Wastewater

Our Waters Know No Borders

By Allison Martin

On my recent visit to South Texas with our U.S.-Mexico border water infrastructure program, I met with local residents and learned the challenges they face from failing wastewater treatment systems. One person explained how, during heavy rains, she had to wade through thigh-deep water mixed with sewage in her yard. A mother described her children’s skin and stomach problems due to contact with wastewater.  Another showed me a puddle in her yard. Her son stood a few feet away; he must have been well-instructed that this ever-present puddle above the family’s failing septic system was off limits. But as I eyed the small compound, I had a sinking sense that staying away from the puddle was not eliminating the family’s contact with the wastewater.

Many border communities are economically disadvantaged and can’t bear the financial burden to build or repair their water infrastructure. Failing systems can significantly affect the environment, spilling untreated wastewater into streets, rivers and streams. This can seriously affect community health, increasing the risk of water-borne illnesses such as cholera, typhoid, and gastro-intestinal diseases. Unfortunately, these issues are not isolated. The U.S. and Mexico share many rivers, and sewage discharged into them pollutes our shared water resources.

My trip reemphasized to me the importance of our U.S.-Mexico border water infrastructure program. It funds the planning, design, and construction of high-priority drinking water and wastewater treatment systems in border communities. Meeting with border residents gave me a deeper appreciation for the program’s unique technical assistance component, which helps communities select the type of infrastructure that is right for them. The program also emphasizes community participation, empowering residents to get involved in the process. Most importantly, the projects funded by this program help prevent serious health and environmental problems.

To protect the health and environment of those who call the border home, we have to continue to work collaboratively to treat pollution at the source.  Our U.S.-Mexico border water infrastructure program does just that.

About the author: Allison Martin is an ORISE participant in the Sustainable Communities Branch of EPA’s Office of Wastewater Management. Allison supports the U.S.-Mexico Border Water Infrastructure Program, Clean Water Indian Set-Aside Program, and Decentralized Program.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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Water Justice and the Grand Cal

The Grand Calumet River after restoration work

The Grand Calumet River after restoration work

 

Not far from Chicago’s South Side Altgeld Gardens, where Hazel and Cheryl Johnson helped birth and nurture the critical work of environmental justice, meanders the Grand Calumet River.

The two branches of the Grand Cal come together to flow out through the Indiana Harbor Canal into Lake Michigan. These waterways are home for some of the heaviest industrial legacy pollutants in the country. Neighborhoods that line the river experience some of the toughest blight of any urban area. Some 90 percent of the river’s flow comes from municipal and industrial effluent, cooling and process water, and stormwater overflows.

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Editor's Note: The views expressed here are intended to explain EPA policy. They do not change anyone's rights or obligations.

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Motivation Meets Innovation in the Name of Water Conservation

California is in the midst of one of the worst droughts the state has ever seen—so smart water use matters more than ever before. Earlier this month, I visited Southern California to get a firsthand look at some of the largest and most successful efforts to reuse and recycle water in the country.

Nancy_OC

From left to right: Jim Colson, Environmental Compliance Manager, Orange County Sanitation District; Nancy Stoner, Acting Assistant Administrator for EPA’s Office of Water; Benita Best-Wong, Director of EPA’s Office of Wetlands, Oceans and Watersheds; Mike Wehner, Assistant General Manager, Orange County Water District; and Dr. Robert Ghirelli, Assistant General Manager, Orange County Sanitation District. Photo credit: Jason Dadakis, Orange County Water District

 

One of the facilities I visited was the Orange County Groundwater Replenishment System, which puts highly treated wastewater collected from the county’s sewer system—and that would otherwise be discharged into the Pacific Ocean—to beneficial use in the county’s water supply. Finding innovative ways for municipalities and businesses to use water is a priority for EPA. More

Editor's Note: The views expressed here are intended to explain EPA policy. They do not change anyone's rights or obligations.

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Waste to Value: EPA’s Role in Advancing Science and Business

Electrogenic bioreactor containing "Bactobots" and wastewater.

Electrogenic bioreactor containing “Bactobots” and wastewater.

By Marguerite Huber

In case you missed it in the news, a New-York-based micro-robotics firm, Tauriga, acquired Cincinnati-based Pilus Energy last month. In the business world, acquisitions and mergers happen all the time, but I bet you are wondering what makes this one significant to the EPA?

Tauriga CEO, Seth M. Shaw describes Pilus Energy’s technology as “extraordinary.” What makes it so is that Pilus Energy operates with the goal of turning waste into value, turning sewage into electricity to power approximately 275 million homes a year!

