Tunnel Vision: What Lies Beneath Indy

Below Indianapolis, miners from near and far are drilling the largest public-works project in city history into existence.

Editor’s Note: It’s an underworld not without its dangers, but Deep Rock Tunnel Connector workers are likely to follow tunneling jobs around the country, keeping up with the openings through industry magazines and word of mouth. For others, life underground is a new experience.

Kendal Downing climbs into
a muck-covered mining car and plops himself down on a clean piece of cardboard. The 24-year-old laborer clutches a lunch box; his safety glasses are still foggy from his 250-foot drop down the “launch shaft” moments before. As the tiny locomotive begins bouncing through the dark, wet tube, he takes in the scenery, watching the seams in the 160-million-year-old limestone bedrock rise and fall. Downing counts as one of the approximately 100 men and women working on the Deep Rock Tunnel Connector, the first leg of a $1 billion–plus network of massive storm sewers—imagine a subway-esque system for sludge—slated to be built under Indianapolis through 2025.

Above ground, it is freezing cold, but here below South Harding Street, creeping toward downtown, the air stays a crisp 50 degrees. At 7 a.m. on January 20, Martin Luther King Jr. Day, much of the city is just waking up. But the miners, who work around the clock in this muddy, musty cave of a place, rarely get a day off. This is Downing’s fourth day on the job and his first time on a tunneling project. The grueling work doesn’t seem to bother him.

“I like it so far,” he shouts over the noisy echo of the locomotive. “I’ve got no complaints.” Downing earns around $23 per hour plus fringe benefits such as health insurance and a pension. He and many of the other local crewmembers have never worked in a place like this. Mining the city’s first-ever deep tunnel and the largest public-works project in Indianapolis’s history has required the help of experts from all over the country, drawing them from Atlanta, Los Angeles, Minneapolis, and New York City, among other places. A number of the miners have come here from out of town and will remain until their portion is completed in 2016. (The entire undertaking is scheduled to wrap up in 2025.)

“Life of the gypsy,” says Stuart Lipofsky, a project manager who runs the job for S-K JV, the general contractor on the joint venture between construction giants J.F. Shea Co. of Walnut, California, and Omaha, Nebraska–based Kiewit Infrastructure. How do their families cope with all this moving around? “The kids adjust,” says Lipofsky, a 25-year tunneling veteran with previous stints in Atlanta and San Bernardino. “The wife gets upset. She gets the house just the way she likes it, and then we have to move.”

After about 25 minutes of chugging down a thin set of rails, Downing reaches his destination: a massive, multimillion-dollar tunnel-boring machine. Deep tunnels are a tried-and-tested solution to an age-old problem. Over the last century, Indianapolis was built up on top of “combined” sewers, which capture human waste and stormwater runoff in the same pipe. Normally, the resulting slop makes its way to a treatment plant. But when heavy rain overwhelms the system, the sewage overflows into local waterways like White River. In any given year, the pollution can add up to around eight billion gallons, and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is requiring cities—including Indy—to cut down on these overflows or risk hefty fines. When this deep tunnel is complete, it will be able to store a minimum of 250 million gallons and direct the waste to local treatment plants, reducing the annual dump rate by an estimated 95 percent. Now six miles long and 20 feet in diameter—big enough to drive an 18-wheeler through—this leg still has about two miles left to be drilled before Citizens Energy Group can bring it online. Four more tunnels—25 miles in total—are still to come.

To begin work, the miners climb onto the catwalks of the 1.2 million–pound tunnel-borer as it waits to be fired up. One worker describes the machine, whose electrical cable could power a small neighborhood, as “a 500-foot-long, rock-chewing caterpillar,” and the image is not far off. But as the borer eats its way into the earth, the dangers are many—flying debris, tripping hazards, and pinch points abound. And yet, the allure of the underground still thrills some.
“It’s addicting,” says Mike Siemers, a 28-year-old miner from Madison, Wisconsin. “I like being somewhere where nobody has ever been.”


This article appeared in the April 2014 issue.