Tag Archives: Wastewater

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.
—–

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.

Amusing Monday: Toilet songs for the holidays

Four years ago, I wrote an “Amusing Monday” blog post I called “Toilet songs for the holidays.” This year, I was unsuccessful in finding some good water-related songs for the Christmas season, so I thought a replay might be in order. The following, from Dec. 19, 2011, features an amusing song called “O Christmas Grease” by Steve Anderson.

Knowing more than a few sewer operators in my day, I can tell you that their leading pet peeve is all the stuff that people dump down their toilets and drains.

I’ll never forget the courtroom description of a giant “rag ball” — some 30 feet long — found in Bremerton’s sewer. Rag balls are the accumulation of diapers, tampons and baby wipes that get flushed down the toilet and become caught somewhere in the sewer lines.

Bremerton’s famous rag ball became wrapped up in courtroom testimony during a lawsuit against a sewer contractor hired by the city to run the operation. For details, check out my story from April of 1998.

Steve Anderson

What I really wanted to share with you this week is a song called “O Christmas Grease” by Steve Anderson, a water resources analyst at Clean Water Services. This is the agency that manages wastewater and stormwater in a 12-city region west of Portland, Ore.

Steve often writes music and performs in a band when he’s not working at the utility. He told me that he started writing original songs as well as parodies of existing tunes to entertain his fellow water experts at conferences. Last week, for example, he showed up at a conference to help educators decide whether humor is useful in educating people about wastewater issues.

Steve says the public-education folks at Clean Water Services tolerates his songs, but they do not fully embrace his activities. His first song — a parody about the low levels of drugs that make it through the treatment process — got him into a little hot water with some folks in the business. “Dope in the Water” is sung to the tune of the Deep Purple original.

“The Ballad of Betty Poop” was written as a kid’s song for Take-Your-Children-to-Work Day. It’s about the adventures of a plastic GI Joe and other characters. It includes these famous lines: “Give it up, you toilet treasures… You’ll never make it all the way to the river…”

Steve has not released these songs to the public, though he readily shares them with friends and anyone who will listen. I must thank Gayle Leonard, who writes a blog called “Thirsty in Suburbia,” for bringing Steve’s songs out into the light and putting me in touch with this creative force in the sewer world.

      1. O Christmas Grease
      2. Dope in the Water
      3. The Ballad of Betty Poop
      4. Dont Flush the Baby (Wipes)
      5. Fats Oils and Grease

Download the lyrics to all five songs (PDF 72 kb)

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.)

Kingston wastewater could be valuable for watering golf course

Kingston’s sewage treatment plant could provide irrigation water for the nearby White Horse Golf Course and possibly other uses under a plan now in development.

Kingston Sewage Treatment Plant Photo courtesy of Golder Associates
Kingston Sewage Treatment Plant
Photo courtesy of Golder and Associates via ©Sky-Pix Aerial Photography, www.sky-pix.com/

Kitsap County commissioners recently signed a $325,000 “predesign” contract with Brown and Caldwell engineers. The firm was hired to answer a host of questions about the feasibility of producing high-quality effluent at the plant and then putting the clean water to good use.

“We’re just starting to look at the whole project,” said Barbara Zaroff of Kitsap County’s Wastewater Division. “We just had our kickoff meeting two weeks ago, and now Brown and Caldwell will be going out to collect data.”

I peppered Barbara with questions that she could not answer at this point, because the detail work is yet to be done. But we know from a previous study by Golder Associates (PDF 18.2 mb) that producing high-quality effluent in Kingston is more than a random thought.

Golder found benefits from using the water for supplementing flows in nearby Grover’s Creek while recharging much-needed groundwater in that area of the county. The Suquamish Tribe, which owns White Horse Golf Course, has expressed interest in acquiring the water if various issues can be resolved.

The Kingston treatment plant, completed in 2005, produces an average of 150,000 gallons of effluent per day, currently discharged into Appletree Cove. As population grows, the plant can be expanded to about 300,000 gallons per day.

It appears it would be cost-effective to treat the water to tertiary standards with sand filters, although other technologies will be explored. A pond could be built on or near the golf course, which would store the water for irrigation and allow infiltration into the ground. The available water should provide the needs of the course with plenty of water left over.

Discharging into a wetland that feeds into Grover’s Creek is another idea, along with providing irrigation at the county’s North Kitsap Heritage Park. Unused water might still be discharged into Puget Sound, particularly in winter months when irrigation water is not needed.