Their innovative technology claims to transform dirty, wastewater into electricity, as well as clean water, and other valuable biogases and chemicals. The secret to this venture is the help of genetically enhanced bacteria, given the more affectionate name of “Bactobots.”

“Essentially we are mining wastewater for valuable resources similarly to gold mining companies mining ore for gold,” Shaw confides.

Now this is where the EPA comes in.

Dr. Vasudevan Namboodiri, an EPA scientist with 20 years of research and development experience, explains that EPA and Pilus are investigating the potential for Pilus Energy technology in the water industry.

With EPA’s technical oversight, Pilus Energy’s goal is to eventually build an industrial pilot-scale prototype.  This type of technology is still in its infancy and will be many years away from large scale production, Dr. Namboodiri explained.

Large- scale usage of the technology could possibly be revolutionary, and provide great benefits in the future. Tauriga CEO Shaw notes that, “There is an enormous global need to maximize all resources available, due to population growth and energy costs.” If applied to whole communities in both developing and developed countries, there could be major benefits such as:

  • Reduced wastewater treatment costs
  • Creation of a renewable energy source
  • Valuable chemical byproducts that could be used towards renewable products
  • Higher quality water for both drinking and recreation
  • Healthier food due to less contaminates in soil
  • Improved ecosystem benefits or services and biodiversity if applied in an entire watershed

Even though the large scale benefits will likely not be seen until years from now, the partnership between Pilus Energy and the EPA helps support EPA’s mission of protecting human health and the environment.

About the Author: Marguerite Huber is a Student Services Contractor with EPA’s Science Communications Team.

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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Infrastructure is Going Green in Communities Across America

When I released the Water Technology Innovation Blueprint last spring, it framed the top ten opportunities to help solve current water resource issues. Green infrastructure is one of my favorites in the top ten, and it is rapidly expanding across the country. Green infrastructure decreases pollution to local waterways by treating rain where it falls and keeping polluted stormwater from entering sewer systems. Green infrastructure tools and techniques include green roofs, permeable materials, alternative designs for streets and buildings, trees, rain gardens and rain harvesting systems.

Green infrastructure is also a critical tool for addressing climate change and mitigating its impacts by making communities more resilient. Green infrastructure can increase the capacity of sewer systems by reducing the flow into them, making the systems more resilient.

This fall I attended the first national Community Summit on Green Infrastructure, co-hosted by the Syracuse Environmental Finance Center and EPA in partnership with Onondaga County, NY  and the City of Syracuse. The summit provided an opportunity for communities across the country to share experiences and innovation in green infrastructure, while also strengthening the EPA Green Infrastructure Community Partnerships.  The pioneering cities who attended this community summit are ahead of the curve, paving the way for more natural stormwater controls through the use of green infrastructure.

Green roof on top of Syracuse University’s LEED Platinum certified Gateway Center. Photo Credit: Caitlin Eger, Syracuse Environmental Finance Center

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Editor's Note: The views expressed here are intended to explain EPA policy. They do not change anyone's rights or obligations.

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Feed the Barrel: Fuel Your City

By Enid Chiu

With holiday season in full swing, people are busy buying gifts, seeing family, and cooking large meals to feed all those hungry bellies. When there’s cooking, there’s oil – and where does all that cooking oil go?

Cooking Oil Barrel RecepticlePouring used cooking oil down the drain might seem like the most convenient solution, but it can have detrimental impacts. When cooking oil/grease is thrown into kitchen drains and even toilets, it sticks to the sides of your home’s sewer pipes. It can build up and block entire pipes, which can mean:

  • Raw sewage can overflow into your house, yard, street, neighbor’s house, or waterway
  • You will pay for an expensive and messy cleanup
  • You and your family might have contact with disease-causing organisms from the sewage
  • Sewer departments must charge higher bills for operation and maintenance

To avoid this mess, water departments recommend collecting grease and greasy food scraps in a container to throw in the trash for disposal.

The Indonesian community in South Philadelphia, however, is piloting a different solution that recycles the oil for future use AND generates some revenue for the community. With the support of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, they plan on establishing cooking oil drop off barrels at central locations (like places of worship). On a regular basis, an oil recycling company will pick up the oil and pay for each gallon collected. The recycling company uses the oil to make electricity (bio-fuel) and great compost for soil. The money made from the oil collected goes toward improving the community!

