COLONIE — The British Medical Journal asked its readers, mostly doctors and other health care professionals, what they thought was the most significant medical advancement since 1840, the first year the prestigious periodical was published.
In contention were breakthroughs including Louis Pasteur’s germ theory, Florence Nightingale’s standardized training for nurses, the X-ray, penicillin, oral contraception, hundreds of immunizations, electrocardiograms, the pacemaker, anesthesia, organ transplants …
Readers submitted more than 100 impressive, monumental, Nobel-prize winning nominations that inarguably have made the world a better place.
But, the hands down winner was … drum roll … sanitation. Nothing in the last 178 years has made our lives longer and better on this planet than the proper handling of waste.
And on top of that broad spectrum of activity is the sanitary sewer system — that was first developed by Edwin Chadwick in the 1840s — and controlling all the germs and bacteria and other nasty things that thrive in human waste just waiting to make people sick.
But, as explained by Chretien Voerg, superintendent of the Division of Pure Waters for the Town of Colonie, it’s not as simple as flushing a toilet. And far more complex than flushing a toilet and just discharging it into the river. The days of “the solution to pollution is dilution” are in the past, an infinitely better spot than today.
“What we do is take that waste and turn it into clean water and recycle it by putting it back into the Mohawk River and we do that through a series of physical, chemical and biological processes at this facility,” he said while at the Mohawk View Water Pollution Control Plant on Onderdonk Avenue. “Our mission is two-fold: to protect the environment and protect people’s health.”
The waste cycle
When a toilet is flushed, or a washing machine drains or a shower is taken, the waste water enters a complex system that includes 400 miles of pipe and 30 pumping stations. Gravity is the main force behind getting waste water to the plant, but since there is a cost-benefit factor that needs considering when digging pipes too deep, at different locations waste is pumped back up to a point where gravity can again have an opportunity to work its natural-law magic.
(So, no, it doesn’t solely roll downhill.)
Once it does come into the plant, on Onderdonk Avenue, a dead end road in a remote part of town along the Mohawk River, that is where common sense and science take over.
First, Voerg said, since gravity got it there, the main pumping facility has to get the between 3.5 and 4 million gallons of waste water a day back up some 50 feet to ground level so it can be properly processed.
The next step is “raking” the solid material that does not degrade and/or cannot be broken down and probably should not have been flushed in the first place. Things like rags, baby wipes, coffee grinds and egg shells routinely end up in the sewer system instead of the trash and ultimately end up in the landfill anyway, Voerg said. This is just a more expensive route and can be even more expensive if it damages the sewer system’s infrastructure.
The next step is a clarifier, or a large vat with a large spinning arm, that allows whatever waste that can settle to bottom on its own a place to do so.
But, invariably, some of the waste dissolves and within that cloudy, brown liquid are viruses, bacteria and other microorganisms that can cause such things as dysentery, cholera, typhoid and hepatitis that have to be neutralized before the water is considered clean enough for a return to the environment.
To do that, the plant facilitates the growth of bacteria by exposing it to aeration. It’s a similar process to growing bacteria in the gravel of an aquarium to break down toxic fish waste.
“What we do is leverage the bacteria inherently in our bodies by giving it air and we use those microorganisms to degrade the waste even further,” Voerg said.
Once it passes through that, the microorganisms that were so helpful in breaking down the waste, need to get filtered out in another vat, with some being captured and disposed of along with the rest of the sludge and some used to seed a new batch.
“We run oxygen tests all day long because too much air not only is a waste of electricity but also promotes the growth of harmful bacteria but the staff here knows by looking at it,” Voerg said. “If it’s too gray, the bacteria is old and are dying off, and if it’s too dark there are too many bacteria. The staff here is exposed to bacteria every day and they are dedicated to safety and professionalism.”
Once it passes through that stage, the water is chlorinated as a safety measure and piped into the Mohawk River. Like everything at the plant, it’s a matter of balance: you need enough chlorine to kill the bacteria but too much can harm environment before it is diluted by the Mohawk River waters.
On average, some 20 tons of sludge are collected a day from the plant during any given work week — or about one truck load — and hauled off the landfill on Route 9. The sludge weighs so much because, despite all efforts to wring as much water out of it as possible, it is still about 20 percent solid and 80 percent liquid.
And the waste is still very “bio-active,” Voerg said.