One question that always arises with reclaimed water is what happens to trace amounts of chemicals that pass through the treatment process, such as pharmaceutical drugs that mimic hormones. We know from studies that some of these chemicals can affect the growth, development and metabolism of fish in some situations.

An analysis by Golder Associates (PDF 18.2 mb) concluded that future treatment processes in the Kingston plant would remove between 80 and 97 percent of endocrine disrupting compounds coming into the plant. Environmental conditions where reclaimed water is discharged would degrade the chemicals further, so the overall risk would be low for salmon and other fish, according to the report.

The new study is expected to look further into the risks. Meanwhile, the state Department of Ecology is continuing to work on a new reclaimed-water rule that could improve permitting and monitoring by producers of reclaimed water.

The Kingston project would be similar to what is happening at the Central Kitsap Wastewater Treatment Plant near Brownsville, where construction is adding sand filters as part of an overall upgrade to the plant.

Work continues at the Central Kitsap Wastewater Treatment Plant File photo: Kitsap Sun, Feb. 4, 2014
Work continues at the Central Kitsap Wastewater Treatment Plant // File photo: Kitsap Sun, Feb. 4, 2014

The nearby Silverdale Water District has installed about 15,000 feet of “purple pipe” for reclaimed water on the major arterials of Silverdale, including Silverdale Way. The project is part of the water district’s major pipe-replacement project. Another 2,000 feet will be added as part of the Bucklin Hill Bridge project, General Manager Morgan Johnson told me.

Much of the new commercial construction in Silverdale is being designed to use reclaimed water for irrigation, and some buildings are being plumbed to use reclaimed water for flushing toilets and other secondary uses. Ballfields in the area could get some of the water.

A public-outreach program is being planned to educate the public about reclaimed water and to answer questions that people may have. Under the current schedule, the reclaimed-water valve would be turned on in 2020, but that date may be pushed back, Morgan said.

In Kingston, it will take about a year to put the information together and identify a preferred alternative, Barbara told me. Final engineering and design will follow under a new contract if things go as expected.

The current contract will examine pipeline routes to convey the water to the potential users. Costs for building and operating the system will be explored.

Yet to be determined is how costs and benefits of the reclaimed water will be shared between the county, which owns the treatment facilities, and those who will use the water. That goes for both Kingston and Central Kitsap.

Many golf courses across the country — especially in the arid Southwest — are using reclaimed water for irrigation. In a few places where water is in extremely short supply, water systems have begun adding the clean effluent straight into their drinking water. Check out reporter Emily Schmall’s story for the Associated Press.

While water is still somewhat plentiful in the Puget Sound area, it only makes sense to find uses for freshwater that would otherwise be dumped into salty Puget Sound.

Amusing Monday: Toilet songs for the holidays

Knowing more than a few sewer operators in my day, I can tell you that their leading pet peeve is all the stuff that people dump down their toilets and drains.

I’ll never forget the courtroom description of a giant “rag ball” — some 30 feet long — found in Bremerton’s sewer. Rag balls are the accumulation of diapers, tampons and baby wipes that get flushed down the toilet and become caught somewhere in the sewer lines.

Bremerton’s famous rag ball became wrapped up in courtroom testimony during a lawsuit against a sewer contractor hired by the city to run the operation. For details, check out my story from April of 1998.

Steve Anderson

What I really wanted to share with you this week is a song called “O Christmas Grease” by Steve Anderson, a water resources analyst at Clean Water Services. This is the agency that manages wastewater and stormwater in a 12-city region west of Portland, Ore.

Steve often writes music and performs in a band when he’s not working at the utility. He told me that he started writing original songs as well as parodies of existing tunes to entertain his fellow water experts at conferences. Last week, for example, he showed up at a conference to help educators decide whether humor is useful in educating people about wastewater issues.

Steve says the public-education folks at Clean Water Services tolerates his songs, but they do not fully embrace his activities. His first song — a parody about the low levels of drugs that make it through the treatment process — got him into a little hot water with some folks in the business. “Dope in the Water” is sung to the tune of the Deep Purple original.

“The Ballad of Betty Poop” was written as a kid’s song for Take-Your-Children-to-Work Day. It’s about the adventures of a plastic GI Joe and other characters. It includes these famous lines: “Give it up, you toilet treasures… You’ll never make it all the way to the river…”

Steve has not released these songs to the public, though he readily shares them with friends and anyone who will listen. I must thank Gayle Leonard, who writes a blog called “Thirsty in Suburbia,” for bringing Steve’s songs out into the light and putting me in touch with this creative force in the sewer world.

