Cleaning Up

Oct. 23, 2015

Simply stated, the Natural Resources Defense Council, along with many scientists and industry experts, believes we are heading toward a water crisis, due in part to changing climate patterns, but also largely in response to pollution resulting from activities such as factory farming, industrial manufacturing, and fracking. Rapidly increasing demand from overpopulation is draining rivers and aquifers, degrading habitat, and threatening the quality of the diminishing quantity of water. “Dirty water is the world’s biggest health risk, and continues to threaten both quality of life and public health in the United States,” the group proclaims.

It’s been a concern for decades. In 1948 the Federal Water Pollution Control Act was instituted in order to protect the integrity of our nation’s waterways and wetlands, creating regulations regarding discharge of pollutants into water and establishing quality standards for surface waters. Known as the Clean Water Act (CWA), it was substantially rewritten in 1972. Amendments allowed EPA to implement pollution control programs that include setting wastewater standards.

More changes were made in 1977, but the CWA retained the basic goal of providing clean water by using the best available technology to eliminate the discharge of pollutants.

Clean Water, Clean Energy
“There’s been concern with organics [organic matter, nitrogen, phosphates] since the 1972 Clean Water Act,” says Dan Dair, technical manager for World Water Works Inc. (WWW), a leading designer and manufacturer of specialized process and wastewater treatment technologies. “Others are important now.”

What’s truly new, however, is that contaminant removal is done in different ways than it was in the 1970s, because, says Dair, “now energy is critical.” WWW’s Demon treatment system incorporates a biological process to remove nitrogen from wastewater and achieve deammonification in two steps: the partial nitritation of ammonia and the subsequent anaerobic oxidation of the residual ammonia by nitrite to nitrogen gas. The total nitrogen removal is accomplished using only a very small amount of oxygen. The typical oxygen requirement necessitates high energy consumption. Partial nitrification requires less oxygen compared with conventional nitrification, resulting in energy savings of up to 40%. “Now, we only nitrify what we can denitrify.”

Traditional nitrogen removal uses nitrification/denitrification and requires large amounts of energy (1.8–2.7 kWh per pound of nitrogen removed) and carbon to obtain low effluent nitrogen limits. Alkalinity is sometimes required to maintain an efficient system, while extra sludge is produced due to the use of a carbon source. Operational dissolved oxygen levels range from 1–2 milligrams per liter. Nitritation/denitritation represents a shortcut of the traditional process as nitrate is shunted. Therefore, less energy is needed, the carbon demand is reduced, and less sludge is produced.

Benefits over traditional systems make it ideal for municipal and industrial clients that have wastewater streams with high ammonia concentrations. Other major benefits include reductions in ammonia load to the main treatment process, reduced sludge handling volumes, and less greenhouse gas production.

The Demon process is a side stream treatment that incorporates recycled stream mixed with wastewater. Liquid is high in ammonia. Most ammonia in the side stream is 20–30% of the total nitrogen load.

The Demon system features ammonia-oxidizing bacteria, which convert half the ammonia to nitrite. A second anaerobic biological process uses anammox bacteria to convert the combination of nitrite and remaining ammonia directly into nitrogen gas. This system reduces energy requirements by 60% compared with traditional nitrogen removal processes, eliminates the need for all chemicals, and produces 90% less sludge. The system also features a low carbon footprint; the anaerobic process actually consumes carbon dioxide. WWW provides the equipment that allows anaerobic bacteria to grow.

“Sludge from the digester used to be burned to reduce volume,” explains Dair. “Demon intersects in the reactor system before the head, so you treat less water.” That means the system is more efficient, providing energy savings.

Tested on a pilot scale, the process is modeled for larger facilities to validate designs. The new technology has seen favorable outcomes, but needs to be fully tested, says Dair. “We’re modifying aeration control strategies.”

The goal is to create energy and product from wastewater. Treated water could be directly piped to drinking water. “They’ll have to change the name to ‘resource recovery facility,'” muses Dair. “It’s much cleaner than water in streams, but it’s still controversial due to perception.”

