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Blood and gas: Welcome to the Twin Cities sewer system

After he got sprayed with a face full blood while on the job last month, Minneapolis sewer work Ron Huebner—like a lot of the people who heard about the incident— responded with a mix of shock and repulsion. How could such a thing happen?

You can count geologist Greg Brick among those not appalled by the incident. Of course, Brick has more experience with such matters than the average citizen. For much of the past decade, the inveterate explorer has crawled and waded his way through the storm drains, sanitary sewers and caves of Twin Cities' netherworld.

"You get a lot of weird fluids in the sewers. There's a lot more stuff down there than people realize," says Brick, whose has written extensively about his subterranean explorations. (His forthcoming book on the Twin Cities underground will be published by the University of Minnesota Press).

Blood is hardly the most worrisome substance an underground explorer can encounter, Brick says. "In some sewers, there are horrible, gasoline-type vapors. It makes you afraid to create a spark," he says.

He is not sure if he's encountered blood in the sewer before but says slaughterhouses routinely discharge such waste. That's one reason—although hardly the only one—that Brick now wears a respirator whenever he ventures into the sanitary sewers. "I've gotten sick in those tunnels too many times not to wear protection," he laughs.

For the record, Huebner's face full of blood—a mix of animal and human—was legally discharged into the sewers by R & D Systems, a medical research company in northeast Minneapolis.