WASTEWATER WOES AND WONDERS
Water purification, also know as sewage treatment is becoming one of the biggest and most important industries in the world. Billions and billions of dollars are being tpumped into this industry. There are 15,000 sewage treatment plants in this country discharging 12 trillion gallons of partially and untreated water into our waters.
Simmering Summer Septic Problems:
No Easy Answers=One Ugly Outcome 08.30.11
This unseen scene is being played out outside thousands of treatment plants
NBN pulled these two stories out of the mailbox this week to illustrate what we predict is the tip-of-the-iceburg, the 800-pound gorilla, the dirty secret…whatever you want to call the ugly fact that the nation’s wastewater treatment infrastructure is an invisible disaster that’s impossible to assess. That makes it real easy to ignore. In the first story we have the feds cracking down on Salisbury, MA, for excess levels of copper and ammonia in the water it discharges into a nearby creek which feeds into the Merrimack River. Salisbury says, “No Problem” we’ll just extend the pipe farther into the creek where there’s more water to dilute the copper and ammonia to federally acceptable levels. No talk about getting rid of these toxins which are washing over the clams we talk about on this week's cover. Then, in the second story, in a tiny inlet in the tony town of Annasquam, MA, 13 miles south of Salisbury in a place called Plum Cove, residents were being told in late August the heavy rains on Aug. 15-16 flushed excess amounts of bacteria from sewage treatment plants, like the one in Salisbury and six others, that feed into the Merrimack. As a result Plum Cove was too polluted to swim in for a few days.
The good news is Plum Cove residents were swimming a few days after tides flushed the tiny inlet out. The bad news is this sort of thing is happening all over the country with longer lasting results. NBN’s emailbox was packed this summer with closure announcements for fresh water ponds and lakes all over New England. These places don’t have the benefit of tides to flush them out so they stay closed for weeks on end. They also don’t tend to have waste water treatment plants discharging into them.
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These lakes and ponds do have plenty of stormwater run off flushing all kinds of farm and lawn chemicals into the water which, chemically, is a close second to what wastewater treatment plants discharge. This runoff problem seems of late to be spoiling summer after summer for folks living around these lakes and ponds. Furthermore, many of these lakes and ponds discharge into the bays and oceans at some point, exacerbating problems like the one in Plum Cove . That doesn't mean all the news is bad on the water pollution front.
Public Eneny No. 1 Road Runoff
Thanks to aggressive federal actions like the creation of the EPA and the passage of the Clean Water Act we no longer have manufacturing plants indiscriminately dumping massive quantities truly poisonous chemicals into our waterways like we did for nearly a century before the term water-pollution became a household word. That pollution killed all forms of life in the marine environments they entered, and humans entered those water bodies back then at their own great peril. The companies that did the polluting were forced to clean up their act and now once toxic rivers like the Merrimack and Hudson having people swimming and kayaking in them, occasionally. The bad news is the pollution still entering the nation’s water bodies, like the treatment plants discharging into our rivers and the runoff closing our lakes and ponds is much harder to clean up. How do we ask farms to stop spraying their crops? How do we ask people protecting dwindling home values to stop chemically manicuring their lawns? How do we ask bankrupt local governments to spend millions upon millions to upgrade their wastewater treatment plants when they can barely pay their police?
The answers to all the above is: We aren’t, not in this political climate. The return on the investment in hundreds of millions spent in EPA ordered sewer upgrades across the country will not be measured in long-term improvements to the nation’s unemployment rate. Those improvements will be measure in things like fewer beach closings and more edible clams and fish to eat. Those dividends don’t translate into jobs nearly as well as, say, hydrofracking or offshore oil exploration. Even the most staunch environmentalist isn’t going to wish his unemployed neighbor stay so, in order to improve the kayaking outside Brooklyn Heights.
Build pools outside every home: end unemployment, more summer fun
No, we’re going to limp along for another decade or so, extending sewer discharges pipes deeper into our marshes so they don’t stink as much. The first casualty of an economic downturn is environmental protection and the current slate of GOP candidates suggests it could be another two decades before we can start talking again about catching dinner along the docks of New York’s South Street Seaport. Maybe we can install swimming pools outside every other house in the country, like this neighborhood outside Phoenix, AZ. That will allow us to have summer recreation again and it will be great for the economy. Maybe a more sensible solution is those of us willing and still able to sacrifice for environmental improvement, get out there and make your desires known. If you neighbor is making a living by damaging the environment, it’s time for him or her to find a new job and it's time for you, and NBN, to tell them to do so.
Tossing Disks Out with the Bath Water 04.19.11
These tiny plastic disks saved money, made a mess.
How do you double capacity at a sewer plant without building more storage tanks? That’s what engineers at a Hooksett, NH, wastewater treatment plant sought to do when they purchased millions of two-inch plastic screened discs that eventually ended up gracing the beaches of the North Atlantic from Rhode Island to England. These discs were lifesavers at first. They were coated with bacteria and dumped into sewage holding tanks at the Hookset, NH plant. They went to work eating all the goodies that make sewage so nasty, reducing the need to expand the overworked plant.
Then the rains came and, coupled with unseasonable warm weather and an unreasonably snowy winter, road runoff overwhelmed sewage treatment plants across the region. Sadly, Hooksett was not the only plant to use these plastic disks. Similar debris from a Westchester, NY, plant wwashed up on Long Island beaches that same week. So ,instead of this disks being an inexpensive solution to costly expansion needs at these facilities, they end up costing pretty close to a down payment on a new holding tank for these plants.
Worse, the purchase of the disks in the Hooksett Plant came from Obama’s Stimulus Package which has plenty of PR troubles of its own. The ongoing investigations will eventually find what went wrong at the plants and how to prevent a repeat performance. Let’s just hope knee-jerk reactions don’t have us throwing the baby out with the sewage water when it comes to using these plastic disks. Apparenlty, Europeans have been using them for years, according to the Union Leader, the only paper to provide any perspective on the problem. However, if you read the comments under that story, everybody is a Monday morning quarterback. Anyone who has spent time at a town hall knows there is no shortage of citizen critism of offical actions, and a lot of it is diserved. But a lot more is not. These engineers do know what they are doing. Their use of these disks in the US is relatively new, which might explaing the accidents. Which is better here: to do nothing and know we’re continuing to pollute our rivers and streams with inadequately treated waste water, or to throw tax money at problem without the oversight needed to make it work properly. Talk about a Hobson’s choice.