Tag Archives: sewage

Specialized bacteria can remove rogue drugs during sewage treatment

UPDATE, March 10, 2016
I’ve added links for three previous reports related to the degradation of pharmaceuticals and personal care products.
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Concerns are growing about medications and person-care products that pass through sewage-treatment plants and into Puget Sound, where the chemicals can alter the physiology and behavior of fish and other organisms.

Almost everywhere scientists have looked, they have found drugs that people have either flushed down the drain or passed through their bodies. Either way, many active pharmaceutical compounds are ending up in the sewage at low levels. Conventional sewage-treatment plants can break down up to 90 percent or more of some compounds, but others pass through unaltered.

Now, researchers are working on a process that would use specialized bacteria to break down pharmaceutical compounds at existing sewage-treatment plants. The idea, developed by researchers at the University of Washington, is ready for a limited pilot project at one of the treatment plants in the Puget Sound region.

Heidi Gough, left, and Nicolette Zhou with a table-top treatment plant in the lab. UW photo
Heidi Gough, left, and Nicolette Zhou with a table-top sewage-treatment plant in the lab.
UW photo

Studies into this issue began more than 20 years ago, when it became clear that all sorts of compounds were passing through sewage-treatment plants and getting into the environment. Among the early findings was that male fish exposed to artificial birth-control hormones were changing into female fish. Later studies showed that common antidepressant medications seemed to be changing the behavior of fish, making them easier targets for predators.

In addition to estrogens and antidepressants, researchers have found blood thinners, cholesterol-reducing drugs, various heart medications, several hormones and painkillers, along with caffeine, cocaine and various cosmetic and cleansing chemicals.

A study funded by the Environmental Protection Agency looked for 56 active pharmaceutical compounds in sewage effluent from 50 major treatment plants around the country, finding significant levels of many compounds.

A new study by NOAA’s Northwest Fisheries Science Center and the University of Washington looked at 150 compounds coming from two sewage treatment plants in Puget Sound. They were Bremerton’s plant on Sinclair Inlet and Tacoma’s plant on Commencement Bay. They also tested the local waters along with juvenile chinook salmon and Pacific staghorn sculpin to see if the fish were picking up the compounds.

According to a NOAA news release, the study “found some of the nation’s highest concentrations of these chemical compounds and detected many in fish at concentrations that may affect their growth or behavior.” For additional reporting on that study, check out the Kitsap Sun story by Tristan Baurick and the Seattle Times story by Lynda Mapes.

These chemicals could be having effects on various animals in the food web — from benthic organisms that live in the sediments to marine mammals — but more study is needed. Complicating the situation is that multiple pharmaceutical chemicals may work together to create different effects, depending on their concentrations and the affected organism.

Many people would argue that we have enough information to dramatically increase our efforts to remove these compounds from wastewater going into Puget Sound. Drug take-back programs have been started in many cities and counties throughout Puget Sound to encourage people not to flush unused pills down the toilet or drain. See the Take Back Your Meds website. Still, Washington state has yet to develop a comprehensive statewide program that would cover everyone.

Meanwhile, nobody can say what percentage of the drugs going into the treatment plants were dumped down the drain versus being excreted from the human body. But it wouldn’t matter as much if the chemicals could be eliminated at the sewage-treatment plant.

More than a decade ago, Heidi Gough of the UW’s Department of Civil & Environmental Engineering began working on the development of bacteria that could break down these chemicals of concern. She and her colleagues have isolated cultures of bacteria that can break down triclosan, an antimicrobial; bisphenol A, a plasticizer; ibuprofen, an anti-inflammatory drug; 17β-estradiol, a natural hormone; and gemifibrozil, a cholesterol-lowering drug.

The process of isolating helpful bacteria and boosting their numbers could theoretically be used to break down almost any chemical of concern. To be suitable, the bacteria must 1) break down the target chemical to a very low level, 2) grow well in common growth media without the target chemical, 3) break down the chemical even when other nutrient sources are abundant, and 4) work quickly within the normal rate of sewage treatment.

