Wastewater

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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Around the Water Cooler: Wastewater Treatment (nothing to scream about…)

By Lahne Mattas-Curry

I came across this little gem the other day while working to promote EPA’s water science research.  A sci-fi novel set in a wastewater treatment plant? Brilliant. And the tagline: Where no one cares when you scream? Clearly author Dodge Winston has a lot to think about while at work as a wastewater plant operator in the San Francisco Bay area. I’ll bet, though, that most of us haven’t given the wastewater treatment plant in our communities much thought, yet wastewater treatment is a key contributor to keeping us healthy and the environment clean.

Do you know what happens to the wastewater when you flush the toilet or run the disposal, or even finish a load of laundry? The wastewater collection system consists of a network of pipes, pumps, and tunnels that connect our household plumbing to sewer lines and pump stations.  Eventually the wastewater is sent to the treatment plant for cleaning and distribution.

There are approximately 800,000 miles of public sewer lines in the United States, most installed after World War II. There are also close to 20,000 wastewater treatment pipe systems and 15,000 wastewater treatment facilities in the United States, most of them aging and certainly many that can’t handle a large storm without sending overflows of untreated wastewater into our waterways.

With this in mind, EPA engineers and scientists are developing tools, rehabilitation technologies and methods to increase long-term effectiveness of wastewater treatment systems. They also help municipalities and wastewater treatment plant staff keep our water clean, contributing to healthier people and a cleaner environment. EPA researchers are working  to keep our water sources free from chemical, biological, and radiological contaminants, too.

Here are a few of the tools and models our researchers have developed:

While these technologies and tools are targeted to wastewater treatment plant operators, there are things you can do at home to help keep our water clean and reduce the cost of cleaning our water at the wastewater treatment plant. Learn more about what you can do in your community here.

And for fun, check out this innovative tool the city of Oberlin, Ohio is using. You can see real-time use of electricity and water.

As an aside, this tool was developed by Lucid Design Group, which was founded by members of Oberlin College’s P3 team that organized a two-week “Dorm Energy Competition” where dorm residents competed to reduce their energy and water use and used the dashboards to monitor success back in 2005. Today, Lucid has customers around the country, including towns, building owners, corporations – and even Google – who want to monitor and reduce energy and water consumption.

About the Author: Lahne Mattas-Curry is a frequent contributor to Around the Water Cooler, and she also helps promote the great work of EPA researchers in the Safe and Sustainable Water Resources program. And at lunch today she will drink about a gallon of clean, treated tap water.

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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The Sounds of Recovery in Boston Harbor

Greetings from New England!Each Monday we write about the New England environment and way of life seen through our local perspective. Previous posts

By Phil Colarusso

For more than two centuries, Boston Harbor has had a variety of things dumped into it. In 1773, colonists famously dumped shiploads of tea to protests taxes. But in recent decades, the harbor has received less tea and more sewage. In the 1970s, 43 communities sent their wastewater to Boston where it was barely treated before its release into the harbor. The harbor’s pollution was so severe that local newspapers dubbed it “The Harbor of Shame” in the 1980s! But nowadays, after almost 25 years of intensive work by government and local organizations, sewage is no longer discharged into Boston Harbor and, as a result, the harbor has made a miraculous recovery.

As a marine biologist for the EPA, I’ve had the opportunity to see one of the most hopeful signs of that recovery up close. In the early 1980s, one area of the harbor near Logan Airport called Deer Island Flats was known for having industrial chemicals in the bottom sediments and fish with correspondingly high rates of tumors. Today, Deer Island Flats is covered with graceful shoots of eelgrass that form dense meadows akin to green wheat fields growing underwater, swaying in the current.

The presence of eelgrass at Deer Island Flats is noteworthy because scientists routinely use it as an indicator species. It is particularly sensitive to water quality, so scientists interpret its presence as evidence that water quality in that location is good. Deer Island Flats has gone from being grossly polluted to supporting one of the marine environment’s most sensitive species.

The benefits of eelgrass extend well beyond just being an indicator of clean water. Many fish and crustaceans use it as a spawning and nursery habitat. Other sea creatures use it as a refuge from predators, while still others, such as striped bass, use it as a restaurant drive-through, coming in to forage for food with each high tide. Like all plants, eelgrass performs the miracle of photosynthesis, taking the waste product carbon dioxide and with the help of the sun, converting it into simple sugar molecules. Eelgrass growth can be prolific, so the quantities of carbon dioxide converted to sugar can be large. This conversion process has important implications for much larger geochemical processes, such as global climate change and ocean acidification. Thus, the health of our coastal ecosystems is important, not only for the marine animals that may live there, but also for the planet in general.

As I climbed back into the boat, airplanes were landing at the nearby airport—but if you listened very closely you could hear the pleading call of a seagull overhead. And, in my mind, I also imagined I could hear the murmur of eelgrass meadows gently swaying in the water below. The sounds of a healthy harbor.

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About the author: Phil Colarusso is a marine biologist in the Coastal and Ocean Protection Section of EPA New England, and is an avid diver. He’s living the dream in Wenham with wife JoAnn, two kids, dog and white picket fence.

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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Wastewater Innovation Saving Energy, Saving Money

CambiReactors

New Sludge Processor at Blue Plains

By Ken Pantuck

In addition to being the largest facility of its kind in the U.S., the Blue Plains Advanced Wastewater Treatment Plant, in Washington D.C. is also now the first in the nation constructing power-producing Cambi units to treat sludge.

