On this Fourth of July in our nation’s capitol, thousands will celebrate the American Way of Life and look to the sky in wonder. But they would be just as awestruck if they could see what’s going on beneath their feet, where a massive project is underway to dig a drainage tunnel that will help clean up Washington D.C.’s rivers, the Potomac and the Anacostia.
The capitol city is separating its storm and sanitary sewer systems, a $ 2.6 billion twenty year project to prevent the overflow of raw sewage into the rivers – something the Twin Cities achieved in 1995 but a calamity that still happens regularly in our federal city to the tune of about 3 billion gallons each year.
When I think about the privileges we share as Americans, I recognize that much of it comes from the founders and the military and the sacred documents and all the other things we regularly celebrate on the Fourth.
But a lot of it also has to do with infrastructure.
A country left festering in its own sewage cannot advance the health and welfare of its citizens, so when we’re being grateful for our peace and prosperity let’s remember to thank the people who keep our own poop out of the streets.
Just as Francis Scott Key swiped an old drinking tune and wrote new words to celebrate an icon of freedom that was partially obscured by darkness, I propose we sing an ode to this completely invisible but oh-so-necessary subterranean tunnel project.
It’s not that weird. Key’s original lyrics feature three extra verses that we never use, and one of them already includes the word “pollution.”
Down where no one can see, out of mind out of sight,
excess leakage is bailed from the rivulets streaming.
It’s as airless as Mars, and with even less light.
But we’re digging our way to a future that’s gleaming.
In the laser’s red glare, tunnel builders know where
they are heading tonight, although we’re unaware.
Oh say does that underground excavator still pave
through the sand of under D.C., and the loam of the brave?
Who deserves an ode?