Perceptions are different in Europe, where this has been done for years, he continues. “Energy is the driver.” More recently, he says California is driving towards “toilet to tap” as a reuse option, primarily because wastewater is the easiest source to collect and treat.

With a focus on cost-effective performance, flexibility, and durability, the company works to create the most appropriate treatment solutions, promises Dair. Everyone, but particularly small communities with correspondingly small budgets, can take advantage of the savings. “The largest municipal consumer of energy is a water plant. They’re energy hogs—and energy costs are going up. This is low-hanging fruit.”

The first full-scale deammonification treatment in North
America at York River in Virginia

Eliminating Contaminants Naturally
The cost of energy isn’t the only expense on the mind of water municipalities. The cost to treat drinking water is increasing as runoff from farmland and lawns pours chemicals, nitrates, phosphates, and synthetic compounds into the supply. When water runoff flows into lakes, streams, ponds, and oceans, it can negatively impact water conditions, affecting fish, livestock, plants, and public drinking water. Surface runoff can contaminate water sources, cause eutrophication (algal blooms), and cause health issues for plants and animals.

But chemicals are not always the solution to maintaining and restoring water quality. “They are, in fact, disrupting the health of our water system in many cases,” states Wayne Tucker, CEO of Bio S. I. Technology. “We need to return to naturally-made products that not only reduce toxicity in the ecosystem, but sustain the long-term vitality of our most precious resources. These beneficial microbes have a purpose in purifying the environment.”

That purpose is to restore a cleaner, healthier, more sustainable ecosystem for plants, animals, and humans. Due to overuse of pesticides, we no longer have the microbial diversity of 50 years ago. “Putting live microbes back in keeps sludge from building up,” says Tucker. It also helps break down organic waste.

Pathogens in nature do good work by restoring the balance of the microbial population. When microbes are washed out of the soil, it leaves the soil bereft of nutrients. Treated with all-natural (not lab-engineered) microbes, carbon from pesticides, fungus, and oil are broken down and converted to usable material for plants. “It improves soils and water,” notes Tucker. “The change of direction is considerable. We realize we forgot how to take care of water and soil. [This allows us to] help rebuild soil and water with a natural product.”

There are many reasons to rebuild the soil. Tucker explains that if soil consists of 1% humus, when 1 inch of rain falls, most of the water runs off.

But, if the soil contains 2% humus and 2 inches of rain falls, the soil will lose almost none of it. Building up humus helps filter rainwater. Converting plant debris to humus holds moisture, which helps save water and reduce irrigation bills by thousands of dollars. “The only way to put humus back in the soil is with microbes: plant debris.”

By encouraging plant roots to grow deeply, the soil will hold even more water. “Everybody helps everybody,” says Tucker. Removing contaminants and encouraging plant growth in turn reduces contamination of water supplies. But, he cautions, there’s no silver bullet. “This program is part of fertilization. Add in small doses to build diversity throughout the year, even in winter.”

Bio S. I. offers three microbial-based products. The remediation formula and kit works on small oil, gas, and diesel spills. “Hydrocarbon is great fertilizer, but the additives are a problem,” explains Tucker. In addition to a lawn and garden line and an agricultural line, Water Doctor has a product for cleaning water in animal tanks and ponds. This all-natural product contains microbes that digest bottom sludge layers that build up over time, helping to control algal blooms and moss. Safe for humans and animals, Water Doctor encourages water plant health, breaking down organic waste and fertilizer compounds such as nitrates, phosphates, and other contaminants. Even when contaminants can’t be broken down with microbes, these biological products convert them into non-dangerous forms.