The Indonesian community is the first in Philadelphia to pilot residential cooking oil recycling. They have demonstrated a lot of gotong royong – or the ability to come together and work for a common cause. The inaugural oil pouring event at the first established drop off location is occurring today, December 5, 5:30 pm at International Bethel Church, 1619 S Broad Street, Philadelphia (details here).  EPA supports this pilot, which is in line with the goals of EPA’s Food Recovery Challenge.

Do you live in Philadelphia, and have used cooking oil stocking up in your home? Feel free to feed the barrel at International Bethel Church – or consider developing a cooking oil recycling plan for your own community! Learn more about cooking oil recycling here.

About the Author: Enid Chiu is an environmental engineer in the Office of Drinking Water and Source Water Protection. She also serves as the Asian American / Pacific Islander program manager at EPA Region III. Outside of the office, Enid enjoys playing music, exploring new restaurants, and watching football.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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A Prescription for a Healthier Environment

By Dustin Renwick

Many different colored pillsNext time you’re waiting at the doctor’s office, consider how what is prescribed there could also contribute to the health of the environment.

Christian Daughton, an EPA research scientist, does just that by looking at the connection between the examination room and the expansive beauty of the outdoors in his research paper, Lower-dose prescribing: Minimizing “side effects” of pharmaceuticals on society and the environment.

The paper is a result of his Pathfinder Innovation Project that explores the idea of considering the environment and the patient as one entity.

When someone ingests a drug, not all of it is absorbed. The human body excretes parts of that medication, including active pharmaceutical ingredients (APIs) that often end up in the sewers and eventually disperse into the environment.

The most common methods for reducing APIs in nature is by treating wastewater (remediation) and organizing take-back programs, where people in a community drop off unused medications for proper disposal. For example, National Prescription Drug Take-Back Day occurred in late October.

“My interest has long been on solving the upstream problem – minimizing the generation of waste rather than its more costly remediation,” Daughton says. “That aspect has long been discounted.”

Daughton is now directing his attention to identifying and reducing inefficiencies of pharmaceuticals in health care: how they are prescribed, dispensed, and ultimately used by the patients.

His research points to two major changes that could positively affect the types and quantities of APIs that infiltrate aquatic ecosystems.

First, doctors can focus on doses. Based on patient needs, physicians can prescribe lower doses of pharmaceuticals to prevent leftover drugs as well as decrease the excreted amounts. The strategy could keep the environment cleaner, reduce costs for patients and improve therapeutic outcomes.

“The idea isn’t to benefit environment at the expense of possibly jeopardizing the patient,” Daughton says. ”It’s a win-win for environment and health care.”

A second aspect of Daughton’s research involves tracking reliable data about which APIs are extensively metabolized by the body and which are excreted unchanged.

Imagine two similar drugs. The one that the human body thoroughly processes has what’s called an “environmentally favorable excretion profile,” and that drug is likely to do less damage to the local creek.

Unfortunately, that information isn’t easy to find.

“Excretion data submitted for regulatory approval purposes isn’t sufficiently comprehensive for examining the potential for environmental impact,” Daughton says. In other words, drug companies don’t need to scrutinize an API beyond what is relevant for human safety.

“That becomes a major stumbling block” to discovering which APIs could have negative environmental impacts.

As the topic of health care moves to the forefront of national discussions, Daughton’s work points to the environment as one missing component in those conversations.

“That’s where I get this expression – treating the environment and the patient as an interconnected whole.”

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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Water Infrastructure Challenges in Rural Alaskan Native Villages

The climate in parts of Alaska requires aboveground insulated water and wastewater piping.

The climate in parts of Alaska requires aboveground insulated water and wastewater piping.

By Matthew Richardson

I work with tribes and federal partners to protect human health and the environment in Indian Country, and my six years with EPA have been eye-opening. I learn more each day about the critical needs, challenging obstacles, and creative solutions required to provide basic water and sanitation services on tribal lands. The key is water infrastructure: pipes, pumps, holding tanks, etc. used to treat and move water, from source to tap to disposal of wastewater.

I’ll never forget my trip to the Alaska Native Village of Kongiganak. I knew that the challenges in Alaska were great, but there’s nothing like seeing firsthand what “lack of access” truly means. Because of the cold Alaskan climate, installing and maintaining proper water infrastructure is incredibly difficult. The population is widely dispersed and there are often fewer than 300 residents in each village. Many of the homes use a “honey bucket,” a five-gallon plastic bucket used to collect wastewater, that’s then dumped into a nearby lagoon.

