Thursday, April 26, 2007

Last Week's Deluge Caused Big Problems in Westchester But Not at the Sewage Treatment Plants

I was skeptical when I read in the paper last week that the heavy rains from the northeaster did not disrupt the treatment process at Westchester's sewage plants. I clearly remember the days (as recently as the late 1990s) when heavy rain damaged equipment and treatment processes, and left the plant in Mamaroneck, for example, unable to properly treat sewage for weeks at a time.

But I'm told now that despite a record amount of water flowing through the plants during and after the northeaster, and even though they had to resort to backup power, all four of Westchester's Sound shore sewage plants performed admirably. No damage, no drop in treatment levels.

The plants are owned and operated by the county. They come under incredible stress because the sewers leading to them (which are owned by the municipalities) are in such poor shape that they get flooded with rainwater, which ought to be flowing not into the sewage treatment plants but through storm sewers and into local streams and the Sound itself.

That situation hasn't changed much in the 25 years since I first learned of it, which leads me to believe that the treatment plants performed better last week because the people running them and working in them wanted them to perform better -- in other words they were diligent about their jobs and took their responsibilities seriously.

If that's indeed the case, they deserve credit.

Here’s an exchange between me and someone who knows about the county’s sewage plants:

Me: "This brings to mind a big storm back in the spring of '98 or '99 (not sure when but Spano was the county exec), that did a lot of damage to the Mamaroneck plant."

“That was in May '98 just after Andy Spano took office in January. That disaster was due to a power failure in Mamaroneck and failure of the Plant's back up generator to start. It was one of two events (the other was the big Yonkers spill earlier that same Spring) that lead to the DEC 98 Consent Order regarding I&I… [inflow and infiltration]”

Me: "The fact that the plants performed well this time, was it because of better equipment or better preparedness on the part of the staff?”

“Better preparedness mostly, although I would also say that Nick Benevento, the current plant supervisor, is first rate and completely committed to his job and he has a good core team. We now have emergency response plans in place, training to the plans and we test all back up generators every month. When Con Ed warned us the power would be cut this time, we engaged the Plant's back up generator (which can also function automatically when necessary) and ASAP brought in a Con Ed diesel generator - at our expense - put it to work and put the plant generator back into its back up role, so that if the Con Ed generator failed (any generator can do that) we would still have a back up. Belt and suspenders.”

This person went on to say that the events in ’98 led to a “never again” attitude:

"I credit Tony Landi, John D'Aquino (retired a few years ago) Adam Zabinski and Tom Lauro and ultimately Andy Spano and Larry Schwartz. The latter two demanded it, and the former four made it happen. Of the four, after tonight's retirement party for Tony, only Tom is left."

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Blogger Sam said...

Hey at least its good to hear some good news every now and then. Let me tell you that running a shit system (municipal wastewater treatment plant) is a real tough assignment. Some businesses still dump heavy acids, bases, and all kinds of toxics into the system. In addition, the "upstream" pipes can clog, causing overflows, or have open leaks, which can cause downflooding. The local shit system always gets the blame even if the utilies are owned by other municipalities or private developers. If you want to make darned near lawyer wages, get trained in how to Scuba dive in shit systems to help unclog them in absolutely zero viz. Extra credits if you can weld underwater in zero visability.

Other than some rough language here I kid you not. Very few people actually run the wastewater treatment system and many are older and retiring and few kids have stepped up to the plate with the same level of experience and knowledge. Now THAT troubles me.

Most kids these days, and I mean everybody from plant workers with a A, B, or C certificate to these fine young professional engineers, want to work on the NEW plants which are so clean and dandy. They love work in high growth areas like the huge new subdivisions in Las Vegas and Central Texas. It sure beats working at old crumbling "beater" plants that probably should be completely reconstructed instead of continually patched and upgraded.

I sure hope some of those old "mossbacks," as the old experts are known, can train some new kids to stay for a while. I've taken a few classes in it and it was fascinating how they get common bacteria and algae to digest the shit naturally, leaving the outfall waters actually CLEANER than the recieving water such as Long Island Sound.

Think about that. If managed properly, a municipal wastewater treatment plant puts water into the environment up to ten times cleaner than the recieving water. I just hope the kids these days feel so enthusiatic. /sammie

10:18 PM  
Anonymous Bob said...

Sam identifies a real problem in wastewater management, and aging wok force. To capture the operating experience of the long time plant operators, Westchester County is implementing an ISO 14001 Environmental Management System throughout the Department of Environmental Facilities. The Yonkers Joint Wastewater treatment Plant, the county's largest, was certified to the ISO 14001 standard August 2006, the first watstewater plant in NY State to achieve independent IS) 14001 certification.

9:56 AM  

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