Nicolette Zhou, a former UW graduate student, worked with Heidi to successfully develop a bench-top treatment plant to test the process. Nicolette also produced a computer model of how the operation would perform at a large-scale treatment plant. She completed her analysis and received her doctorate degree last fall. Her latest findings are now awaiting publication in a scientific journal.

Previous reports:

  • Genes involved in Bisphenol A degradation, Environmental Science and Technology.
  • Degradation of triclosan and bisphenol A by five bacteria, Pub Med.
  • Cultivation and characterization of bacteria capable of degrading pharmaceutical and personal care products, Pub Med.

Other systems have been proposed for breaking down complex pharmaceuticals, such as advanced oxidation or other chemical or physical treatment. But biological breakdown offers the most hope in the short term, because it is how most sewage-treatment plants work can be implemented quickly without major modifications and appears to be economical on a large scale, Nocolette told me.

In a large-scale system, the first step would be to identify the specific contaminants to be reduced and then select the bacteria. Some bacteria will break down multiple chemicals, she said.

The bacteria would be grown in a tank and be fed into the sewage digesters reactors, preferably in a continual flow. Multiple chemicals of concern might require several tanks for growing different bactieria.

If the process is successful and adopted by many treatment plants, an alternative process could be developed. Instead of growing the bacteria onsite, where conditions could be difficult to control, all sorts of bacteria could be grown in an industrial facility. The industrial plant would isolate the actual enzymes needed to break down the chemicals and ship them to the treatment plants. The enzymes could be stored and fed into the treatment process as needed.

The research into this treatment process has progressed to where the next step is a small-scale pilot project at a sewage-treatment plant in the Puget Sound area, Nicolette said. A portion of the actual wastewater would be diverted to the pilot plant, where sewage would be subjected to the specialized bacteria and tested for the level of treatment.

Ultimately, more studies are needed to establish a safe concentration for the various chemicals that come from pharmaceuticals and personal-care products. That way, one could culture the appropriate bacteria and establish a reasonable effluent limit for chemicals going into Puget Sound.

Manchester sewer plant leads the pack with another perfect score

A record number of sewage-treatment plants in Washington state fully complied with state water-quality requirements in 2014, with 128 plants winning the coveted Outstanding Performance Award from the Department of Ecology.

The number of sewage-treatment plants recognized for meeting all water-quality requirements grew from 14 to 127 over the past 20 years.
The number of sewage-treatment plants recognized for meeting all water-quality requirements grew from 14 in 1995 to 128 last year.

The awards program has reached its 20th year, and the Manchester Wastewater Treatment Plant in South Kitsap remains ahead of the pack. It’s the only plant with a perfect score every year since the program began.

In the first year of Ecology’s awards program, only 14 plants across the state were recognized as doing everything right, but that number has grown nearly every year.

Last year, 128 winning treatment plants — more than a third of all the plants in the state — passed every environmental test, analyzed every required sample, turned in all reports and allowed no permit violations.

“The talents of our professional operators are critical to successful plant operations and protecting the health of Washington’s waters”, said Heather Bartlett, manager of Ecology’s Water Quality Program, in a news release. “It is an honor to recognize their contributions with these awards.”

Kitsap County officials are rightly proud of the perfect record. Five years ago, in an article in Treatment Plant Operator magazine, lead operator Don Johnson said the success of the Manchester plant could be credited to the dedicated wastewater staff and support from all levels of county government. Don, who retired last year, has been replaced by Ken Young.

The magazine article may tell you more than you want to know about the design and operation of the Manchester plant. The plant was a modern facility when Ecology’s awards program was launched 20 years ago, and it has been kept up to date through the years.

Johnson stressed that treatment-plant operators should always be prepared for new developments.

“My advice is for them to remain adaptable and up to date,” he said. “There are many changes in the industry, and it’s important to pursue energy efficiency and create reusable resources.”

