If there is anything that will test a utility’s emergency preparedness and emergency response, it’s a natural disaster. During Superstorm Sandy in October 2012, water and wastewater utilities along the U.S. East Coast experienced problems ranging from minor power outages to full-scale destruction.
New Jersey American Water (Voorhees, N.J.) did not suffer serious damage to any of its facilities, but its day-to-day operations were greatly affected by what was going on around it. The utility faced power outages, gas shortages, flooding, and customers who were under an evacuation order for months.
On the other side of the coin, DC Water experienced few, if any, troubles during Superstorm Sandy. But it had to ramp up its own emergency preparedness for another important event — the 2013 presidential inauguration, one of the biggest events to happen in Washington, D.C., and on the world’s stage. The utility had to consider a multitude of possible disaster scenarios and work with private and federal partners to map out potential responses.
A localized catastrophe
The states of New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut were hardest hit by Superstorm Sandy, and the impact was felt greatly by New Jersey American Water. The utility already had experienced its fair share of flooding at some of its facilities during Hurricane Irene in 2011, but Irene was very different from Sandy.
“Irene came in with lots of flooding,” said Steve Schmitt, director of operations at New Jersey American Water. “Sandy brought far less precipitation, but it came with a 12-ft [3.7-m] storm surge that deeply affected the coast,” he said.
Schmitt said the greatest impact was felt by operations on the barrier islands, a 14-km (9-mi) stretch from Bay Head, N.J., to Seaside Heights, N.J., which was put under an evacuation order until Jan. 7. The total number of New Jersey American Water customers in that area is about 9000, and roughly 2500 experienced permanent damage to their homes, he said.
“Some of their houses were completely washed away,” Schmitt said.
Several of the utility’s well stations, storage stations, and pump stations were flooded, but Schmitt said the greatest destruction was to nonutility infrastructure, including bridges and roadways that were completely destroyed. These conditions made it a challenge to access the utility’s infrastructure.
The utility also suffered power loss to 100% of its service area in New Jersey, Schmitt said. “We were operating almost entirely on generators,” he said. “We were out in some areas for up to 2 weeks. ... Thankfully, the regional operations center prioritized power restoration to critical water production facilities.”
To compound these problems, several gas stations were shut down, so fuel was in short supply.
“We had access to fuel tankers from out of state,” Schmitt said. “We networked with utilities that had fueling facilities but no fuel. It turned into a win–win situation for us both.”
A strong response, but still room for improvement
Schmitt said they were able to respond to the superstorm because the utility has an incident command structure based on the National Incident Management System designed by the U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency.
“If utilities haven’t adopted an incident management structure, they should,” Schmitt said.
New Jersey American Water also had staff posted at emergency centers throughout the state to help information flow more easily. The utility took advantage of its national network through its American Water (Voorhees) parent company.
The utility learned from the past when getting information out to public this time.
“The lesson we learned from Irene is the power of social media, which we implemented during Sandy,” said Peter Eschbach, director of communications and external affairs at New Jersey American Water. He said they also used reverse-911 calls when applicable.
Other forms of communication proved less successful. For example, flooding took out many radio stations, and several newspapers could no longer print. “But people still had access to their smartphones,” Eschbach said.
In addition to alerting customers about shutting off water valves before evacuations and filling bathtubs with water before blackouts, “we issued a water conservation notice to our customers for 2 weeks to give wastewater utilities a chance to recover and because we were still on standby generation at many sites and didn’t have a totally reliable power source,” Schmitt said.
While many things went right during Sandy in regard to emergency response, Schmitt said that some things could be improved.
For instance, the New Jersey Water/Wastewater Agency Response Network (WARN) “did not stand up in any way,” Schmitt said, though he acknowledged that the New Jersey WARN is still in its infancy.
Also, because of the lack of access to fuel during the superstorm, the utility is reviewing its standby generation. “Natural gas seemed to be easier to manage than diesel fuel,” Schmitt said. “We’re also looking into biofuel generators.”
The utility wants to build a more robust supervisory control and data acquisition system so “we don’t have to literally send staffers out to life-threatening situations to monitor equipment,” Schmitt said.
Schmitt said the utility also wants to better train staffers to help with other job duties in the future. “Certain jobs like meter reading aren’t as important in the case of emergencies,” Schmitt explained. They had the meter readers helping out with fueling, but some may have been more useful helping the communication staff. “We will properly train our staff to help Peter [Eschbach] with communications, since it really requires a specific skill set,” he said.
Preparing for the worst, experiencing the best
DC Water didn’t experience too many problems during Superstorm Sandy.