After the water we use in our homes and businesses gets sent down the drain, it goes to wastewater treatment plants, like Blue Plains, where processes remove large debris, settle out dirt and grit, consume organic matter, and disinfect the water before it gets discharged. But these processes leave behind leftover solids or sludge, which is where the Cambi units come in.

The units act like a giant pressure cooker, where the combination of pressure and heat speeds up the sludge digestion process. In addition to processing sludge at a faster pace, it also produces Class A biosolids, which can be safely sold to the public for use on lawns and gardens.

The innovative features of this new technology, currently used successfully in Europe, go beyond just treatment. While conventional wastewater treatment plants use mega-quantities of energy, these units will actually provide a source of energy for the plant, generating enough methane to run three gas combustion turbines that will supply about 40 percent of electricity needed to run the plant.

When operational, the Cambi units will also reduce odors, as well as sludge transportation costs and related pollution.

A few weeks ago, some of my colleagues and I toured the stainless steel reactors and associated digesters as they were going up, as part of DC Water’s $900 million improvements at the Blue Plains plant.

Saving energy and costs, reducing sludge volume and odors, while creating biosolids which we can use on lawns and gardens, makes me think this type of technology may have the potential for broader applications at wastewater treatment plants across the U.S.

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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The Lowdown on Why Water Use is Down in DC

By Ken Pantuck

It turns out that when it comes to water conservation, what goes up sometimes does come down.  And what each of us does in our homes really does have an impact.

Water consumption in the District of Columbia is down from an average of 125 million gallons per day in 2004 to 100 million gallons today, according to recent reports from DC Water.   Similarly, the amount of wastewater going to Washington’s Blue Plains Wastewater Treatment Plant has declined over the past decade.

A shot of DC’s urban water resources Photo courtesy of Flickr photographer ad454 from EPA’s State of the Environment Photo Project

A shot of DC’s urban water resources. Photo courtesy of Flickr photographer ad454 from EPA’s State of the Environment Photo Project

How did this reduction occur?  It seems to be a combination of factors.  Homeowners have decided to use water-saving appliances in new homes and to replace water consumptive fixtures.  DC Water has pushed an effective and ongoing program to repair and replace aging and deteriorated sewer segments.  Proactive steps have been taken to eliminate other sources of water in the system, like tidal intrusions. And rainfall and ground water levels have been lower than normal.

Although earth is often referred to as the “water planet” with about 70% of its surface covered by water, less than 1% of the water is available for human use.  Water supplies are finite, and the residents and wastewater utility in DC are helping to protect this critical and precious resource where they live.  The story of water use in the district shows that the collective action of individuals can make a big difference to ensure there is enough clean water for generations to come.

The water conservation message is simple and something that any municipality, large or small, can easily promote.  Encouraging residents to use less water is low cost and can produce significant savings.  For example, the 25 million gallons of water savings in DC also results in a savings of $2,500 per day in processing costs at the Blue Plains Treatment Plant.  Even more important, lower rates of water use means that less water is going through a wastewater system, which can relieve the pressure on treatment plants during large storm events.  In a smaller plant, this could mean the difference between expanding the plant or not.

What can you do to help reduce water use where you live?  One thing is to look for WaterSense-labeled water appliances for your home.  WaterSense is an EPA partnership program that seeks to protect the future of our nation’s water supply by offering people a simple way to use less water with water-efficient products, homes, and services.  Get lots of tips for how you can save water in your home here.

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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Wetlands All Around Me

Several links below exit EPA Exit EPA Disclaimer

By Travis Loop

The moon lit up the marsh as my canoe glided across the water. In shallow sections, my paddle pushed against the bottom. Around me were frogs peeping, fish splashing and birds rustling. For a 13-year-old boy on a field trip, these Chesapeake Bay wetlands were a dramatic introduction to the remarkable area where the land meets the water.

Why are wetlands – often mucky and unattractive – remarkable? It is for their critical role in the ecosystem and in our communities. In many places I’ve been throughout my life I have found wetlands all around me… and discovered their importance.

When living in Wilmington, North Carolina, I saw how coastal wetlands and Carolina bays are vital habitat for wildlife, including the alligator peering at me while I kayaked in a swamp. Wetlands are diverse biological ecosystems and more than one-third of threatened and endangered species live only in wetlands. Migratory waterfowl use wetlands – especially prairie potholes in the Midwest – for resting, feeding or nesting. This is big business – about 2.3 million people annually hunt migratory birds, spending $1.8 billion dollars.

Now at EPA headquarters in Washington, colleagues say swamps, marshes and bogs are the kidneys for our nation’s waterways, filtering pollution and reducing sediment that would hurt downstream. For example, without the Congaree Bottomland Hardwood Swamp in South Carolina, a $5 million wastewater treatment plant would be needed.

During a trip to Louisiana I heard how wetlands function as natural sponges that trap water and lessen flooding. Wetlands along the Mississippi River once stored 60 days of floodwater. Now they store only 12 days because most have been filled or drained and there is more frequent flooding along the river.

I didn’t expect to find wetlands when living in Hawaii. Yet near my house on Oahu, wetlands were part of Ka’elepulu Pond. I’ve learned there are wetlands in unique places across the country – about 20 percent of wetlands (20 million acres) in the continental U.S. are not visibly connected to other waterways – as you would suspect wetlands to be – but may have groundwater connections and provide other benefits.

Sadly, many wetlands have already been lost or altered – more than half of the original wetland areas in the continental U.S. are gone. And near my home in Annapolis, Maryland, climate change is raising sea levels, slowly swallowing the wetlands of Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge.

We need these wetlands around us.

About the author:  Travis Loop is the director of communications for EPA’s Office of Water.

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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