Reaching the 20-year mark deserves some kind of celebration for the Manchester plant. I would suggest organized tours of the facility, public recognition for all the plant workers through the years and maybe a slice of cake. So far, I’m told, no specific plans have been made.

A list of all the treatment plants in the state showing a history of their perfect scores (PDF 464 kb) can be downloaded from Ecology’s website.

Port Townsend’s treatment plant has had a perfect score for 19 of the 20 years, missing only 1997. Meeting the perfect standard for 16 of the past 20 years are two plants owned by the city of Vancouver — Marine Park and Westside.

Kitsap County’s Kingston plant has received the award for nine straight years. The county’s Suquamish plant, which is regulated by the Environmental Protection agency because it is on tribal land, has met all permit requirement for 15 years straight. (EPA does not issue awards.)

Amusing Monday: Waste to water provides a drink for Jimmy Fallon

Jimmy Fallon and Bill Gates together make an interesting combination. One is about finding new ways to solve serious world problems, while the other is looking for new ways to surprise and delight people.

Bill gates recently challenged Jimmy Fallon to the “ultimate taste test” involving two glasses of water. Jimmy would try to tell the difference between bottled water and sewage effluent from an innovative treatment plant built in Sedro Woolley, south of Bellingham. As you’ll see from the video, there was a bit of trickery involved.

In his blog, “Gates Notes,” Bill Gates describes the Omniprocessor, designed by Janicki Bioenergy of Washington state. A video on that page (shown here) demonstrates how the processor works, with an ending in which Gates drinks water that had been in the form of human feces just minutes before.

Gates makes the most of this humorous but deadly serious issue, knowing that one of the greatest health threats in the developing world is contaminated drinking water — and that a machine could help solve the problem.

The Omniprocessor burns dried human waste as fuel to dry more waste as it comes into the plant, providing an endless supply of fuel that can be burned at a very high temperature, thus controlling air emissions. The drying process produces steam, which can run a generator for electricity. The water vapor is cooled and goes through a final filter to produce clean drinking water.

I’ve read many articles written about the Omniprocessor over the past month, but Mark Stayton of the Skagit Valley Herald wrote the most informative piece I’ve seen.

A working prototype is scheduled to be fabricated this spring in Dakar, Senegal, West Africa, and go into use soon after. Graphics and photos are available on the Omniprocessor home page.

I’ll be interested to see how this entire operation works in practice. Not much is said about getting the waste to the machine. Apparently, some locations have trucks that pump out latrines and then dump the untreated waste someplace else, risking contamination to groundwater or surface water. Transportation of the waste/fuel might be less of an issue in cities with inadequate sewage-treatment plants, but I don’t know how efficient trucks would be in rural areas, where roads are often a problem.

Anyway, I will try to keep you informed about the Omniprocessor and similar technology in the months to come.

Any ideas for a no-discharge zone in Puget Sound?

Washington Department of Ecology is pushing ahead with its plan to create a “no-discharge zone” for Puget Sound, which would prohibit the discharge of sewage from boats, even those with a Type II marine sanitation device. Check out my story last week in the Kitsap Sun, Feb. 19 (subscription).

Proposed no-discharge zone for Puget Sound // Washington Department of Ecology
Proposed no-discharge zone for Puget Sound
Washington Department of Ecology

For many people, it is disconcerting to think about mobile toilets traveling everywhere in Puget Sound and discharging their waste anywhere and at any time.

Kitsap Public Health District has gained a reputation for tracking down sources of pollution and getting them cleaned up. If you have a failing septic system, for example, you are expected to get it fixed. Many of the Dyes Inlet beaches between Bremerton and Silverdale were reopened to commercial shellfish harvesting, thanks in no small part to these persistent efforts to clean up bacterial pollution.

