An Interview with AquaAeTer's Wes Eckenfelder

Feb. 4, 2008
The subject of an Industrial WaterWorld "Executive Corner" column, Wes Eckenfelder's experience in industrial wastewater management stretch to President Harry Truman's administration. A lot of knowledge and acquaintances go along with those 60 years. The namesake for the first Industrial Water Quality Lifetime Achievement Award, Eckenfelder was presented with the honor by the WEF Industrial Wastes Committee in August 2007 at the Industrial Water Quality Conference in Providence, RI...
Wes Eckenfelder Jr.'s experiences as one of the foremost authorities on industrial wastewater management stretches back to the administration of President Harry Truman. There's a lot of knowledge, experiences and acquaintances that go along with the full breadth of those 60 years. PennWell's Carlos David Mogollon -- managing editor of Industrial WaterWorld -- had an opportunity in January 2008 to interview the namesake for the inaugural Industrial Water Quality Lifetime Achievement Award. The subject of the magazine's January/February 2008 "Executive Corner" column, "Eckenfelder on the Evolution of 'Bugs'", Eckenfelder was presented with the honor by the WEF Industrial Wastes Committee in August 2007 at the revived Industrial Water Quality Conference in Providence, RI. The full interview follows here:

IWW: Last we met was at the Industrial Water Quality Conference hosted by the Water Environment Federation in August in Providence, RI. And I was very enthralled by the presentation you gave on sort of a "Tales of My Death are Premature..." regarding wastewater treatment issues.

Eckenfelder: Thank you.

IWW: I should start, though, by introducing you as Wes Eckenfelder, a consultant with AquAeTor, a Nashville, TN, environmental engineering firm as well as a professor emeritus at Vanderbilt University, also in Nashville.

Eckenfelder: That is correct.

IWW: That's in civil engineering?

Eckenfelder: No, environmental engineering.

IWW: Where are you from?

Eckenfelder: I'm from the Bronx originally. Although I've been in Nashville since 1970, so I kind of feel like a native now.

IWW: You were described at the WEF event as being sort of the godfather of industrial wastewater treatment in the sense that you've been involved for so long that anyone that's very well known in the industry either knows you well, is good friends with you, has studied under you or has worked with you.

Eckenfelder: That is probably correct, David. Fifty-nine years. You meet a lot of people in that amount of time.

IWW: Tell me a bit about what you're doing now and then we can go back and talk about earlier days.

Eckenfelder: Well, as you know, I'm retired and working now as a consultant with AquaAeTer to keep my mind active. Two activities of interest is I'm currently organizing a workshop co-sponsored by Vanderbilt and Siemens on advanced activated sludge technology. As you probably know, there are many workshops around the country through universities and water environment associations for operator training, etc. But here I felt there was a need for bringing out the new things, the advanced technology for consultants and environmental managers. So we are putting this program together to be at Vanderbilt next June.

IWW: You mean June 2008?

Eckenfelder: That is correct, David.

IWW: Have you picked a specific date?

Eckenfelder: We are thinking the last week of June. The thing is here we're going to cover membrane biological technologies, selected design and operation issues, nutrient removal -- all of which are topics that represent relatively new technology.

IWW: And ones for which everything is moving very quickly as well.

Eckenfelder: Absolutely, they are.

IWW: I imagine that you've seen a lot of transitions in the industry. Do you want to talk to some of your earlier days and how things have changed in the interim to today?

Eckenfelder: You know, I recall the Water Quality Act of 1972 really totally transformed the industry, since that was the first time there were guidelines wastewater treatment for various industrial categories. Previously, everything was presumed to be the same as domestic wastewater, an 85% removal concept. That totally changed everything and totally changed the technology requirements, specific for chemical industry, pulp & paper, etc. Now, what has happened in my opinion is today most industry in this country has a wastewater treatment plant that is currently meeting their effluent requirements.

IWW: Right.

Eckenfelder: What has happened is, as you probably know, we aren't building many new industrial facilities. And, in fact, we're not even expanding many. So, today we're involved with retrofitting treatment plants that are old, have to be upgraded and in some instances involving new technology for nutrient removal, etc. To me, most of the real action is overseas, Southeast Asia and Latin America. And most of the consultants, at least the bigger ones, are engaged over there.