Testing: One, Two
Organic contamination is a challenge faced by businesses and municipalities on a regular basis. To achieve necessary water quality and to optimize industrial processes and wastewater treatment processes, GE Water upgraded its Sievers InnovOx Total Organic Carbon (TOC) Analyzer, a tool designed to monitor, measure, and control the organics in wastewater and industrial process water. Product enhancements allow the advanced TOC Analyzer technology to monitor organics using close to real-time data to monitor in order to identify issues and optimize water processes for higher uptime and overall cost savings for customers. In addition, it can handle water samples with up to 5% organics and up to 0.1% total suspended solids, particles in wastewater, and high-temperature sample measurement.

“We’re trying to solve problems by offering what the customer needs,” says Mark Mullet, senior product manager. “The challenge is that customers don’t think of monitoring.”

Another challenge is that applications vary, making it difficult to collect and process samples. “Historically, some applications were extremely difficult to use,” recounts Mullet. “We did grab samples, but it was not good enough for true process control.”

To overcome that difficulty, GE has introduced a high temperature tester well-suited to refineries, the petro-chemical industry, and heat exchangers, where organics in cooling water can be disastrous to equipment. “It’s better to test at high temperature to get dispersed oil, not separated oil,” says Mullet, adding that the analyzer can handle water temperatures of 85°C.

One refinery had extra damage to its boiler system due to organics, recalls Mullet. He blames, in part, samples collected downstream of the cooling tower, where the oil and water had separated. “When measured upstream [using a high-temperature analyzer], the results were very different.”

Because access at petrochemical refineries can be complicated due to the explosive gas potential, GE will soon be releasing two certified hazardous location enclosures for corrosive applications that extend the ambient temperature range and keep personnel safer.

On the market now is a wastewater sampler that delivers water to the analyzer in which contaminants are particulated and suspended. “You can’t discharge waste,” points out Mullet, “so you must reduce the particulates.” Appropriate for food and beverage applications such as sugar and beer mash, it can also be used in wastewater applications. Municipalities are using it on influent, he reveals. With no wear items, no moving parts, and no need to be cleaned if there’s no interruption of flow, it’s a low-maintenance system.

Continual monitoring is recommended—and sometimes required by regulation. Application engineers often make recommendations on the frequency of samples. “If you want to control a process,” says Mullet, “you need continual monitoring—every five to seven minutes, or at least under 10 minutes.”

By continuously monitoring, it’s possible to catch organic spikes in process water, to identify a baseline, and collect a representative sample. “Gathering a representative sample is not trivial,” emphasizes Mullet. It’s imperative to collect a representative sample in order to know what you’re dealing with and correct it. He believes GE’s low/no maintenance systems will revolutionize sample gathering by measuring continuously.

Analog outputs are capable of monitoring two to five streams. Information can also be obtained through an interface over an ethernet—typical communication protocol for industrial operations, notes Mullet. Alternatively, he says users can “insert a USB memory stick and download information.”

The automated system features a fail-safe alert; if the sample stops flowing (if the pump quits, for example), it triggers an alarm. A closed loop provides feedback control. Mullet says it has stream switching capability to divert streams into a diversion pond or holding tank. “It can dilute or divert to protect membranes if there’s an influx of organics.”

Testing, Take Two
Water covers 71% of the Earth’s surface, and yet, clean water is in short supply. The goal of Pat-Chem Laboratories is to keep water clean and safe, says general manager Stephen Berentsen. “In California, our water is in short supply, so everything we can do to keep what we have is essential.”

That starts with environmental testing. They currently test wastewater, drinking water, hazardous waste, and soils. They also offer setup and testing on a 24-hour compliance monitor for those cities with wastewater discharge permits.

Pat-Chem Laboratories uses the newest testing equipment because reliability is critical. “Our customers depend on us taking a ‘good’ sample and reporting the results in a timely manner,” says Berentsen. “If they fail to report their results to the city on time, costly fines can be assessed.”

One of the biggest concerns for his customers, adds Berentsen, is the addition of more analytes to test for, and testing at more frequent intervals. “Customers [who] have failed testing and been ‘hit’ with fines and additional testing are not excited.”