Sewage-treatment plants still discharge some bacteria, despite advanced treatment processes. Consequently, shellfish beds are permanently closed around treatment plant outfalls, with the closure zone dependent on the level of sewage treatment. And when there are sewage spills, long stretches of beach may be closed to shellfish harvesting for 10 days or longer.

When they are working properly, Type II marine sanitation devices aboard boats are fairly good at killing bacteria, although levels are still above state water-quality standards. Less certain is what happens to human viruses, including hepatitis, that may not be killed. In addition, marine toilets release chemicals — such as chlorine, quaternary ammonia and formaldehyde — into the water.

To delve further, check out:

It’s not hard to see why the goal would be to eliminate discharges of boater waste into Puget Sound, assuming that sufficient pumpout stations exist for people to offload their waste. Pumpout stations are connected to sewage-treatment systems, which do a better job of disinfection and remove most solids that can contribute to algae blooms and low-oxygen conditions.

Creating a no-discharge zone is one goal of the Puget Sound Action Agenda (PDF 16.4 mb) developed by the Puget Sound Partnership.

Ecology Director Maia Bellon seemed to strike the right tone when she announced the petition for a no-discharge zone (PDF 8.1 mb) in Puget Sound:

“We want to reach out and invite comments, questions and suggestions over this draft proposal. We’re working with boating, shipping and fishing leaders, and now is the time for broader perspective and feedback. Everyone who lives here has a vested interest in a healthy Puget Sound.”

Her approach leaves the door open to some creative solutions for getting everyone in compliance with the no-discharge zone. As I showed in last week’s story, the no-discharge zone could be a hardship for some tugboat and fishing boat operators. One estimate for converting a tugboat is $125,000.

Ecology’s solution so far has been simple: Give those without holding tanks three years to install the tanks and plug up theirs discharge pipes.

Other solutions may be possible, although they could create administrative burdens for Ecology. What about the idea of creating an exemption for boats that have no holding tanks? Boat owners could pay an annual fee for the exemption, and the money could go into a fund to assist owners with the cost of conversion. Maybe a conversion should be required, if necessary, at the time a boat is sold. It’s just an idea.

When applying for an exemption from the no-discharge zone, boat owners should agree to discharge treated wastes at a safe distance from the beach. Maybe they should be required to know where certified shellfish beds are located and stay even farther away.

I realize these ideas would complicate a simple plan, and maybe there are better ideas. In general, I believe that a reasonable solution should be proportional to the problem. We should not kill a rat with heavy explosives, while ignoring the cost of repairs.

To see how more than 20 other states are addressing no-discharge zones, visit the Environmental Protection Agency’s website on vessel sewage discharges and a state-by-state breakdown of no-discharge zones.

When I broke this story in September, I interviewed others who had thoughts on the issue. See Kitsap Sun, Sept. 25 (subscription).

For recreational boaters, check out “Beating the Pumpout Station Blues” by Capt. Mike Brough of the Coast Guard.

Oxygen in Hood Canal reaches dangerous levels

I hate to be the voice of doom, but low-oxygen conditions in Hood Canal have never been worse — if you can believe the data gathered since the 1950s, alongside more intense monitoring the past several years.

In the southern portion of Hood Canal, you only need to go down about 30 feet to begin to see stressful oxygen levels in the range of 2 milligrams per liter. For current conditions at Hoodsport, go directly to the Hood Canal Dissolved Oxygen Program’s website, which lists data sent back from the Ocean Remote Chemical Analyzer (ORCA).

Sea creatures are beginning to show signs of stress, according to scuba diver Janna Nichols, who described her findings to me Wednesday after a dive in Hood Canal. She talked about fish “panting” as their gills moved in and out rapidly. Some fish, shrimp and other sealife had moved into shallower water. Watch Janna’s video of a wolf eel and other visuals she captured on the dive.

When low-oxygen conditions are that close to the surface, the danger is that a south wind will blow away the surface layer and bring low-oxygen water right to the surface, leaving fish with no place to go.