IWW: That's true, although there has been some talk more recently about the sustained weakness of the dollar creating more of an opportunity for manufacturing in the United States again.

Eckenfelder: I would love to see that before I pass on, David.

IWW: How old are you now?

Eckenfelder: Eighty.

IWW: That's not so old these days.

Eckenfelder: I'd like to think it's not. Another interesting point here is I was about to publish the Fourth Edition of my book, Industrial Water Pollution Control, which is published by the College Division of McGraw Hill. What happened was that they came back and said that many of the universities no longer offer a course on industrial waste and therefore the market for that has markedly decreased, which I realized anyway from my college contacts. But then what happened is their Professional Division grabbed it up and said, "We are very interested in publishing a book that can be a reference guideline for consulting engineers and environmental managers."

IWW: So, is it going to be published by the Professional Division then?

Eckenfelder: Yes, it is. And I've got two co-authors now helping me on this, Dr. Davis Ford and Dr. A.J. Englund of Tulane.

IWW: Where's Dr. Ford from?

Eckenfelder: He's from Texas.

IWW: A&M or U. of...?

Eckenfelder: A&M, obviously. That book will become available at the WEF convention in Chicago this fall (WEFTEC.08, Oct. 18-22). To me that's kind of an indication of where this field is going, David.

IWW: How so?

Eckenfelder: Let me express it this way. Ten years ago, environmental engineering was a popular field with students. Graduate programs had many, many applicants. Today, that isn't true anymore. And I think the magic, if you will, has kind of worn off it. And the opportunities aren't what the used to be. Now, having said that, abroad it's quite a different story. My book was translated into Chinese, for instance.

IWW: When was that?

Eckenfelder: Two years ago. I understand it's very popularly used there.

IWW: Well, considering the tales of industrial pollution and spills traversing rivers on their way toward Russia over the past few years -- not to mention preparations for the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, there's a big emphasis on improving the environment there.

Eckenfelder: Absolutely. From what I understand, it's a major effort now in China, the cleaning up the waters, if you will. I might add, David, that this is also true in Latin America, Brazil, Argentina, Chile.

IWW: That's true. I was the founding editor of Agua Latinoamerica, which was -- and still is -- the only regionwide publication covering this market there, so I have somewhat of a firsthand look at some of that -- as I imagine you have as well.

Eckenfelder: Yes, I've given a number of workshops and seminars in Latin America over the years. And I've always gotten a great deal of interest and enthusiasm out of the participants.

IWW: How did you start out in the industry? I mean when did you first get an interest in this subject?

Eckenfelder: David, I went to Manhattan College in 1946 and registered as a civil engineer. However, I hated structures, but what the had was a sanitary engineering option there with C.J. Velz who was a fantastic teacher. Boy, did he get me enthused with sanitary engineering. So, I went on to graduate school at Penn State and got a graduate degree and started to work in 1948 as a sanitary engineer for the Atlantic Refining Co. with Roy Weston, who was my boss, big boss. He founded one of the major consulting firms in this country (Roy F. Weston Inc.). And in 1952, Roy and I formed a partnership, believe it or not -- a consulting firm.

IWW: What was the name of the firm?

Eckenfelder: Weston, Eckenfelder & Associates.

IWW: How long was this company around?

Eckenfelder: Well, Weston is still around, but it's a 4,000 man firm today. I left them in 1956, David, because at that time Weston was in Pennsylvania and I was in New York. The deal was either I moved to Pennsylvania or got out. And I was teaching at Manhattan and wanted to keep doing that, so I parted company with Roy. I stayed at Manhattan College; then, in 1960, I formed HydroScience, which is basically still around as HydroQual today.

IWW: We just had an article in the magazine from them recently.

Eckenfelder: Yes, I'm sure you did. They are a top class firm today.

IWW: How long were you with HydroQual, or HydroScience, rather?

Eckenfelder: About six years, which is when I moved to the University of Texas where I was a professor for five years and started up a number of conferences and workshops. At that point, I moved to Vanderbilt in 1970 and remained there for 20 years until I retired. During that period, I also formed AWARE, which became Eckenfelder Inc. in 1989, and was then purchased by Brown & Caldwell in 1998. So, I've kind of wandered through a number of consulting firms over the years.

IWW: What sort of things do you see, in that time frame, as far as how the industry has transitioned? I'm sure you could talk about this for hours, but maybe you'd like to highlight a few things.

