Transcripts

From The Sewer To The Potomac

MS. REBECCA SHEIR

13:49:56
Before we say goodbye today, it's time for another installment of ''Get Dirty D.C,'' Where Rob heads out and explores interesting and often unexpected hands-on stuff just about anyone can do around the region. And, Rob, from what I've heard, it sounds like you found your dirtiest ''Get Dirty'' adventure so far. You toured a sewage plant, yeah?

MR. ROB SACHS

13:50:15
Yeah, that's right. I grabbed my rubber-soled shoes and went to the Blue Plains Advanced Wastewater Treatment Plant in southwest D.C. It’s actually the world's largest facility of its kind.

SHEIR

13:50:25
World's largest facility? How large are we talking?

SACHS

13:50:28
Well, it's serves 2 million people in the region, for starters, and it treats 370 million gallons of water a day, but in certain conditions, it can treat more than a billion gallons. That’s enough to fill 1500 Olympic-sized pools.

SHEIR

13:50:41
Wow, but I didn't realize a place like this is actually open to the public.

SACHS

13:50:45
It sure is and they offer free weekly tours. Now, I thought since we're talking about underground D.C. this week, why not investigate how water goes from the potty back out to the Potomac.

SHEIR

13:50:58
That's very colorful language, Rob.

SACHS

13:50:59
My pleasure. Anyway, my guide through the treatment center was Wendell Smith.

MR. WENDELL SMITH

13:51:03
Chemical engineer technician, D.C. water.

SACHS

13:51:06
The plant is spread out over 153 acres so we drive from site to site. Our first stop, the headworks.

SMITH

13:51:13
The purpose of our headworks is to remove any heavy and big objects out of the wastewater stream.

SACHS

13:51:19
So it's the first line defense against papers and plastics and other things.

SMITH

13:51:25
We get bricks, two by fours.

SACHS

13:51:27
The craziest thing Smith's ever found.

SMITH

13:51:29
Probably a pair of jeans.

SACHS

13:51:32
We step outside the car and Smith leads me into a large building that houses the barscreens. With one foot in the door, I'm immediately reminded we're dealing with raw sewage here.

SACHS

13:51:42
Yeah, smell it right away. Right away, wow.

SMITH

13:51:48
You know, actually, you smell it inside the building because we have what we call an air swirler so everything is airtight in this building to keep the odor inside the building.

SACHS

13:52:00
The barscreens are enormous, standing nearly three stories high, but most of it's covered by a metal frame. There are, however, two slits that I can see bits of refuse caught up in the machine's steel teeth.

SMITH

13:52:12
You can see toilet paper, toilet tissue, rags.

SACHS

13:52:14
This debris is automatically sent to a conveyor belt and ultimately trucked to a landfill. The liquids are pumped through to the next part of the process known as primary clarification. Smith drives me to a field of 28 round tanks. Though I can't see it, each tank holds 2 million gallons of liquid. The bottoms are cone-shaped to help collect the dissolved and suspended solids. Smith tells me the facility has a vast network of underground tunnels. Some of them are large enough to drive a truck through to collect all the gunk that floats up to the top the plant uses something called a skimmer.

SMITH

13:52:50
You just see we have the arm that's going around the perimeter of the tank and that is collecting all the grease.

SACHS

13:52:56
Here's where the liquids and solids part ways. Solids are collected, run through a center fuse and mixed with lime to make fertilizer for grasslands. For the liquids, it's onto the secondary reactors where Mother Nature is left to do her work.

SMITH

13:53:09
So what we have, we have microorganisms that actually eat the viruses that's in the wastewater. That's any pathogens that can cause disease and so -- and that's the meat and potatoes of wastewater treatment.

SACHS

13:53:23
A few minutes later, I'm standing between rows and rows of large pools of aerated water.

SMITH

13:53:28
It looks almost like bubbly mud.

SACHS

13:53:31
The bubbles are key since they add oxygen into the mix, which induces the naturally occurring microbes to pick out. Moving in for a closer look, I can't help but be distracted by a bright orange life preserver ring.

SACHS

13:53:43
I'm assuming that's there because, at one point or another, someone's fallen in?

SMITH

13:53:47
Well, I've never seen anybody fall in, but just in case, you know.

SACHS

13:53:50
I imagine that would be the most disgusting thing to fall into.

SMITH

13:53:53
Yes, it would be. I would not want to fall in that, touch that or drink that.

SACHS

13:53:58
After the micro organisms have feasted, it's time for them to chill out. We drive over to a massive array of secondary sedimentation tanks. It’s a tranquil setting so all the little bugs can settle to the bottom. Some are sent back to be reused, others are discarded with the rest of the solids.

