Area businesses, sewerage district collaborate on pollution prevention

From reducing salt use to making sure solids like grease, ‘flushable’ wipes, pharmaceuticals, and mercury don’t enter the system, there are a lot of little things businesses can do to prevent big problems in the wastewater system.

We tend not to think about what we’re putting down our pipes until there’s a clog. That’s a big problem, and not just because the little clogged drains in our sinks or toilets are nothing compared to what’s gumming up the works down the line.

Preventing pollution makes sense for the environment and the economy, and this week area businesses are connecting with the Madison Metropolitan Sewerage District to learn how reducing salt and other pollutants in the wastewater stream can trim company operating costs while keeping sewer bills low for everyone.

“Pollution prevention is critical to our environment, economy, and quality of life,” Michael Mucha, chief engineer and director of Madison Metropolitan Sewerage District says. “It is extremely difficult and costly to remove pollutants such as chloride and other chemicals once they get into our waters. When everyone works together to keep them out, we all benefit from improved water quality and lower utility bills.”

Established in 1930 to protect the lakes and streams of the upper Yahara watershed, Madison Metropolitan Sewerage District today serves 26 Madison-area customer communities covering some 184 square miles and 360,000 people. The district owns and operates 141 miles of pipe and 18 regional pumping stations that convey approximately 41 million gallons of wastewater to the Nine Springs Wastewater Treatment Plant each day.

Ashten Bischoff, ETC, Ralph Erickson, Madison Metropolitan Sewerage District, Catherine Harris, the district, and Chris Kaufmann, ETC, talk about the plant’s process to convert unwanted phosphorus into Crystal Green. The fertilizer is shipped to farms outside the watershed, providing a needed source of nutrients to growers in other states.

In conjunction with Pollution Prevention Week, Sept. 18–24, leaders from four area businesses joined the district’s industrial pretreatment expert Ralph Erickson for tours of facilities, including Pumping Station 18 and the Nine Springs Treatment Plant, 1610 Moorland Road. Among those attending were Chris Kaufmann, a manufacturing engineer, and Ashten Bischoff, a manufacturing department administrative staff member, from ETC of Middleton.

“We welcome the opportunity to work with businesses of all sizes,” Erickson says. “ETC is a good example of a company that is committed to ongoing process improvements.”

With some 850 employees in Dane County, ETC manufactures and sells lighting fixtures, architectural systems, and theater controls to markets worldwide. Kaufmann notes the company’s manufacturing processes involve pretreatment of the metal substrate before powder paint is applied. The process generates wastewater that flows to the district’s treatment plant.

“As a company, we really try to be proactive on environmental matters and we view pollution prevention as an opportunity” that creates benefits for everyone, Kaufmann explains. Kaufmann says the company is checking into opportunities to reduce its salt use, as well as alternatives to its current pre-treatment technology to reduce phosphorus.

ETC’s collaborative approach is welcome to leaders of the MMSD, because keeping pollutants out of the water in the first place is far cheaper than building infrastructure to attempt to remove pollutants after they enter the wastewater stream. The district operates under a Clean Water Act permit. To cost-effectively meet more stringent regulations on chloride and phosphorus, the district is focusing on collective action.

To encourage area companies to use salt more efficiently, the MMSD encourages area businesses to reduce salt use and apply for rebates through the district’s chloride reduction program. Rebates are offered on a first-come, first-served basis and tied to salt reductions to the sewer system in pounds per month; for example, facilities that reduce salt to the sewer system by an average of 500 to 1,499 pounds per month qualify for a $1,000 rebate.

Harris, Bischoff, Kaufmann, and Erickson, discuss wastewater treatment processes that reclaim nutrients including methane gas, fertilizer, and biosolids while producing treated water for return to the watershed. Aeration ponds use natural bacteria and air to aid the recovery process.

Current participants in the salt rebate program include Hydrite Chemical Co. of Cottage Grove, which also sent representatives to one of Wednesday’s tours, as well as Madison United Healthcare Linen and Steve Brown Apartments, among others.

This is the second year the rebates are being offered; during 2016, 16 organizations qualified for rebates. The rebates average $1,600 and the district budgeted $200,000 for the initiative for 2017.

Brad Bennett, maintenance supervisor of Madison United Healthcare Linen, says his organization is saving money on supplies, maintenance, and labor as a result of its efforts to reduce salt use. The nonprofit organization, which serves as a central laundry facility for several nonprofit health care systems, is reducing its salt use by 25 tons per year for a savings of $4,000. With the rebates and the salt savings, the project has paid for itself.