      1. O Christmas Grease
      2. Dope in the Water
      3. The Ballad of Betty Poop
      4. Dont Flush the Baby (Wipes)
      5. Fats Oils and Grease

Download the lyrics to all five songs (PDF 72 kb)

Are you ready to water the lawn with treated sewage?

It seems as if it has taken forever for someone in Kitsap County to put treated sewage to beneficial use, but a demonstration project on Retsil Road in South Kitsap is just around the corner. Check out my story in Saturday’s Kitsap Sun.

Darren Noon of Pape and Sons Construction Co. welds a section of "purple pipe" along Retsil Road in South Kitsap, the first reclaimed water project in Kitsap County.
Kitsap Sun photo by Meegan M. Reid

Local water experts were contemplating uses for highly treated wastewater even before “low-impact development” became a common phrase for infiltrating stormwater into the ground.

LID has caught on fairly quickly as a method of keeping polluted stormwater from reaching our streams and Puget Sound. The concept got an extra push from new stormwater regulations, which have greatly increased the cost of conventional pipe-and-pond methods of stormwater management.

The less-touted benefit of LID is groundwater recharge, which boosts our long-range water supply.

Kitsap County’s Watershed Management Plan (PDF 147 kb), developed in 2005, estimated that Kitsap County’s sewage treatment plants release 8 million gallons of treated water into Puget Sound each day. That’s enough to increase the base flow of 10 streams by 10 cubic feet per second, raise aquifer levels throughout the county or launch a new industry without touching our drinking water supplies.

“The most significant barriers to recycling wastewater are the cost of infrastructure and additional treatment, as well as public perception,” the report states. “Elected officials in WRIA 15 (the Kitsap Peninsula) have expressed support for public education about reclaimed water.”

The report mentions that highly treated effluent from the Central Kitsap Wastewater Treatment Plant near Brownsville could be used to supplement streamflows in nearby Steele Creek. But more recently Kitsap County and Silverdale Water District have begun working together on a plan to pipe the water into the heart of Silverdale, where it can be used to water ballfields and landscaping.

That’s also the initial plan put forth by West Sound Utility District, as I mentioned in Saturday’s story. Using wastewater for irrigation cuts down on peak demand, which is what drives water utilities to drill new wells. Needless to say, drilling deep wells comes at a tremendous expense — an expense that grows greater as Kitsap County approaches the limits of its groundwater supplies in some locations.

To many people, using reclaimed wastewater seems like a novel idea, especially in an region known for its rain. People remain squeamish about getting anywhere near sewage water, even if it is treated. But I don’t believe it will take long for people to accept the idea of using treated wastewater for irrigation, once they realize it is treated to basically the same level as drinking water.

On the other hand, drinking treated effluent becomes another issue, even though it has been done indirectly for years in many places. If you live in a town on the Mississippi River, your local utility may be drawing water out of the river for your consumption just downstream of where a sewage treatment plant is dumping its effluent.

There are several other places where reclaimed water is mixed with freshwater, such as in a reservoir, then drawn back out for drinking. Ironically, putting the wastewater into a reservoir makes it seem more palatable, even though it probably was cleaner before. Treating the water in the reservoir is essentially treating the wastewater again — although water is just water in the end.

For a description of reclaimed water systems in the U.S. and elsewhere in the world, check out a fact sheet compiled by Queensland Water Commission, Australia: “Water recycling: Examples from other countries” (PDF 592 kb).

A community in Texas made news across the country last week, when reporter Angela Brown of the Associated Press wrote about a new $13-million water-reclamation plant to turn effluent into drinking water, the first to be built in that state. Really, it is nothing new, as Angela herself points out.

What I have not found anywhere so far is a direct use of reclaimed water. That’s what you would get by pumping the highly treated wastewater directly into a municipal water system’s piping network. From a health standpoint, there would be nothing wrong with that, provided the water could be shut off in the event of a problem at the treatment plant. No doubt this kind of direct use will be a little harder to get used to, even in areas where water is scarce.

Alix Spiegel of National Public Radio does a nice job analyzing the psychology behind the aversion to using treated wastewater and why people are more accepting of indirect use. Read or listen to “Why Cleaned Wastewater Stays Dirty In Our Minds .”