This city’s sewage system, however, presents special challenges. The backbone of the network was built in the 19th century, after a series of cholera outbreaks and the “Great Stink” of 1858, when lawmakers abandoned the Houses of Parliament because of the stench of raw sewage from the nearby River Thames.

That 1,100-mile system, originally designed to serve four million people, has been struggling to cope with the waste of about twice that number. Work is underway on a new super sewer.

Photo

The Whitechapel fatberg. Engineers found it during routine checks on Victorian tunnels.

Credit
Thames Water, via Reuters

Joseph Bazalgette, who designed the Victorian network, probably did not account for the disposable diapers and wipes that, in a matter of days, can mate with oil and grease to create fatbergs big enough to block tunnels that are six feet tall.

The sewer under Whitechapel Road is about four feet high and less than three feet wide, and Thames Water engineers found the fatberg there during a routine check. They regularly walk through the system to look for problems. Lee Irving, a spokesman for Thames Water, described the experience of encountering a fatberg as overwhelming, with a smell that mixed rotting meat and smelly toilet.

The utility is trying to prevent fatbergs with publicity campaigns urging residents to dispose of wipes and fat in the garbage can, rather than down the drain. It has said that it clears three blockages from fat, and four or more caused by items like wipes, every hour.

It has also targeted restaurants, encouraging them to use grease traps. “There’s a clear link between our fatberg hot spots and high concentrations of food outlets,” Steve Spencer, then the utility’s head of waste networks, said in February.

Thames Water has tried to put all that congealed fat to use. Some is converted into biodiesel for power generators.

The utility said it was also working with a renewables company, Argent Energy, on turning its waste fat into environmentally friendly fuel. (Maybe some day, fatbergs could power those double-decker buses.)

And there is a chance that a slice of the fatberg will be preserved for generations to come. The Museum of London said on Wednesday that it hoped to acquire a cross-section of the blob for its collection.

“It is important for the Museum of London to display genuine curiosities from past and present,” the director of the museum, Sharon Ament, said in a news release.

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