Of course, I have no desire to see a massive fish kill, but we already know that fish are probably dying in deep water due to the stressful conditions. I collect this information and offer these reports so that people can alert researchers when something happens. Being on the scene when fish are dying could provide important information about the nature of the low-oxygen problem. For details, please check out my stories in the Kitsap Sun Sept. 7 and Sept. 15 as well as the more technical report from Jan Newton on Sept. 7 (PDF 320 kb).

The phone number to report fish kills or oil spills is (800) 258-5990 or (800) OILS-911

If you haven’t heard, the worst low oxygen conditions normally occur in the fall after a summer of burgeoning numbers of plankton, encouraged by nitrogen and sunlight. By fall, much of the plankton has died and dropped to the bottom, where decay consumes the available of oxygen.

While there are plenty of natural sources of nitrogen in Hood Canal, computer models have demonstrated that human inputs from septic systems and stormwater can push things over the edge in the fall.

Officials are hoping that a new sewage-treatment plant in Belfair will begin to reduce the inputs of nitrogen into Lynch Cove. Another treatment plant is being planned in Potlatch. Stormwater upgrades also are being proposed for Belfair and other areas.

In addition to the low-oxygen problem, Hood Canal was closed to the harvest of oysters after people became sick from vibriosis, a natural bacteria that multiplies in warm conditions. See Kitsap Sun story Sept. 10 and Washington Department of Health maps.

The orange triangles represent this year's composite oxygen levels for the south half of Hood Canal. The latest reading, near the end of August, is the lowest ever seen.

Bremerton leads Seattle in cleaning up raw sewage

The city of Seattle and King County have signed legal agreements to reduce the annual discharge into Puget Sound of nearly 2 billion gallons of raw sewage mixed with stormwater.

The agreements follow legal actions by the federal Environmental Protection Agency, according to information released today. See EPA’s news release.

We’re talking about “combined sewer overflows” or CSOs, which occur in many older cities where stormwater and sewage get mixed together in antiquated piping networks. At lows flows, all the water gets treated, but at high flows the mixed wastewater exceeds the capacity of the pipes and gets dumped into Puget Sound.

I’m surprised it has taken this long to come to terms with the problem in Seattle and King County. For 14 years, Bremerton officials have been working to resolve their CSO problems, costing sewer customers some $54 million, according to city figures.

I’m sure Bremerton officials have chafed at the idea that while they were rushing to address the problem, other cities were going at a relatively slow pace. It took a lawsuit by the Puget Soundkeeper Alliance to get Bremerton to clean up its waters. But once city officials agreed to do the work, they have never looked back.

I called Bremerton Public Works Director Phil Williams to ask if the city had completed the task.

“We’re done,” he told me. “We’re now in compliance. It has been a long and expensive process… We are really proud of the work we have done.”

Bremerton residents will be paying high sewer bills for many years to pay off loans to complete the work, he said, “so I guess it’s never really over until it is paid for.”

EPA’s news release does not include an estimate of the cost for Seattle or King County. But it does point out that the city manages 92 CSO outfalls and King County 38. Those are far more than the 15 or so that Bremerton had to contend with.

In 2007, Seattle’s system overflowed an estimated 249 times and King County’s system overflowed an estimated 87 times. Untreated sewage flowed into Lake Union, Lake Washington, the Duwamish River and Puget Sound.

Why didn’t Puget Soundkeeper Alliance go after Seattle or King County or other older cities that operate CSO systems?

For one thing, I understand that the overflow data for Bremerton was easily acquired and dropped into the lap of the Puget Soundkeeper. Violations of the federal Clean Water Act were easily proven.

Phil Williams, who was not in Bremerton at the time, speculates that Bremerton was perhaps an easier legal target than the larger governments across Puget Sound.

Leaders in the alliance told me years ago that they intended to take on other cities when they were finished with Bremerton, but they never did.

“I’m glad to see the bigger players taking this on,” Phil told me. “I am rather pleased that I’m not the one to solve the problems the size of those they will have to face.”