Eckenfelder: David, I tell you, I think today in industrial applications, the emphasis is going to be on waste minimization and water reuse. I really don't think end-of-pipe is going to be the most attractive option anymore. The question of energy, water use and everything in between I think is going to dominate the issues of the future.

IWW: So make the most of what you've got...

Eckenfelder: Exactly.

IWW: We see a lot of emphasis being put on that in the publication as far as zero liquid discharge, recycling loops, MBR and all sorts of efforts for greater water efficiency to limit the impact on potable water supplies and the environment. What are the key points that you see in which the technology has changed in the marketplace?

Eckenfelder: You know, David, I like to say that the bugs have been around longer than people. And, just like people, they haven't changed much over a thousand years. So, the technology is changing but the basics haven't. We've kind of refined things which is true of MBR and these other issues. I think that, to that degree, we are going to move toward a more sophisticated treatment plant but using all the same basics. Are you with me here?

IWW: Yes.

Eckenfelder: I look upon, lets say, a biological treatment plant 10 years from now as being completely automated.

IWW: And integrated with a number of technologies such that the only thing coming out will be the solids and maybe a little water residue left at the end.

Eckenfelder: You're exactly right and I think we are definitely headed that way. Now, I think in a sense the economics of all it all will push us that way anyway.

IWW: You've talked about 1972 and the Water Quality Act being such a pivotal point. What is the role of regulations in the marketplace and how the ebbs and flows of that will affect how the industry goes forward?

Eckenfelder: Well, as you probably know, regulations are very subject to politics.

IWW: True.

Eckenfelder: And currently regulations are not being very strictly enforced, frankly. That, of course, could change. But, having said that, I've gone through regulations that affected just BOD originally. Then we got into toxics, bioassays and toxics. Then we got into nutrients, nitrogen and phosphorus. So, over time, things have tightened up. And, of course, my casual comment at the luncheon invitation was every time I've been told I was going to run out of work...

IWW: A new regulation would come out.

Eckenfelder: Yes, and we'd all get busy again.

IWW: I recall, that as a comment that drew a big laugh.

Eckenfelder: The point is that I think we've about run out. Apart from some TMDLs tightening up water quality criteria, we've about done as much as we're going to do.

IWW: Well, correct me if I'm wrong, but it seems that in recent years, what's driven regulations hasn't been so much anything new on the toxicity front, but moreso the technology allowing detection of increasingly smaller and smaller amounts of contaminants.

Eckenfelder: Ha, ha, you are so right, David. Metals are a very good example. The regulation changes as your detection level gets lower. Now, of course, on organics, we've about gone as far as we can go on BOD, and nitrogen, phosphorus, etc.

IWW: Would it be fair to say that making sure that the regulations currently on the books are better enforced would improve things dramatically?

Eckenfelder: Yes, yes. You know, frankly, most of the regulations are technology based.

IWW: Well, if you can't get rid of it, what's the point. You can have a regulation, but it's kind of like California's Prop. 65, which says basically zerio, but doesn't define zero. So, therefore, any time you can measure down to a more minute level, it doesn't matter whether the technology is available to remove it, suddenly somebody's in violation.

Eckenfelder: Well, David, there is no such thing as zero. It certainly doesn't exist statistically. But, be that as it may, I can't see that we're going to tighten up much more than we are now, which then tells me there has to be a different emphasis. And that has to focus on water reuse, waste minimization, etc. Even this phantom concept of zero discharge, which you realize was actually in the original water quality acts. I think that's the direction we're heading. And I can't disagree with it, by the way. I 'm not sure how we're going to get there, but I think it's an admirable goal perhaps.

IWW: Are there any issues or emerging topics that raise concerns for you? The WEF industrial conference in Providence was co-located with another on Contaminants of Emerging Concern, so it would seem like there might be some issues that might pop up there.

Eckenfelder: The only thing that is there are these trace chemicals that are primarily from pharmaceuticals and such that are discharged and tend to make the fish [bisexual], you know what I'm saying.

IWW: The endocrine disruptors.

Eckenfelder: Yes, but how that's going to be handled I'm not sure. It certainly doesn't respond to our conventional water treatment at this point for sure. So, I think that's really going to have to be directed back at the source. I don't know. There, I punt. It's beyond me. And I gather from the papers on it that, at this point, it's beyond anyone else.