 I work with EPA’s Alaska Native Village grant program, which provides grants to build drinking water and wastewater systems for these communities.  Since its inception in 1996, the program has distributed more than $479 million for 635 projects. During this period, the percentage of rural Alaskan homes with safe drinking water and wastewater access grew from 50% to 91%. This year alone, 400 additional households are scheduled to get improved access to such services.

 The real difficulties, however, come after the water infrastructure is built. Ongoing operation and maintenance in Alaska’s remote villages can be particularly challenging. 

To help water utility operators in tribal communities, EPA held a series of in-person training workshops across the country on how best to operate, troubleshoot, and maintain small water systems. Last year, we released online training based on the workshops.

EPA is also leading a multi-agency tribal infrastructure task force to identify solutions to these challenges. Through the task force, EPA and its four federal partners are working to reduce the administrative burden for tribes by streamlining and aligning agency policies, improve technical assistance coordination and develop web-based tools.

The needs are great and the challenges are difficult, but I am proud to help improve the health of these communities and protect the rural Alaskan environment.

About the author:  Matthew Richardson has been working for EPA since 2007 and currently manages EPA’s Clean Water Indian Set Aside Grant Program and Alaska Native Village and Rural Communities Grant Program.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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A Look Back at EPA’s work in the Wake of Hurricane Sandy

Among the communities devastated by Hurricane Sandy exactly a year ago today was Sayreville, New Jersey and its wastewater pumping station. As the super storm pounded the East Coast, untreated sewage from a pump station for the Sayreville station began flowing into the Raritan River and Bay system – a source of drinking water for many in the area.

In order to stop the toxic flow, two highly-trained EPA contractors were called in to install a six thousand pound gate under water. They performed extremely dangerous dives into 25 feet of raw sewage in a confined space with no visibility and hazardous debris.

They succeeded in installing the gate, which accelerated the restart of the Sayreville Pump station and prevented the discharge of hundreds of millions of gallons of more raw sewage into local waters. This critical work is just one example of countless EPA efforts rising to the occasion during one of nation’s most destructive natural disasters.

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Editor's Note: The views expressed here are intended to explain EPA policy. They do not change anyone's rights or obligations.

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How 3 Wastewater Treatment Facilities saved $69,000/year in Energy Costs

By Valerie Breznicky

We’re all familiar with the nightly routine of shutting off the lights and locking the doors, but that doesn’t happen at wastewater and water treatment plants.  Wastewater and water treatment is a 24/7 process and the amount of energy used for that treatment is huge.  But more and more utilities are finding ways to hold down those electric costs – and it helps the environment, too.

Broken Straw Valley Area Authority, PA – One of the many parts of water treatment is aeration, where air is forced through water to transfer oxygen to it.  This water authority identified that their aeration process was wasteful, and changed their computer program to aerate only when the treatment tank was completely filled.  This reduced the aeration time significantly, changing the process from aeration on a continuous flow to aeration of batches.  With this change, the Authority has seen an energy savings of about $10,000 a year.

Broken Straw Valley Area Authority

Broken Straw Valley Area Authority

Ridgeway Borough Wastewater Facility, PA – With the help of the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection Technical Assistance Team, the Borough changed the operation of the aeration system to run intermittently instead of continuously.  Consider your shower.  It wouldn’t make sense to keep the water running all day just so a few people could jump in and get clean.  The Borough invested in a $500 timer to control the timing of the process and, in turn, saved $31,000 a year in energy and chemical costs, while improving the quality of its effluent.

Ridgeway Wastewater Treatment Plant

Ridgeway Wastewater Treatment Plant

Berlin Borough Wastewater Facility, PA – Like Ridgeway Borough, Berlin Borough changed the operation of the aeration system to run intermittently instead of continuously, installing a timer to control the process and, in turn, saved $28,000 a year in energy and chemical costs, while improving the quality of its effluent.

Berlin Borough Wastewater Facility

Berlin Borough Wastewater Facility

Improving energy efficiency is an ongoing challenge for drinking water and wastewater utilities.  Facilities can make a number of small changes that add up to major energy and cost reductions.

Learn more about wastewater technology and energy efficiency here.  Do you know how your water utilities are saving energy and money?

About the Author: Valerie is an environmental scientist with the Environmental Protection Agency, and one of the Region III Sustainable Infrastructure Coordinators.  She has more than 28 years of experience managing infrastructure grants and has spent 5 and one-half years as a Sustainable Infrastructure (SI) Coordinator, insuring the sustainability of our water and wastewater infrastructure through information sharing and the integration of SI principles in all State programs.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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