Keeping Waste Out Of The Watershed

story and photos by Carla Occaso

MONTPELIER —  It takes a certain kind of genius to turn a wastewater treatment plant into a starting point for environmental stewardship, but they’re doing it at the Water Resource Recovery Facility on Dog River Road.

Powered by methane gas produced at the plant and solar panels on the roof, the facility is becoming increasingly efficient — more about this topic in a story by Anne Watson on page 10.

Another major goal of those at the facility is to keep as much contaminants out of the environment as possible. On a typical day, the treatment facility takes in 2 million gallons, 1 percent of which is ‘solids’ (human waste). The water is decontaminated and the solids are processed for removal at the facility.

Chris Cox, Chief Operator of of the Water Resource Recovery Facility

The Montpelier Department of Public Works has an eco-warrior in the form of Christopher Cox, chief operator of the plant, who speaks of making it his mission to keep pollution out of the watershed. Cox has a degree in environmental science and is keenly aware that materials not captured, processed and turned into methane gas, enter the Winooski River that feeds Lake Champlain. So to fight back, Cox and his team of employees monitor machinery that collects the city’s sewage, separates the solids from the water, and then sends material up to the digester to break it down and convert it. Any remaining solid material is sent to the landfill in Coventry. If there is more methane released than can be used to heat the digesters and facility building, as in summer when electricity needs are lower, the remaining methane is burnt in a flare to prevent it from being released into the air and damaging the ozone layer.

In the old days, before city officials worried about reducing the amount of sewer ‘overflows’, wastewater went directly into the river. But in recent years a greater effort has been made to eliminate overflows and direct wastewater to the facility. Still, during heavy rain storms, overflow occurs.

And on those occasions, “the facilities influent flow goes from 2 million gallons to 4 million gallons a day,” Cox noted. Though a certain percentage still runs into the river. But to put it into perspective, if the city did not have the overflow points directing water into the river, the water would still have to go somewhere.

“It’s either your basement or the river,” Cox pointed out. He further suggested it would be helpful if residents didn’t put materials into their drains or toilets that clog or damage the system. “Toilets aren’t trash cans. If you are dumping fats, oils and greases down the drain, it plugs up the system,” he said. This causes the city’s pipes to get obstructed, leading to sewer backups onto the street. Also, even though ‘flushable wipes’ are flushable, they are not good for the municipal water system. “They’ll flush, but they won’t decompose. Only toilet paper, #1 and #2 should go into a toilet,” he advised. “People use toilets as trash cans. They can flush it and it’s gone, but if it’s not screened out it can (damage) our pumps and come back up into the city.”

Nearly a day’s worth of ’20 percent solids’ stored in a tank.

The facility was built in 1960 and has run 24 hours a day, seven days a week ever since. The process starts out with wastewater being emptied into one of two big tub-like holding tanks. Each has what is called a “traveling bridge” — a mechanical unit that rolls on rails back and forth from the front of the tank to the back. The tanks go 12-feet down. The traveling bridge has a big shovel-like arm that pushes sludge to the side to be moved upward for further processing. It is then sent to a holding tank to be further separated  — water from solids — until it can be dried and ready for disposal.

The facility has 9 buildings and four full-time employees. Cox said he gets curiosity seekers who want to look at the machinery up close (such as The Bridge). He said he gets individuals, like parents with children, middle school students on class field trips and even Norwich University cadets.

There is more going on at the City of Montpelier Water Resource Recovery Facility than meets the eye.

“This is the ‘boots on the ground’ of saving the environment. We are doing our part to clean Lake Champlain,” Cox said.