“There is a lot of organic material in there and when it goes to the landfill it continues to break down and generates methane gas that feeds the generator that allows us to sell electricity back to the grid, the same electricity we need to pump the waste through the facility,” he said. “It really is a full cycle.”
The Colonie sewer system
Voerg is quick to tip his hat to the “visionaries,” those who came long before his 20-year tenure with the town began for not only establishing the system with two sets of pipe — one for storm water and one for waste water — but for also incorporating the entire town into one sewer district.
Many river communities have a single-pipe system to collect storm and waste water. They are, collectively, looking at a multi-billion consent order by the state Department of Environmental Conservation to install new, separate lines because when there is a large storm, raw sewage still, in 2018, ends up in the river.
“Whomever started the Colonie sewer system decided back then, when it was common place to have a clean rain water mixed with sewer water and push it out into the river, that it was better to have two separate sets of pipes,” he said. “And that was before we understood the disease factor, and that it was water borne bacteria that were making us sick. Back then, we thought it was the air.”
He also credited Gov. Nelson Rockefeller for the 1965 Pure Waters Bond Act, a $1 billion state backed bond to build municipal wastewater treatment facilities.
In the 1950s the Town of Colonie had individual sewer districts, Voerg said, and a lot of the raw sewage was flowing right into the river. Now, the town’s system has 25,000 connections and the majority of the developed parcels in the town are serviced by either the facility on Onderdonk or Albany County’s facility in Menands.
The department’s capital budget is $3.3 million and it has an operating budget of $6.5 million. A typical single family home pays $258 a year for sewer service. Eight people run the highly automated plant 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year with another 15 in the field to maintain the pipes and pumping stations.
As with every upstate community, Colonie’s infrastructure is older and is an issue. In an effort to minimize the impacts of that issue, the department has a camera that runs through the pipes on a near continuous basis to see where weak spots are or where they may develop.
Voerg said to repair or replace a section of pipe before it bursts costs about $300 a foot compared to $1,300 a foot after one blows out.
“Our mission statement is to protect public health and the environment through the safe effective and efficient collection, transportation and treatment of sanitary waste water in the Town of Colonie,” he said. “Yes we make stinky things go away but there is a bigger purpose here.”
The three P’s
Technically, anything that can fit down a toilet is considered “flushable.”
But, just because it fits doesn’t mean it’s supposed to go there.
“When we have school tours we tell the kids the Three Ps: Poop, pee and paper … and only toilet paper,” said Chretien Voerg, superintendent of the town’s Division of Pure Water. “Everything else belongs in the trash.”
The town’s sanitary sewer system has separate pipes from its storm water management system, and toilets can only handle things that are so big, but the crew at the Mohawk View Water Pollution Control Plant does find some odd ball things that have been flushed. Money, for some reason, and prison shanks presumably from inmates at the Albany County jail.
“When there is a shakedown at the jail we find these balls of bread that are used to make homemade hooch,” said Shane Brino, the sewage treatment plant operations supervisor, adding once an entire prison jumpsuit somehow made its way through the eight-inch lines without getting stuck.
Grease and baby wipes are probably the biggest culprits. Grease cannot be broken down and has the capacity to gum up the works. Voerg said there is an education-based program for restaurants, some of which generate large amounts of grease, but with 25,000 individual hookups feeding into the town’s sewer system, it is hard to reach everyone.
(To properly dispose of cooking grease, put it in a container and put the container in the fridge until it solidifies and then either toss the whole thing out with the rest of the garbage or, if you are really environmentally conscious, scoop out the grease, throw that away and re-use the container.)
Baby wipe companies claim their product is flushable, and it is accurate according to the definition above, but wipes cannot be broke down either and are physically removed at the plant, along with other fabric, and it all ends up in the landfill anyway. It’s just a much more expensive process.
“If everyone would do their part to keep these items out of the sewer we can be more efficient in the service we provide our customers,” said Voerg. “People need to make sure what should go down the sewer goes down the sewer and what belongs in the trash goes in the trash.”
Years ago, it all just ended up in the river.
“One of my grandfather’s greatest accomplishments was moving away from the river because if you lived along the river you were poor and couldn’t afford to live anywhere else. It was full of sewage and stench and filth and chemicals,” Voerg said. “Now 50 years later, everyone is trying to live along the river and a big reason for that is the sanitary sewer systems.”