Joe Henderson (34) was an earth science teacher at Rush Henrietta Central School District before graduating last year from University of Rochester with a Ph.D. in Education – with a focus on environmental education. Joe has taken many 8th graders on field trips to Frank E. Van Lare Wastewater Treatment Facility . And today, he’s arranged to bring all of you, RocSubway friends…
Joe admits he’s always had a fascination with the systems that keep our society humming along; the systems that we’re dependent on, yet largely unaware of. “Van Lare is a really really interesting one,” says Joe. “Both in terms of infrastructure and the environment.” But on a more personal level, he explains that his dad was a public employee and that has shaped his understanding and appreciation for what is required to maintain the quality life we all enjoy today.
With so many, often politicized, debates about paying to keep our government running, Joe wanted to bring this story to RocSubway, in part for this reason. “I think it’s important to point out that people actually do this work, and we pay them, and that’s a GOOD thing for society to have. It’s kind of sad that we have to have that conversation over and over again, but it’s important.”
As the City of Rochester and Monroe County grew and developed, our natural waterways were increasingly used to dispose of waste from homes, businesses and industry. In the early 1900s, water quality problems at Ontario Beach Park led in the development of Rochester’s sewage system. Although wastewater management processes gradually improved, by the 1960s most of our major waterways were contaminated with unhealthy levels of pollution.
In the late 1960s federal money became available to combat these issues, and in 1971 Rochester’s Pure Waters agency was created to oversee a major upgrade of our waste water disposal system. The project, estimated to cost $550 million dollars and paid for by federal, state and local dollars, aimed to reduce the levels of pollution in Irondequoit Bay, the Genesee River, areas of Lake Ontario and other waters of Monroe County to safe and healthy levels.
To achieve this, wastewater needs to be collected, and pollutants removed, before it can be discharged back into the environment. Prior to 1970, there were approximately 40 wastewater treatment facilities in Monroe County. Those have all since been consolidated into five facilities, including Van Lare, that serve a population of over a half million.
We meet up with some of the staff of Pure Waters at the control center inside the Van Lare facility. They give us the run down of the four sewage districts they manage (Northwest Quadrant, Rochester, Irondequoit South Central, and Gates-Chili-Ogden). This is an enormous and robust network including two wastewater treatment facilities, over 60 pump stations, 1,500 miles of sewer pipe, and 30 miles of major deep rock tunnels.
The Van Lare treatment facility is located on the shore of Lake Ontario at Durand-Eastman Beach and dates back to 1916. It’s the largest wastewater facility in the county, handling up to 135 million gallons per day (mgd) with a capability of handling 660mgd during storm events. By contrast, the Northwest Quadrant facility in the town of Hilton handles an average of 14mgd.
Controlling the Uncontrollable
Most of what we send down our drain pipes or gets flushed down our toilets is sent into the surface sewer system and is carried all the way to the treatment plant by way of gravity. All of that which is collected on the west side of the city flows to Van Lare across the Genesee River via two 6-foot pipes beneath the Maplewood pedestrian bridge. And everything collected from the east side of the city flows through a 16 foot tunnel from Tryon Park north through Durand-Eastman Park.
Bill Putt manages the sewage collection system (everything coming into the plant). He explains that the Pure Waters program added an important layer of protection to save the system from being completely overrun during storms. Known as CSOAP (for Combined Sewer Overflow Abatement Program), these are deep rock tunnels (most between 6′ – 16′ in diameter) that collect overflow and store it until it can be sent to the treatment facility for processing. According to Bill, Rochester was the first city in the U.S. to build a CSOAP tunnel system like this.
175 Million gallons can be stored in the CSOAP system, but there are still major rain events that exceed this designed capacity. Last year for example, Bill says there were three severe storm events where street runoff overflowed to the river.
Josephine Guarino manages the control center at Van Lare. This is essentially the brain of the entire system. Weather is constantly monitored, and tunnels and pump facilities can all be monitored and managed from here.
If one section of the collection system fills to capacity, overflow can be redirected or held within the CSOAP tunnels using a series of cast iron control gates.
Lost and Found
This unassuming building is the first stop in the sewage treatment process. All of the sewage (and I mean ALL the sewage) enters the plant through this tiny building. It’s pretty odorific in here, so hold your noses.
So down inside here the sewage passes through these metal screens. The screens catch any large debris as it comes in. Twigs, rags, plastic garbage, general unpleasantries, coins, wedding rings… you name it, it ends up here.
Where the Magic Happens
Now we come to an area about the size of a football field with a complex maze of compartments, channels, contraptions and doohickies. This part gets a little confusing and I’m not sure I can match up each step in the process with the right photo, so I’m just going to summarize and then you can look at the photos and use your imagination a bit…
Raw sewage isn’t the only thing flowing through here. Billions of tiny micro-organisms (affectionately referred to as “good bugs”) are swimming around in here helping to eat up all the bad poo poo and bacteria.
If only you could smell this and feel the spray hitting your face. It was great.
Just kidding. Do not attempt.
Tim did mention they’re installing a new aeration system – switching from one like the one you might have in your fish tank, to one with ultraviolet (UV) bubbles. This might be that. Sorry, we lost our notes.
As more and more of the slurry is pumped into here, gravity pulls the solid matter downward where it gets thicker and thicker – hence the name, “Gravity Thickener”. The sludge is then pumped out through the bottom, while any remaining water stays up top and gets fed back around into the distribution boxes to be treated again.
Holy heck, besides the stench, it’s warm and very damp in here. Let’s get out while we still can…
Return to the Wild
It’s strange to think that all of this water will eventually be returned to the natural environment, back into the water cycle where it will be consumed all over again. But that’s exactly where it’s headed.
These once carried straight chlorine solution. Chlorine at high concentrations like this would be very dangerous stuff. It was even used in World War I as the first gaseous chemical warfare agent. Fortunately, it’s no longer used here.
Ok, now we come to a room with several big, multi million dollar centrifuges. The sludge is pumped in and spun around real fast so as to squeeze out any remaining drops of water that haven’t already been removed.
The sludge cake will be taken to a factory where it will be made into Wegmans Ultimate Chocolate Cake.
NO NO! I got you again. It’s actually trucked to the Mill Seat Landfill in Riga. Of course.
Once at the landfill, the sludge will be mixed in with the garbage helping to break it down, and also creating methane which is used to fuel generators, that return power to the electric grid, so that we can light our homes and play Circle of Life by Elton John while drinking abundant amounts of life-giving water.
Ahhh! Thank you Pure Waters!
And thank you Joe Henderson, for arranging this tour.
Tags: Bill Putt, chlorine solution, Combined Sewer Overflow Abatement Program (CSOAP), Frank E. Van Lare Wastewater Treatment Plant, gravity thickener, infrastructure, Josephine Guarino, Lake Ontario, Mill Seat Land Fill, Monroe County, Monroe County Pure Waters, Monroe County Water Authority, Rochester, Rochester NY, sewage, sewer, sludge, sludge cake, sodium hypochlorite, urban exploration, water treatment
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