Hoping to get ahead of expected new regulations, the water and sewer utility that serves about half of Mobile County agreed Monday to pay for an experiment that could help reduce pollution and reduce rates at the same time.
Board members for the Mobile Area Water and Sewer System unanimously agreed to allow MWH Global to run an experiment that could help reduce ammonia, phosphorus and nitrogen pollution, known collectively as nutrients, at two of its facilities.
MAWSS will pay MWH Global $400,000 to conduct eight months of research in Mobile. The company is expected to begin work at two facilities — the Wright Smith Jr. and E.M. Stickney water treatment plants — in the beginning of July.
The international company, which designs and builds water-related infrastructure facilities, will use $340,000, a lion’s share of the money, at the Wright Smith plant north of downtown Mobile.
“And the reason why that is so expensive is because we are actually going to be building a miniature treatment plant to mimic what will actually occur if we built a full-size plant,” said Hector Castro, the utility’s program manager for engineering. It will take about four months to build and another eight months to test it, he said.
Public utilities sometimes find themselves at the mercy of regulators. As many have learned, when the Environmental Protection Agency comes around, there’s little room for discussion.
That’s what happened to the MAWSS in 2002 after a lawsuit forced them to stop discharging treated wastewater into Three Mile Creek. The upgrades cost MAWSS tens of millions of dollars. Now the agency will try and play offense.
More and more, the EPA is expanding use of new water pollution laws that regulate the amount of nutrients allowed in waterways in states along the Gulf Coast and as far as California, said Harold Aiken, vice president at MWH Global.
“It’s changing the way the future is going to be, I think, for utilities,” Aiken said during a presentation at a recent board meeting. “We saw it in Florida, the Mississippi (River) Basin and parts in between are going to be subject to that in the coming years. We’re already seeing it out west in the California-Nevada areas. So there’s a lot of changes in what is considered acceptable.”
Microscopic beads are released into a treatment tank. Depending on what MAWSS wants removed from the water, they’re designed to absorb a specific “nutrient.” So if its water has high amounts of nitrogen, the technology can be designed to target only nitrogen.
The second study at the E.M. Stickney plant will focus on removing organic carbon from raw water. Castro said when you treat raw water with chlorine it can become more volatile creating disinfection byproducts. According to the EPA, consuming too much of them can increase risks for cancer.
MAWSS currently uses a so-called “powdered activated carbon” to remove the harmful substances today, but it’s very expensive and hard on the agency’s equipment, Castro said.
“So if we can move away from powdered activated carbon by using a different technology and still achieve the same results we will be ahead of the game not only from the standpoint of saving our treatment plant equipment but in terms of cost.”