IWW: True. That might be the next technological breakthrough, if there is one -- that as well as issues around the problems with nanomaterials. It's only been in the last few years that we've begun to understand the outline of problems we're likely facing there.

Eckenfelder: That is correct, David. I'm a little bit behind the ball on that one, though.

IWW: Based on how we've dealt with similar issues in the past, how do you think the industry should approach a solution?

Eckenfelder: Oh, boy.

IWW: At this point, they're still trying to determine whether it's a problem, i.e., evaluating toxicity and any other potential health or environmental repercussions.

Eckenfelder: See, with some of these issues, we're going beyond the capabilities of at least current technology. It would appear that we need some new breakthroughs, so that we could at least economically address them. And there, as I said, I'm still behind the curve.

IWW: Okay. Are there other issues you'd like to discuss. You've seen how industry, government and the public at large have reacted various issues that have come up regarding industrial wastewater. Are there things you've seen in the past that might offer a good perspective on what we should expect in the future?

Eckenfelder: I do believe that were we are now we are able to fine tune industrial waste treatment facilities to meet virtually any of current reasonable regulations. I think the focus for the next decade is going to be direct toward that fine tuning. That's why I'm pushing this workshop, to bring these technologies to the consulting engineers and the environmental managers. I think these are the things they're going to have to think about as we go on into the future. Beyond that, I'm not sure what else we have to think about -- here in the U.S. I am very, very sensitive to the fact that the big issues today aren't here anymore. They're in China or Asia or Latin America.

IWW: And some of the former Soviet republics and countries in Eastern Europe.

Eckenfelder: All of them. All of them. All of them. The focus if you will on wastewater treatment, since that's what we're talking about, I honestly think should be addressed in other parts of the world. We have here literally led the field in technology development so that, to me, we are currently now leading the rest of the world. Now, eventually, they'll catch up, of course. But, right now, I think the American focus here is the challenges in these other countries more than it is here today.

IWW: I think there's another subject that may have some impact on things going forward and that's what's emerged over the last few years as a focus on anything related to global warming or climate change and what potential impact that could have on water resources. It goes back not so much to the technology as it does for industry to use what water is available more efficiently.

Eckenfelder: Doesn't this come back to water reuse and waste minimization?

IWW: And also energy efficiency.

Eckenfelder: Yes, which frankly we haven't been particularly in the past.

IWW: True. Variable frequency drives have not been written into all specifications of contracts in our industry, for instance.

Eckenfelder: No, and you know aeration equipment hasn't always been frankly as efficient as it could be. But, you know, power's been cheap, so people haven't really worried about conserving power when you're only paying 5 cents a kilowatt on it.

IWW: Yes, and that's where some of these other issues that have come to the fore more recently come into play. We may think that power has gotten expensive today, but it could be a heck of a lot more expensive -- everything else included -- if we don't deal with some of these other issues today.

Eckenfelder: That is correct. And I've noticed that conferences today there seems to be more emphasis on those particular issues than there ever seems to have been in the past.

IWW: MBR seems to be the buzzword, along with membrane technology in general, that's been moving things forward recently. I would imagine the fact that the technology and manufacturing processes involved have gotten less expensive plays a big factor in that.

Eckenfelder: David, to me, the ideal system is MBR. You don't just discharge solids, etc. And the only obstacle is cost. Now, as the cost goes down, obviously, its application is going up. But right now for a large treatment plant, it's hard to beat a clarifier.

IWW: I recall at the WEFTEC.07 Industrial Waste Committee meeting, which was discussing event topics, that it was mentioned if you did anything to do with clarifiers you'd have people coming out of the woodwork to attend it.

Eckenfelder: That's right. It's exactly true. But clarifiers have the one limitation in that they're totally subject to the quality of sludge you have going into it. And you get a poor settling sludge, or whatever, and you've got a potential problem with the clarifier. An MBR doesn't care. Are you with me here?

IWW: I'm with you.

Eckenfelder: A lot of the technical problems associated with sludge quality disappear when you have an MBR. I'll put it that way.

IWW: But the cost basis means that a clarifier is still the most attractive option for most industrial applications.

Eckenfelder: Yes. And, frankly, it will continue to be for the near future at least.