SMITH

13:54:15
You see the water is basically clear. You see a little bit of suspended solids in the water, but it's not nowhere near as brown as it was before.

SACHS

13:54:23
Now, in a lot of plants, this is where the treatment ends, but not at Blue Plains. Because they lie in the Chesapeake watershed, they have tertiary removal for nitrogen and phosphorus.

SMITH

13:54:33
Nitrogen and phosphorus causes what processors call unification and that's an abundance of algae.

SACHS

13:54:40
Which is a bad thing for fish and wildlife in the bay. So now, more little bugs are induced to snack away, which is all done by regulating DPH levels.

SMITH

13:54:50
And we do have a chemical that monitors -- that can actually increase the PH if the PH gets low. We use sodium hydroxide.

SACHS

13:54:57
Another sedimentation process removes these microorganisms. Now, you might think the water is ready for the river, but not quite yet.

SMITH

13:55:05
We're going to polish the water a little bit.

SACHS

13:55:07
Smith drives me past a huge warehouse-sized building with introspect filters kind of like those charcoal filters you might see at a pet shop.

SACHS

13:55:15
So this whole building is one big filter like you'd have in your fish tank or something?

SMITH

13:55:20
Exactly, just like a little fish tank filter, exactly.

SACHS

13:55:23
Here, workers also chemically treat the water to kill off any remaining pathogens and to neutralize it. Finally, it's off to the lab, a small building across the street. Inside, technicians monitor the water one last time before it goes back into the Potomac. At a sink in the corner, a tap constantly runs the finished product. Smith fills up a beaker and shows it to me.

SACHS

13:55:47
How long ago was that raw sewage?

SMITH

13:55:49
That depends on our flow. We can say, I would say, maybe about six, seven hours ago.

SACHS

13:55:56
That was raw sewage six -- now it's crystal clear.

SMITH

13:55:59
Now it's crystal clear. Look like (word?) almost.

SACHS

13:56:03
Though not quite up to EPA standards for drinkable water, but apparently the fish don't mind.

SMITH

13:56:08
I saw an article a few years ago and in Field and Stream. They actually named this part of the Potomac one of the best bass fishing in the country. This water is actually -- I'd say it would be cleaner than the Potomac River.

SACHS

13:56:22
Pretty impressive, as are some of the plans Blue Plains has in store, such as using methane gas emitted from bio-solids to help power the facility and fully automating all operations. But as they look to the future, they never lose sight of their ongoing mission, of keeping the water in the D.C. region healthy, safe and clean.

SHEIR

13:56:41
Okay, so if our listeners want to tour the treatment plant, Rob, what they can do? How can they do it?

SACHS

13:56:46
Blue Plains offers free public tours from 9:00 a.m. to 11:00 a.m. on Thursday and you can check out our website, metroconnection.org, for more information where you can also find some photos from my trip.

SHEIR

13:56:56
Some dirty photos, if you will?

SACHS

13:56:59
Well, dirty as in...

SHEIR

13:57:00
Sorry.

SACHS

13:57:02
...dirty as in refuse dirty, but otherwise perfectly G-rated.

SHEIR

13:57:06
Good to know. And that's ''Metro Connection'' for this week. We heard from WAMU's Kavitha Cardoza and David Schultz and reporter Emily Friedman.

SACHS

13:57:22
Jim Asendio is our news director. Tobey Schreiner is our audio engineer. Julia Edwards produces ''Door to Door.''

SHEIR

13:57:27
Thanks to Jonathon Charry, Andrew Chadwick, Margo Kelly, Timmy Olmstead and Matt Bush for their production help.

SACHS

13:57:33
And special thanks to Dana Farrington and the WAMU digital media team for keeping our website up-to-date.

SHEIR

13:57:39
Our theme song, ''Every Little Bit Hurts'' and our ''Door To Door'' theme "No Girl" are from the album "Title Tracks" by John Davis and used with permission of the Ernest Jennings Record Company. Check out our website, metroconnection.org, for a list of all the music we use each week.

SACHS

13:57:52
We hope you can join us next time as we go up in the air, as we reveal the surprising link between the region's air and light pollution and show you the secret rooftop lives of D.C.'s urban beekeepers.

SHEIR

13:58:04
Beekeepers in the district aren't outlaws right now. It's about interpretation. But we're one interpretation away from trouble and we'd like that not to happen.

SHEIR

13:58:12
Until then, I'm Rebecca Sheir.

SACHS

13:58:13
And I'm Rob Sachs.

SHEIR

13:58:15
And thanks for listening to ''Metro Connection.''

SACHS

13:58:17
A production of WAMU 88.5 news.
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