By Nathan Mayberg
MANHATTAN April 25, 2006 Five days a week, Bill Huggler wakes up at his White Sulphur Springs home and journeys to the center of the earth or 586 feet under Manhattan, to be exact.
He and his brother Ralph, of Callicoon Center, are key members of the huge team digging the third tunnel which will one day supply New York City its drinking water from the Catskill, Croton and Delaware aqueducts upstate (including the Neversink and Rondout reservoirs).
Another Sullivan County native, Peter Wegman of Youngsville, also works in the tunnel.
But they dont exactly dig these days. There are machines that reach up to 70 feet long with as many as 27 cutters that unleash up to two million pounds of pressure on the 400 million-year-old rock deep under the ground of Manhattan. Explosives are also employed.
The city currently relies on two tunnels which deliver the water from chambers in Westchester County and throughout New York City. The first tunnel dates back to 1918, and the second was built in 1936. If any of those tunnels were to fail, the city could face disastrous consequences, said New York City Department of Environmental Protection spokesman Ian Michaels.
For the past 36 years, the city has been working on Tunnel #3. They expect to complete all of their work by 2020.
Stage 1 of the new tunnel has already been activated. It runs from the Bronx, upper Manhattan and into Queens. Stage 2 covers all of Brooklyn and much of Queens. Stage 3 is what the Hugglers are working on right now and should be finished by 2012.
Ralph is one of the foremen on the project, while Bill handles a variety of duties including riding the muck (a vehicle which transports the rocks and dirt) and directing traffic. He also drills in rock bolts for electric lines and water pipes. And he lays down the tracks for the vehicles to travel. The trucks go off the track about once a week, making the job that much more dangerous.
The Hugglers, though, are following the lead of their father, Edward, who was all of his life what those above and below the ground affectionately term a sandhog.
He started working in upstate New York and eventually made it around the country. The family was raised in the Town of Callicoon, and the two younger Hugglers both graduated from Jeffersonville High School. They belong to the Local 141 Sandhogs union.
Both are family men, and Ralphs two sons have joined him as sandhogs themselves (check out the latest issue of National Geographic to see a photo of Ralph on the job).
It is some of the toughest work out there, and over the years, men have died building the third tunnel. Over 300 are currently working on this stage. There have been no fatalities in this stage, but a few workers have broken their legs and hurt their backs.
For the enormous risk they take and the hard work they do, they are rewarded with being the highest-paid laborers in the country. The average miner or sandhog on this project, earns $100,000 a year, including pension and benefits. Not surprisingly, many of the workers are second- and third-generation sandhogs.
There are good days and bad days, said Bill.
A good day is when a lot of work gets done, he explained. A bad day is when they run into loose ground which caves in, causing rocks to tumble down and water to leak in.
Bill said he hasnt been injured too badly only bumps and bruises since he started his career in 1982.
If youre careful, you work safe, you watch what youre doing, everything goes good. We all work together. If something goes wrong, there is always a group of three to seven guys to get it back.
But there is a harsh reality that these men are keenly aware of. Most of them will develop silicosis due to all of the rocks and dust they breathe into their lungs.
Bill hopes to work until age 50 and then retire with a pension. That way, he hopes to avoid the short death which awaits many of the sandhogs who work up to age 55 or further.
Sometimes he feels the soreness in his joints due to the dampness of his work conditions. His knees and elbows are particularly sore, he said. Some days he breathes heavily.
I can feel it creeping up, he said of his health.
Ralph Boud, a mechanic from Point Pleasant, New Jersey, has only been on the job for about three years, but he has an extremely difficult task. While the 70-foot boring machine is in action, he must ensure it is functioning properly.
He has about 650 feet of utilities for the machine, including a hydraulic power pack, transformers, ventilation, and electrical cabinets.
He prepared for this job while working in an equipment yard for the Schiabone Construction Company, which is in charge of the tunnel project.
On this particular day, everything was rather quiet, as the machine was not being put to use. But soon, it will be called into action on the next phase, the final link from the Kensico City Tunnel to the Kensico Reservoir between the Bronx and Westchester County.
The total cost of the project will be $6 billion when it is finally completed, said Michaels.
The third tunnel will allow the city to close down the other tunnels, one at a time, to inspect them for repairs. Since they were first built, neither has been maintained or repaired because the water would have to be shut off to do so. Nobody has even been down there to see what needs to be done, said Michaels.
In essence, the third tunnel is crucial, said Michaels.
The city is totally dependent on these tunnels, he said.
New York City uses 1.1 billion gallons of water a day. The outlying municipalities draw 100 million gallons of water a day from the same watersheds. That is down one-third from 20 years ago, when the city instituted water conservation measures and required meters for all users.
But how many users really know whats going on right beneath their feet?
Its like another world down here. You almost have to see it to believe it, said Bill Huggler.