be long, especially during bad weather.

“We always joke around that when you join the refuse crew, you never have to go to the gym and you can eat all you want,” says Murphy.

Collecting garbage is about as dirty as it gets. But when asked about a time his job felt especially gross, Midland’s Street and Solid Waste Supervisor, Chris Owen, recalls the few stops he had where he could actually hear the maggots in the trash can before he even took the lid off.

“I just knew what was in there. You just have to move fast, flip the lid, and get it over with! Then you go through the rest of the day feeling a bit like you’re crawling with them,” says Owen.

Each encounter is unknown and each day can be quite the adventure.

Chris Owen, Street and Solid Waste Supervisor.

Owen says that as long as trash is disposed of properly, the job is not only much cleaner, but also much safer. “The biggest issue with refuse is when it’s not bagged, like loose garbage in bins, which can fall into the streets and yards when it gets dumped. Some of the messiest include bagless vacuum contents that can end up as a dust cloud of all the materials,” says Owen.

There is also a strict rule that prohibits throwing away liquids or hazardous materials. These can spill on the collectors and create both an unpleasant and dangerous experience. Items like broken glass and hypodermic needles can be disposed of, but it’s extremely important to dispose of them in proper labeled container so drivers know exactly what they are handling. A few times each year, a driver will get stuck with a needle or cut with glass, sending them for medical evaluation and preventative shots or medication. 

Leaf Collection
Divided into four areas for service, leaf collection is based on resident’s heavy item schedule. “We have the city divided into four areas for heavy item collection,” says Murphy. The city determines the area that has the most leaves down as a starting point, which is almost always Area B with the earliest schedule and the most leaves down.

The city’s leaves are then picked up with five trucks in two rounds.

Snow often makes leaf collection more challenging for workers.

A dirty job as is, the cold weather and potential for snow add a layer of difficulty to the task. “Ever since we’ve started this, it seems like the leaves are getting later and later to fall, which runs in to snow and makes collection more difficult,” says Owen.

The tractors are two-wheel drive, so in snow it’s hard to get traction and also makes the leaves extremely heavy.

“The common issues that come up are mostly with weather and extra items added to the leaf piles like brush or pumpkins,” explains Owen.

Snow Removal
Snow. Some love it, some hate it. No matter your opinion, it poses a definite problem for safety and travel. With 14 large plow trucks and seven small pickup trucks, the crew works hard to keep our roads safe after snowfall.

“The plowing schedule is determined by the refuse collection route the following day,” says Murphy.

This is to be fair, begin and end plowing in different spots each time and makes collection much easier after the snow has been removed.

In addition to city streets, city parking lots are also cleared. Because there really isn't anywhere to push the snow, the downtown area uses a different system of snow removal which first plowed it into the center of the street and then uses an enormous snow blower to blow the snow into a collection truck for removal.

The City of Midland has 14 plow trucks and seven pickups to manage snow removal.

And because the Pere Marquette Rail Trail is used by countless residents all throughout the year, it’s a priority for snow removal as well. A different truck is used to remove snow on the trail vs. the roads.

The hardest part of the job is the fact that snow removal drivers could be in their trucks for up to 16 hours at a time – out in bad weather conditions. They have to be extra careful to watch out for parked cars and residents, keeping a safe distance from barriers and cars. It’s a messy and dangerous job, commonly done on double shifts, with workers often eating meals from inside the truck.

A common complaint is that the plows put snow in the driveway and once a resident threw a shovel at a truck in frustration. While the snow plow crews certainly understand the frustration, it’s important to note their role is to get the roads clean and safe for all residents. Often, the plows will have to make two passes through an area. The residents that begin cleaning their driveways early might be disappointed with the second pass through of the plows. Parked cars in the street also pose added obstacles and risk for plow trucks, as do vehicles keeping the appropriate, safe distance from plow trucks.

“Often people ask about the end of court bubble plowing,” says Yurergens. “First, we go through with the plow truck, but the truck can't get back in the circular portion at the very end of the court. So next we have to send separate trucks in to do that part. Midland has over 274 courts, so this takes some extra time.”

Water Distribution
Andrew Parrott is the General Supervisor of Water Distribution for the City of Midland. His work and the work of his colleagues provide clean water to homes and businesses throughout Midland. “We are the only city department that covers not only the city limits, but the townships of Homer, Larkin, Midland and Mills, along with our raw water lines to Junction. Our coverage area is approximately 109 square miles and consists of 405 miles of water main, 3,448 fire hydrants and 3,688 system valves,” says Parrott.

Trash, snow removal, water distribution and more keep the city running each winter.

Midland’s potable water has been supplied by Lake Huron since 1948 and the pumping system is owned jointly by the cities of Midland and Saginaw. The 230 million gallon per day water intake is screened to keep out debris and wildlife and then chlorinated to kill harmful bacteria. The water then makes the 65-mile trip through pipeline to Midland.

Once the water makes its way to the treatment plant, it’s purified and disinfected. In addition, over 100,000 tests are performed each year, before, during and after treatment to assure that the water meets all federal and state regulations for safe drinking water.

The City of Midland employs 31 full-time and two part-time employees between the Water Plant, Water Distribution Department and the Water Billing Department.

Parrott notes that the main issues reported are water main breaks or quality issues like taste or discolored water. “Because we receive our water from the Great Lakes, it has the same temperature fluctuations as the lakes. Since the ground is pretty much a constant temperature, fluctuations cause water main breaks surrounding the cold weather months. In the summer when the water is warmer is when we get most out our water quality complaints about taste,” he says.

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