Massive tunnels, built to beautify city for World's Fair, expanding for clean initiative

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ST. LOUIS - While leading a small tour group through massive sewer tunnels beneath Forest Park, Lance LeComb with the Metropolitan Sewer District says the scenery always reminds him of Phantom of the Opera.

"There is a city beneath the city that we all live in on a daily basis," LeComb says. "We're in that underground city right now. It's not just sewers, it's electricity and natural gas lines and steam pipes. There is a vast infrastructure, a vast network, of tunnels and tubes that run underneath St. Louis and this is just a small, small part of it."

The part of it LeComb showed KSDK on a recent day is the submerged portion of the River Des Peres. As with so many things in St. Louis, the 30 foot wide underground tunnels exist because of the 1904 World's Fair.

Back in the 19th century, LeComb explains, the River Des Peres was an open sewer that ran through Forest Park. People often dumped trash in it.

The city leaders submerged the tunnel to put the city's best foot forward for the Louisiana Exposition.

Today the tunnels push a mixture of waste water and storm runoff down the River Des Peres into seven water treatment facilities near the Mississippi River. On an average day, the system processes 350 million gallons of water.

"You really get to see what the city is built on top of," LeComb said. "What makes America great, what has made our country great, is the infrastructure that we built in the early part of the 20th century."

Now, the emphasis is on the future. The Metropolitan Sewer District is in the midst of a nearly $5 billion dollar renovation project called "Project Clear". The final plans call for eleven new tunnels, over 200 feet underground, with a total reach of over 30 miles.

"Now the issue is, we need to start reinvesting in that infrastructure and renewing it," LeComb says. "So we can pass it along to the next generation without the problems we are experiencing today."

Walking through these dark tunnels it's easy to see why MSD staffers think about "Phantom of the Opera". Staring into a dark, yawning tunnel that stretches for miles sends the imagination racing.

And, yes, just about everything has turned up in here.

Cars, refrigerators, clothing, and cash. Even, gulp, human bodies.

"From time to time, we do have that occur."

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