January 2013, Vol. 25, No.1

International focus on phosphorus



U.S and Canadian water resource recovery facilities face tighter limits 

Once a distant memory from the 1960s and 1970s, algal blooms again are surfacing in Great Lakes bays and nearshore waters. Efforts to solve the problem recently got a boost from new amendments to the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement (GLWQA). Although the beefed-up agreement targets farm fertilizer, it also is asking water resource recovery facilities (WRRFs) to cut phosphorus discharges. In addition to these nutrient management challenges, utilities in Canada are facing significant new federal regulations on wastewater.

Updating GLWQA 

On Sept. 7, the U.S. and Canada signed off on a new protocol to GLWQA, last amended in 1987. The binding but unenforceable agreement takes aim at toxics, invasive species, and nutrients in the Great Lakes. During the next 3 years, the two countries will develop objectives for phosphorus concentrations, loading targets, and load allocations for each of the lakes, said Raj Bejankiwar, a scientist at the International Joint Commission (Windsor, Ontario), a watchdog for waters on the U.S.–Canada border.

Until now, GLWQA has focused exclusively on total phosphorus. “But I think the parties will look at setting limits for both total phosphorus and dissolved reactive phosphorus,” Bejankiwar said. Polluted runoff gets special mention in the agreement, but Great Lakes WRRFs will likely have to meet tighter new limits on phosphorus, he added.

Algae blooms 

Lake Erie exemplifies the ecosystem changes that are affecting the Great Lakes. The lake produced a bloom of algae in 2011 that released the toxin microcystin at levels up to 1200 µg/L, according to Jeff Reutter, director of Ohio Sea Grant at Ohio State University (Columbus). The World Health Organization recommends that microcystin not exceed levels of 1 µg/L for drinking water and 20 µg/L at swimming beaches.

The blooms began reappearing in 1995 even though Lake Erie had met its target load of 11,000 Mg of phosphorus nearly every year since 1981, Reutter said. But researchers discovered that the predominant form of phosphorus entering the lake had changed over the years from the less reactive particulate forms to the bioavailable dissolved forms.

Scientists now propose that adoption of no-till farming methods and increased tile drainage of fields have combined to release more dissolved phosphorus from farmland. At the same time, runoff events have increased up to 75% in some watersheds. “This year, nature gave us the perfect experiment,” Reutter said. Despite record summer heat, Lake Erie did not produce a noxious bloom. Lack of rain washing nutrients into the basin cut phosphorus loads to one-tenth of levels in 2011, he said. Storm events now deliver 80% to 90% of the annual phosphorus load, pointing to runoff as the main driver of algal blooms. To meet restoration goals, phosphorus loads to Lake Erie likely will have to be cut by as much as two-thirds, Reutter said.

Meeting phosphorus limits 

After GLWQA was first signed in 1972, WRRFs slashed phosphorus discharges mainly by boosting precipitation of phosphorus into solids, said Jim Ridgeway, vice president of the consulting firm Environmental Technology Inc. (Detroit). “To make discharges go even lower will require expensive capital upgrades to plants,” he said.

A glimpse of the future can be had at Hamilton, Ontario, on the western shores of Lake Ontario. The 435,000-m3/d (115-mgd) Woodward Avenue Wastewater Treatment Plant currently uses secondary treatment to discharge phosphorus at a concentration of 0.8 mg/L. Because Hamilton Harbor was designated an “area of concern” in 1987 under GLWQA, officials will upgrade the plant in 4 to 5 years to tertiary treatment to discharge 0.18 mg/L phosphorus and eventually 0.15 mg/L, said Dan Chauvin, director of water and wastewater engineering at Hamilton Water.

Hamilton Water has just completed a 30-year master plan. “Because it can take as long as 5 years from planning to construction, the challenge is to allow accommodation for rapid changes in technology to leverage savings,” Chauvin said. Faced with a complex mix of potential solutions, the utility is asking equipment vendors to propose cost-efficient options based on outputs such as discharge limits and the facility footprint. The successful vendor will be selected based on ability to meet output specifications at the lowest overall life-cycle cost, based on both capital and operation and maintenance costs. “This would allow information on long-term operating and maintenance costs to be obtained in a binding procurement process, giving our ratepayers better assurances that they are getting the best investment for their dollar,” Chauvin said.

Where is the money? 

“The funds are there, but municipalities need to align themselves to get that money,” Chauvin said. Hamilton Water is paying for its upgrade with $100 million each from the federal and provincial governments and the remaining $132 million from the city.