“Reducing salt use makes good business sense and it’s good for the environment,” Bennett says. “As with any other maintenance or system change, our initiatives required upfront planning but the investment will continue to yield benefits over time.”

Steve Brown Apartments also has completed a salt reduction project, trimming more than 4,000 pounds of salt per month from operations at the Lucky apartment building alone. In addition, Steve Brown Apartments is reducing use of road and sidewalk salt, says Mitch Colstad, community manager.

“It’s a savings to our operations that we’ve achieved without any noticeable change for the residents and neighbors of Lucky,” Colstad notes. “We’re looking at whether we can replicate this success at some of our other properties. These efforts really add up to keep costs down while creating benefits for all of our community’s waterways.”

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Emily Jones, a pollution prevention specialist with the district, says businesses participating in the program can save money on salt purchases and labor when they upgrade their water softeners or processes to use less salt. Businesses with large softeners can potentially save hundreds or thousands of dollars per year on salt alone.

“Every bag of salt that goes into a water softener passes down the drain and through the treatment plant into local fresh water streams,” Jones says. “Salt pollutes fresh water and levels have been on the rise in local lakes, rivers, and streams. The district is facing decreasing limits for chloride in its permit and to meet these requirements, the district can either upgrade the treatment plant or encourage reductions in the amount of chloride that reaches the plant.”

Most sewerage plants aren’t designed to remove dissolved solids such as salt and treatment plant upgrades would result in much higher sewer bills for businesses and residents served by the district. Wastewater that now reaches the plant contains an estimated 220,000 pounds of salt per day and reducing the amount that enters the sewer system represents the most cost-effective path forward. Efforts by customers to reduce salt use can help avoid the need for a much larger investment in treatment facilities later.

To be eligible for the program, projects need to take place in the district’s service area and projects must be completed within six months of applying for a rebate. Applicants need to apply for the rebate before implementing the project.

For more information about the district’s salt reduction rebates and how to apply, visit the Madison Metropolitan Sewerage District website, www.madsewer.org and search “chloride reduction.”

Fighting ‘fatbergs’

Chloride entering the system from businesses and homes isn’t the only problem facing the sewerage district.

For instance, did you know that “flushable wipes” aren’t really flushable? What’s more, when wipes meet up with kitchen grease in the 141 miles of wastewater pipe managed by MMSD, they can form “fatbergs” — large congealed lumps that block flows and cause headaches for maintenance crews as well as local residents and businesses.

The district is also focused on reducing municipal and residential use of road salt through the Wisconsin Salt Wise Partnership.

Sodium chloride, called table salt or rock salt, is composed of approximately 39% sodium and 61% chlorine. It is the chloride portion of salt that is covered in the district’s permit and consultants estimate a minimum cost of some $400 million to remove excess chloride from the wastewater stream. To avoid the potential 40% cost increase to ratepayers, the district is working to reduce local salt use on the front end.

District officials say system capacity is not a significant issue; however, the district is working to manage challenges with peak flows during heavy storm events. Although Madison’s wastewater system is separate from the storm sewers, during heavy rains additional flow enters the wastewater system through manhole and other openings. The concern is with specific inputs such as phosphorus and salt, which are very expensive or challenging to remove from the wastewater stream.

In addition to salt reduction, the district promotes reductions in sewer inputs of mercury, pharmaceuticals, and those pipe-clogging substances like grease and wipes. Businesses that use these types of materials can replace them with alternatives when possible (such as mercury-free devices) and ensure that when these materials are used, they are disposed of properly, rather than down the drain.

District officials note area dental clinics have reduced the mercury reaching the treatment plant by capturing mercury-containing silver fillings in collection containers in their plumbing and safely disposing of this waste. Hospitals have also begun safely collecting medications for disposal, rather than flushing unused pharmaceuticals down the drain.

MMSD’s Jones says simple changes by individuals can add up to measurable improvements in water quality. Among the easiest steps:

Area residents aged 12 and older are invited to learn more about preventing water pollution by signing up for a free public tour of the district’s Nine Spring Treatment Plant on Friday, Sept. 22 from 2 to 4 p.m. Tour participants will experience a unique, behind-the-scenes look at how the district transforms wastewater into reusable resources. To sign up for the tours, which start at the district’s Maintenance Facility, 1610 Moorland Road, visit: https://goo.gl/forms/UOuCji9ijZbH8VVz2.

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