IWW: Tell me a bit about what AquaAeTer. Who else is involved?

Eckenfelder: Mike Horn is the president. Actually, David, I am the only the principal wastewater treatment person in AquaAeTer. They are primarily a water quality group. But, I retired and I wanted to keep myself active. AquaAeTer said, "Go ahead and join us. We'll give you an office." So, I did. It's a relatively small environmental consulting firm.

IWW: Does it keep you busy?

Eckenfelder: Well, moderately, then I've got the books I'm writing and the conferences I'm organizing. All of this keeps me off the street, as they might say.

IWW: It sounds a bit like my dad, who's a retired engineer as well. He was formerly assistant state engineer for public works for the state of Indiana with specialization in HVAC. He keeps doing different projects here and there, one just for extra cash and also because he wants to stay involved and keep his mind functioning well.

Eckenfelder: Absolutely, if you don't keep your mind active, you kind of die away.

IWW: How did you feel about getting the Industrial Water Quality award named after you and being the inaugural recipient as well?

Eckenfelder: I was extremely surprised but very impressed, very impressed.

IWW: That was quite the room of notables acknowledging all that you've contributed to the industry.

Eckenfelder: Absolutely. Listen, I was extremely impressed with that one.

IWW: When you look back on your career, what's the thing you're most proud of?

Eckenfelder: Probably the fact that I was one of the primary developer of biological treatment technology. My first books was Biological Wastewater Treatment. It came out in 1960. That's almost 50 years ago.

IWW: Wow.

Eckenfelder: And actually, I had occasion to thumb through the book recently and, frankly, things haven't changed that much -- at least the books haven't anyway. So, principally, in the last 50 years, we've tried to refine things as we got a greater understanding of the bugs. But the basics are still the same.

IWW: I imagine you knew the winner of last year's Stockholm Water Prize very well, since he specialized in this field as well -- Dr. Perry McCarty.

Eckenfelder: Oh, yes. Perry and I probably are about the same age, I guess. We've known each other for years.

IWW: What's your fondest memory there?

Eckenfelder: Well, you know, we've shared experiences from time to time at conferences, you know. He isn't in quite the same area I am, I might say.

IWW: In what sense?

Eckenfelder: Well, Perry's in water quality anaerobic and I've been in the activated sludge kind of stuff.

IWW: Are there any key projects you've been involved in that you'd like to mention? Or are there any interesting and/or amusing stories that arise out of those?

Eckenfelder: I will say that I designed the first activated sludge plant that was a model if you will for a pulp and paper plant and also for a pharmaceutical plant. But this was all back in the 1950s. Now, also back in the 1950s, I designed an activated sludge plant for a cannery, a tomato cannery back in Pennsylvania, for the Heinz Co. And the sludge overran everything and poured over the effluent weir. That is not one of my laudable achievements, to say the least.

IWW: I'm imagining a red mess of stuff.

Eckenfelder: It was horrible. Frankly, I left town. In fact, I haven't even been back to Chambersburg since.

IWW: A bad memory of something gone awry. They might have to send you a special invitation to give you a more favorable memory to look back on.

Eckenfelder: Yes, with a bottle of ketchup, too.

IWW: Anticipation...

Eckenfelder: I do say, we've all hopefully learned from our mistakes or our misadventures, if you will. And I have. Through the years, I calculated something and designed projects where I bit off more than I could handle. Fortunately, in a few cases, it was never built. So, I have nothing to worry about there. That's probably about it in that respect.

IWW: Well, what would you like to say in closing? The readers of Industrial WaterWorld include probably all the people at the WEF conference and then some. We have a controlled circulation of about 25,000, not counting passalong readership, of course.

Eckenfelder: That's a good question. I think we have a very mature industry here, talking of industrial wastewater treatment now; but I think we can still refinements directed toward energy efficiency, economic recovery and water reuse and things of that nature. That's how the industry has got to focus in the future.

IWW: So solutions are available over a broader spectrum of industries and not just geographically.

Eckenfelder: Absolutely, David.

IWW: Well, thank you so much for your time.

Eckenfelder: You're very welcome.


For more information:

W. Wesley Eckenfelder Jr.
215 Jamestown Park, Suite 100
Brentwood, TN 37027
Tel: 615-373-8532
Fax: 615-373-8512
Email: [email protected]


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