“Because water is undervalued, funding is available,” said Cordell Samuels, Water Environment Federation (Alexandria, Va.) president and superintendent of Duffin Creek Water Pollution Control Plant (Pickering, Ontario). He explained that the only sustainable way to fund improvements to WRRFs is for utilities to charge a reasonable price for water. “There is not really money available from governments, because the budgets are so tight,” he said. “Currently, people pay less for water than they do for cable TV or mobile phones,” he added.

Another way to look at funding is through nutrient trading, according to Richard Moore, director of the Ohio State University (Columbus) Environmental Science Network. Whereas a small town might have to spend $4 million to $7 million to upgrade its WRRF, the same water quality benefits could be gained by paying farmers $800,000 to remediate phosphorus on their fields. “It’s time to regulate the lowest-hanging fruit, which is now soluble phosphorus coming out of farm fields,” Ridgway said.

New Canadian regulations 

While WRRFs on the Great Lakes are contemplating upgrades, Canadian utilities also are facing new rules for wastewater. “Canada’s new Wastewater Systems Effluent Regulations are significant because they harmonize wastewater rules across the country for the first time,” said Wayne Wong, chair of the British Columbia Wastewater Association (Burnaby) wastewater management committee. Issued on June 28, the rules require all facilities that take in more than 100 m³/d of influent to provide secondary treatment. About 25% of Canada’s wastewater systems lack secondary treatment. Cost estimates for upgrades range from $5.5 billion to $20 billion. High-risk systems must comply by 2020 and low-risk systems by 2040. Municipalities have asked the Canadian government to pay for the upgrades through the federal government’s new Long-Term Infrastructure Plan.

After upgrading to secondary treatment, utilities will produce more biosolids than they had in the past, according to the Canadian Council of Ministers of the Environment, a policy-making body of provincial and federal environment ministers. But Canada has no national biosolids guidelines, with each province setting its own rules. In order to harmonize policies across the country, the council on Oct. 11 approved the Guidance Document for the Beneficial Use of Municipal Biosolids, Municipal Sludge and Treated Septage.

The nonbinding guidelines are not a new regulation but set out recommendations for best management practices and for ways provinces can develop regulations with similar underlying principles. “From an industrial viewpoint, the move is positive, because it draws high-level attention to promoting beneficial [use] of biosolids and consistency in management approaches,” said Phil Sidhwa, president of Terratec Environmental (Hamilton, Ontario), a subsidiary of American Water (Voorhees, N.J.).

Janet Pelley, WE&T 

Does the public have a right to know?

Environmental organizations push for oil and gas companies to disclose toxic chemical releases to U.S. EPA 

In October, more than a dozen national and local organizations petitioned the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to require oil and gas companies that engage in hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” to report to the Toxics Release Inventory (TRI), a publicly available database that contains information on toxic chemical releases and other waste management activities in the United States.
Electric utilities and coal mining operations already report to the TRI.

“The Toxics Release Inventory brings daylight to dark corners, by requiring companies to quantify and report their pollution to a public database for everyone to see,” said Eric Schaeffer, director of the Environmental Integrity Project (Washington, D.C.) on Oct. 24 in a joint press release with 16 other local, regional, and national organizations. “That makes it easier for communities to measure the environmental impact of local industries, motivates companies to reduce their emissions, and gives all of us insight into how well our environmental laws are working.”

According to the news release, data on “the oil and gas industry (including fracking) points to a large toxic footprint. EPA has estimated that the industry emits 127,000 ton [115,000 Mg] of hazardous air pollutants every year, including benzene, xylenes, and hydrogen sulfide — more than any other TRI industry except electric utilities.”

The organizations argue in the press release that TRI reports could be a good resource to communities, lawmakers, and even the companies themselves. For instance, the organizations pointed out in the release, “if a gas company were to propose a facility, a community member or local decision-maker could pull up the company’s past TRI reports and judge whether the facility would be a good neighbor. Or the company itself could compare its releases against other facilities and determine whether it is in line with the industry standard.”

But the oil and natural gas industry continually has objected to any new reporting requirements in the TRI program.

“Communities have the right to know about potential threats to their health and the environment,” wrote the Independent Petroleum Association of America (Washington, D.C.) in one of its environment and safety fact sheets. “But there is no reason to mislead the public with confusing information on releases that pose virtually no threat. Right-to-know laws should not be used as a right to mislead. The public has a right to expect that taxpayer money is going to protect human health and the environment against real threats. Held up to the lens of cost-effectiveness, environmental benefits, and appropriateness, expansion of the TRI program to [the exploration and production] industry is not sound public policy.”

LaShell Stratton-Childers, WE&T