Challenges and Combined Sewer Overflows

By Ryan Connair

sewer overflowing

Overflows happen when combined sewers are overwhelmed by heavy rain.

Every year, combined sewer overflows (CSOs) release about 850 billion gallons of untreated sewage and stormwater into lakes, streams, and rivers across the United States. CSOs happen when combined sewers—which carry both stormwater and raw sewage—are overwhelmed by heavy rain and flow into local waterways.

Unfortunately, this situation is hard to fix. Sewer utilities have thousands of miles of pipes to manage, so they often lack the resources to continuously monitor CSO activity or precisely measure how much wastewater is being discharged into the environment.  A low-cost, wireless sensor could change all that, though.

To find such a sensor, EPA partnered with Confluence—a water technology cluster in the southwest Ohio, northern Kentucky, and southeast Indiana area—to issue an open innovation challenge. Open innovation challenges offer awards for solutions that address a problem and draw in the best ideas from around the world.

The challenge was issued in July 2013 through Cincinnati Innovates and InnoCentive, who recently announced the winners.

First prize of $6,000 was awarded to Krishna Priya, from India, with prizes of $2,000 each going to Tamus Szalay (USA) and Andre Villemaire (Canada). Priya’s winning solution combined water level and ultrasonic sensors with a cellphone radio to create a prototype device that monitors water level and flow. During a CSO event, the system can send data back to utilities via text message.

“Real-time information provides the ability to plan for the events, respond quickly to equipment malfunction, and assure control systems are operating properly,” said Melissa Gatterdam, Superintendent of Watershed Operations at the Metropolitan Sewer District of Greater Cincinnati (MSDGC).

But the challenge goes beyond identifying a winning idea, it also involves a community. In this case, the community is Greater Cincinnati. Two local utilities—MSDGC and Sanitation District No. 1 of Northern Kentucky (SD1)—and a local branch of the technical consulting firm Stantec provided judges for the contest. The two utilities have expressed interest in testing the prize-winning ideas identified by the competition.

“EPA has displayed exceptional leadership with this challenge, which has catalyzed the difficult process of transferring new ideas into new technologies that are ready for the marketplace,” said Chris Kaeff, Regulatory Reporting and Wet Weather Coordinator for SD1.

“The public utility stands to gain new technology that improves operational efficiency,” Kaeff said. “The entrepreneur gains a pathway to impact the market. The venture capitalist gains an opportunity for investment. And the federal regulatory and research agency moves closer to its goal of ensuring compliance.”

Partnering to issue the challenge, EPA was able to accomplish two goals: the challenge identified a solution to a pressing environmental issue and connected the winners to utilities who can put their ideas into practice by serving as test beds for the technology and potential buyers in the market for the finished solution.

About the author: Ryan Connair works with EPA’s Environmental Technology Innovation Clusters Program as a communications contractor.

Editor’s Note:

Read more about EPA research exploring ways to reduce stormwater runoff and combined sewer overflows:

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action.

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Release the Data! New Chemical Data, Workshops, and Challenges

By Matthew T. Martin

Scientist prepares a well-plate for high-throughput screening.

Scientist preparing a well-plate for high-throughput screening.

Ever open that cabinet under the kitchen sink, grab that bright blue bottle of window cleaner and wonder exactly what sort of chemicals are floating around in it? Many of you have at one time or another, and for those of you who have never given it a second thought rest assured that my colleagues and I at EPA are dedicated to identifying and categorizing all of the chemicals we might be exposed to on any given day. However, due the expensive, time-consuming process of traditional testing, which assesses one chemical at a time, only a small fraction of the tens of thousands of chemicals currently in commerce have been adequately assessed for potential human and environmental health risks.

To close this data gap and better evaluate potential health risks, we have worked hard in recent years to accelerate the pace of chemical testing. I am proud to say that we have now completed phase two of the multi-year Toxicity Forecaster (ToxCast) project and are publically releasing ToxCast data on 1,800 chemicals evaluated in over 700 high-throughput screening assays. This is a significant accomplishment that we want to share with the scientific community.

The new data is accessible through the new interactive Chemical Safety for Sustainability (iCSS) Dashboard, a web-based application for users to access and interact with the data freely at their own discretion. Users can select the chemicals and data of interest and then score the information to help inform chemical safety decisions.

As part of the data release, I hope the scientific community will take advantage of this new windfall of data and become involved in the ToxCast project by participating in the Predictive Toxicology Challenges. The first two challenges of the series, available through TopCoder and InnoCentive crowd sourcing technology, will ask the scientific and technology community to develop new algorithms to predict lowest effect levels (LELs) of chemicals using the new ToxCast data. Winners will receive monetary prizes to help fund their own planned research, and their solutions will help us determine innovative ways to use ToxCast data to inform decisions made about the chemical safety.

Also, beginning January 14,we are also hosting several stakeholder outreach workshops and webinars to address potential challenges with data translation, accessibility, and any other troubleshooting issues that might arise during the initial data launch. This is an opportunity for the scientific community to provide input on data usage and offer immediate feedback about the new data and the iCSS dashboard.

About the author: Matthew T. Martin is a research biologist within EPA’s National Center for Computational Toxicology, where he is part of the ToxCast team and leads the CSS task for developing predictive models of toxicity using high-throughput screening data. He also serves as the project lead for developing the new CSS Dashboard Web Application.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action.

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Visualizing the Invisible with the My Air, My Health Challenge Winners

By Dustin Renwick

My Air, My Health BannerWhen you win an award, it’s easy to lose sight of the small victories that brought you to a successful finish.

Members of the Conscious Clothing team – winner of the EPA/HHS My Air, My Health Challenge – almost didn’t apply for the challenge.

A friend told team leader Gabrielle Dockterman about the InnoCentive website, a crowdsourcing and open innovation platform. Dockterman said she felt there might be a challenge that would tap into the talents of people she knew. She emailed her friend Dot Kelly, a chemist, and inventor David Kuller, her boss from a previous job.

They stumbled on the My Air, My Health Challenge eight days before the deadline for proposals.

Kuller says that fortunately, all three team members were between projects and at stages in their lives when they could commit to the opportunity.

Eight days later, they submitted their entry just before midnight.

Dot Kelly, David Kuller, and Gabrielle Savage

Dot Kelly, David Kuller, and Gabrielle Dockterman

Using Skype to stay connected across the country and the world, the team explored options for building a prototype that could account for both air pollution and related health metrics, such heart rate or breathing.

On top of that, they had to create a system that could be easily worn or carried.

“It was like being a little kid with Legos,” Kuller said.

The team’s design incorporates an open-source Arduino platform microcomputer that lies against the chest and a particulate matter air sensor that hangs near the neck. The system takes advantage of the common place where men and women typically wear ties, necklaces or other fashion accessories.

Stretchy strips of silver-knitted yarn wrap around the wearer’s ribcage to measure breathing. The integrated system gives wearers an estimate of their pollution exposure by comparing the air quality to how deeply the person breathes.

The data are streamed to any Bluetooth-enabled device, such as a cellphone, and LED lights transform the sensor measurements into visual cues, what the team calls “making the invisible visible.”

Dockterman says the group will next focus on tailoring prototypes for several different applications: consumer athletics, sleep apnea research and children’s asthma research.

Built in large batches, the Conscious Clothing sensor system could cost as little as $20 and could be sewn directly into clothing. The design represents the continuing shift to next-generation sensors that cost less, are easier to use, and can be applied to many different fields.

“I’d like to think we’re going to bridge what could have been a 20-year development gap,” Kelly said.

About the author: Dustin Renwick works as part of the innovation team in the EPA Office of Research and Development.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action.

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