Sunday, September 7, 2014

Is there leachate on tap?

BATH, NY:  Leachate. Influent. Effluent. Flocculent. Biochemical Oxygen Demand. Some of those words sound uninviting which is fine because what they name isn’t always pleasant. They are all parts of the business of the Leachate Pre-Treatment Plant operated by Steuben County.
           The folks in charge of that facility seem proud of what they have and how they run it. They welcome busloads of high school students and car loads of adults interested in taking a look at what runs through those pipes. I was able to attend as a guest of the New York Water Sentinels, a citizen science stream water monitoring program affiliated with the Sierra Club.
          The tour was hosted by Vincent Spagnoletti, Commissioner of Public Works and Steve Orcutt, Assistant Commissioner and conducted by Bob Kingsbury, Chief Waste Water Plant Operator.
         To digress a moment, people in Allegany County know that Wellsville has a wastewater treatment facility. It is designed to take in what homes flush out; to remove daily domestic muck from sewer water and send their product into the Genesee River.
           The Bath pre-treatment facility we visited is different because it was designed to remove heavy metals and other nasty materials found in leachate from landfills.  The effluent or end product is then piped several miles to the Village of Bath’s sewer system, with final processing by Bath’s wastewater treatment plant before being discharged into the Cohocton River. 
          Entry to the facility in Bath requires a drive past the landfill where sheep and goats graze over the seemingly inactive land. Looks aren’t the whole picture though because under the grass, garbage decays for decades giving off methane gas. In the past, this collected gas was a burdensome waste stream, burned off in a flare.
          Steuben County changed waste into revenue in November 2010. That’s when the Gas to Energy Facility came online. Owned by Steuben Rural Electric Cooperative, this facility captures the methane and uses it to power generators which create electricity to sell to the grid. What was once waste is now the source of power to about 2,000 homes each year.
          The hill side in Steuben County holds the old landfill that, one might say, was not so much built, but dumped on - as was the practice of the day.
          There’s also new landfill, a modern entity with cells and layers of liners following current rules and regulations. It seems wise to locate everything nearby because new or old and regardless of name or structure, every landfill gurgles out some leachate.
            Weather in the form of rain or melting snow sends water to percolate through the soil and garbage where it dissolves some things and picks up organic material, heavy metals and any water soluble material.
          After water has soaked through a landfill it is designated as leachate, a mix of gray or black particles suspended in a liquid delicately giving off a scant scent of rot and chemicals. In Bath, pipes take the leachate from both the old and the new landfills to a storage tank to await pre-treatment.
          In 1995 Steuben County was forced to examine their leachate issue. At the time Spagnoletti considered shipping the leachate to other facilities and paying the asking price to have it processed.  However, while he heard proposals of a penny a gallon fees, he couldn’t get that in writing with a long-term promise.
          Long-term is a certainty with landfills so Steuben County accepted the DEC’s offer of financing 2/3 of the cost of a pretreatment plant.  While they were at it, they overbuilt in order to serve as a regional leachate center processing not only what gravity brings from their landfill to the storage tanks but also truckloads of the stuff from other facilities.
          Kingsbury started this tour near the computer that controls the works but Spagnoletti spent a great deal of time in that room answering questions about how things are tested and what would happen if this or that. He told the history of the project and the tangential projects such as the Gas to Energy.
          In the way that they found a use for the methane gas by-product, Spagnoletti said, they hope to find a company that would use the heat produced in the pre-treatment facility.  They almost sold the idea to a handler of waste material from cheese facilities yogurt manufacturer but the deal didn’t happen.
          Kingsbury spoke of his background and talked about his need to attend continuing education programs and pass exams every 5 years. “The job is challenging, at times,” he said, “but the county government is supportive and we get what we need.”
          As he has gotten to know the facility, he has been able to cut back on chemicals and even eliminate several. Just giving liquids more time to settle can reduce the metals content of the liquid (known as mixed liquor) has been very effective.
          Put into simple steps, this is what happens: fill a tank with leachate and add some lime; shake and mix the stuff; settle it; draw sludge off the bottom; send the liquids another tank loaded with bacteria which further clean the water; then send the water to the local waste water treatment plant.
          They add liquid lime to get the metals (iron, copper, zinc, lead and some mercury) to settle.  After particulates settle and microorganisms finish their work, the stuff on bottom of the tanks (sludge) is pumped off and compacted for return to the landfill.

          It’s easy to share complaints about government agencies but it’s only fair to make clear compliments and kudos when such agencies work well. It seems that the staff at Steuben County’s Pretreatment facility thinks and works for long-term benefits, searches for efficiency, gathers and applies new information, conserves resources and respects staff members as well as taxpayers. 

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