Click here for information about Bremerton’s CSO Reduction Program.

Under the EPA compliance order, Seattle needs to prepare an overflow emergency response plan, a plan to ensure the collection system is cleaned systematically, a plan to create more storage in the collection system, a plan to reduce the number of basement backups and a plan to reduce the number of dry weather overflows.

This is not a simple engineering problem, and once the planning is done, there will be more expensive work to complete. For additional information, check out Seattle’s Combined Sewer Overflow Reduction Plan.

King County’s task is easier. The county must submit a plan to observe and document some of King County’s CSO outfalls after a rainfall event to ensure there is no “debris” being discharged. The order requires King County to upgrade the Elliott West CSO Treatment Plant to ensure treatment of overflows before release. That deadline also is March 2010.

For more info, check out King County’s Combined Sewer Overflow Control Program.

NOTE (Thursday, 7:35 a.m):
When I first wrote this entry yesterday, I was willing to offer odds that Seattle would not complete its planning by the deadline. Feeling more optimistic today, I’d like to say that I’m sure that Seattle can get it done, but it will take some focus and money. I’ve taken down my bet.

Bainbridge cleans up sewer mess; Victoria steps up

UPDATE, June 5, 2009:
A Victoria Times-Colonist editorial raises several key questions about the sewer plans and says the government should not rush into the project.

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The Bainbridge Island sewage spill, estimated at 140,000 gallons, was blamed on a break in a 32-year-old pipe buried in the beach and subject to saltwater corrosion.

<i>Before final repairs, a temporary band slowed the flow of sewage</i><br><small Kitsap Sun photo by Tristan Baurick</small>
Before final repairs, a temporary band slowed the flow of sewage
Kitsap Sun photo by Tristan Baurick

While Bainbridge Island cleaned up its sewage today, the city of Victoria — which has been dumping raw sewage into the Strait of Juan de Fuca for decades — took steps to clean up its mess as well. Regional officials took action on a plan to build a series of four sewage-treatment plants at a cost of $1.2 billion. Progress, yes, but work is still years away. More about that in a moment.

Damage to the environment in and around Bainbridge Island’s Eagle Harbor is expected to be temporary, according to Larry Altose, spokesman for the Washington Department of Ecology, who was quoted in a Kitsap Sun story by Tristan Baurick.

“As awful as a sewer release sounds, the impact of this size of spill is short-term,” Altose said, noting that sunlight and other organisms will quickly kill or eat most of the sewage contaminants within days.

Ecology could fine the city up to $10,000 a day for the spill. The city’s response and track record with maintenance can be considered.

“We can fine, but that’s not the point,” Altose said. “The point is to have lessons learned and have the proper steps for prevention.”

One lesson that everyone has been learning over the past few years is that sewer lines buried in the beach are trouble. We all know why they were installed there in the first place — because it is cheaper to build in the beach than to clear a route through trees and across ravines in the uplands.

Sewer lines in the beach are a problem that many cities must face, and they should be inspecting buried pipes on a regular schedule. We’ll see what Ecology’s investigation turns up with respect to Bainbridge Island’s maintenance.

Meanwhile, Bremerton and Poulsbo also face issues with worn-out pipes, and we don’t yet know what the solution will be. Bremerton, if you recall, has proposed a boardwalk that can support a vacuum truck to maintain the pipe after it is replaced in the beach (Water Ways, Sept. 22, 2008). That design is under scrutiny by the Army Corps of Engineers and other state and federal agencies.

As for Victoria, city officials maintained for years that they should be allowed to discharge raw sewage into the Strait of Juan de Fuca, because the swift waters dilute the pollution. Three years ago, the Minister of Environment for British Columbia said that was no longer acceptable and that treatment systems would be required for the municipalities of Colwood, Esquimalt, Langford, Oak Bay, Saanich, Victoria and View Royal, all under the Capital Regional District.
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