Cities are becoming more and more aggressive in monitoring harmful chemicals and metals discharged into the waste management system, he observes. Pat-Chem works with both the customers who are dumping waste into the municipal sewer system and the waste treatment plants themselves. Berentsen says, “We currently service several municipal waste systems on a daily/weekly basis. They are charged with treating the wastewater before it exits to the ocean or holding facility.”

One large client is testing and creating systems to use less water in their process by filtering/cleaning processed water to be reused as potable water and processing this wastewater through several treatment systems to be able to inject the clean water back into the water table instead of dumping the wastewater into the municipal water system. “If this technology can be refined and made more cost-effective for all waste customers, more of our water could be treated and reused,” says Berentsen, who predicts “more and more regulation and monitoring” in the future.

Solutions for Pollution
Coinciding with increasing regulation will be the demand for reliability, performance, and features, envisions Mullet. It’s not going to be easy to deliver. “Corrosive applications will pose special challenges.”

He mentions alkali, chlorine gas, and products like caustic soda as particularly corrosive elements, but it’s the man-made contaminants such as pharmaceuticals that Dair believes will pose the biggest challenges because they are difficult to detect, too small to be removed with current processes, and don’t degrade. “Organics are already regulated; this is a future market.”

The industry will see refinements that shorten installation time, continues Dair. Once installed, the systems will remove contaminants such as phosphorous and nitrogen efficiently and redirect as much carbon as possible. He foresees a balance of energy and carbon utilization. “The goal is to create energy and product from wastewater.”

It’s a tall order, especially considering that places like India have no waste treatment system, points out Tucker. “They build remediation islands. With 1.2 billion people, it’s an enormous challenge.”

That’s why he says “problems will come from undeveloped countries. The big issue is that we are running out of water. Shortages will hit us all and we’ll turn to collecting surface water.” He believes that companies like his are in a unique position to help in order to secure the future of our global water supply.

Whatever technology and tools we use to keep our water supply free of contaminants, it’s clear that continuous monitoring will play a key role. It’s important to know what’s in our water supply.

It’s also important to make changes. According to Conserve Energy Future:

  • 40% of the rivers and 46% of the lakes in the US are polluted and are considered unhealthy for swimming, fishing, or aquatic life
  • 80% of water pollution is due to improper disposal of garbage
  • 1.2 trillion gallons of untreated sewage, stormwater, and industrial waste are dumped into US waters annually
  • 1.2 trillion gallons of sewage from households, industry, and restaurants are discharged into US lakes, rivers, and oceans each year, according to EPA
  • 2 million tons of human waste are disposed in water every day
  • Approximately half of all ocean pollution is caused by sewage and wastewater
  • About 700 million people worldwide drink contaminated water

A survey done by Food & Water Watch indicates that approximately 3.5 billion people in 2025 will face water shortage issues due, in part, to water pollution . . . unless things change.

The news isn’t all glum; things are beginning to change. Since 1970, EPA has invested well over $200 billion to improve water treatment plants that serve about 88% of the population in 2015 (as compared with just 69% in 1972).

Although two of the goals of the CWA—to achieve swimmable waters by 1983 and zero discharge of pollutants by 1985—were not reached, the law did initiate a dramatic increase in federal support for upgrading publicly owned treatment works, with $77.2 billion in federal grants and contributions funneling through EPA’s Construction Grants and Clean Water State Revolving Fund programs to states and municipalities.

Even with increased funding, the challenge is immense. Until the 1990s, 20–25 million gallons of raw sewage were carried each day from California to Mexico by the New River. Still today, factories worldwide are pumping 5–10 billion tons industrial waste—polluted water—into rivers, streams, and oceans. Only by changing habits, enforcing laws, and monitoring and removing contaminants can we ensure the safety of our water supply. 

About the Author

Lori Lovely

Winner of several Society of Professional Journalists awards, Lori Lovely writes about topics related to waste management and technology.