“We had a slight power outage at our [Blue Plains Facility] where we lost one of our feeders, but because we had redundancy built into the plant, it really didn’t have that much of an effect,” said Jonathan Reeves, emergency operations coordinator at DC Water.
The utility provided a 300-kW generator to a pump station in Long Beach Township, N.J. A DC Water crew went to New Jersey and helped set up the equipment that later was transferred to another facility in Flanders, N.J., after Long Beach Township regained power.
This was DC Water’s first mutual-aid equipment response under WARN. Reeves said he also provided to those in the network a list of additional equipment available but didn’t hear any further requests.
DC Water may not have experienced the full brunt of Sandy, but that doesn’t mean it didn’t face its own test of emergency response in January, specifically during the U.S. presidential inauguration. During the 1-day event, more than 500,000 people can flood Washington, D.C., testing the city’s resources and making response to emergencies a lot more challenging.
“Luckily, nothing went wrong,” Reeves said. “It was probably the most boring day at DC Water.”
Reeves said most of the glitches were internal issues, such as food delivery logistics to crews, but nothing major.
“This time, we had complaints about the size of the warming center and not having the tomato and mayo option for their sandwiches, as opposed to 2009, where we had guys stationed in trucks for 12 hours with no food at all,” Reeves said. “So I would say that was a vast improvement.”
However, DC Water and its private and federal partners were prepared for scenarios much worse than a limited lunch menu.
Reeves said this was the first year they had federal partners present at the critical infrastructure command center. At the command center, representatives from water, wastewater, power, and telecommunications utilities were on standby for any mishaps. Prior to the inauguration, they discussed their vulnerabilities and how to mitigate their impacts on the event.
Reeves said, for example, if something went wrong with telecommunications for the Secret Service, they would call the Verizon Communications (New York) hotline in New York City to report a problem. Verizon would then deploy people to fix the problem who wouldn’t have credentials and be unknown to the Secret Service. Subsequently, getting the problem rectified would take even longer.
“Having the command center streamlines the process,” he explained.
Learning from the past
Having the federal government better incorporate its private partners into its preparation plans for the inauguration has made things much easier for DC Water and other utilities in the region, Reeves said. In 2005, they experienced a lot more problems during the inauguration, but the federal government “didn’t try to start preparation until 2 weeks before,” he said. “This time, we started in July.”
Also, Reeves credits the utility’s inauguration success on the continual improvements DC Water has made internally. The utility tries not to repeat past mistakes. “One of the things that really helps us is a lessons learned/reflective actions process, which then leads to an action plan,” he said. The utility has followed this process for the past 4 years.
Reeves uses informal metrics to gauge whether DC Water is getting better at emergency response. He not only examines the manpower cost of response and injury data but also looks at action plan reports after each event.
“For example, after the big snowstorm that hit D.C., we had 12 pages of action reports,” he said. “For Hurricane Sandy, they only had two and a half pages.”
Reeves advises all water and wastewater utilities to get involved with their federal partners. He touted the benefits of good incident-specific and real-time planning.
“One of the issues we have in the U.S. is that we take an all-hazards approach to emergency planning, but I think that’s lazy. You have to have an incident-specific approach,” Reeves said. He gave the example scanario of a bomb going off in downtown D.C., versus a hurricane hitting the area. “You wouldn’t have the same response to both.”
— LaShell Stratton-Childers, WE&T
More WRRFs are procuring community-sourced organic wastestreams to generate higher levels of renewable energy
With rising interest in sustainable energy generation, an increasing number of communities are considering implementing resource recovery projects that make beneficial use of wastestreams. Likewise, water resource recovery facilities (WRRFs) are exploring the feasibility of upgrading their digesters and supplementing the amount of biogas produced. In most cases, this requires an increased volume of organic loading to digesters.
Greg Chung, San Francisco regional office manager of environmental consulting company GHD (Irvine, Calif.), said more cities are becoming interested in managing biosolids and other organic wastes from a holistic standpoint. “Many municipalities collect multiple organic wastestreams and are looking for ways to capture value from this waste and minimize the volume of end product to deal with,” he said.
For instance, the City of Palo Alto, Calif., is studying the feasibility of building a dry anaerobic digestion facility adjacent to the city’s WRRF that would convert biosolids, food scraps, and yard trimmings to methane for generating electricity.
However, since the treatment process for effectively treating the three wastestreams combined is still unproven, the city also is considering using a mix of technologies at the WRRF and at the adjacent site, said Phil Bobel, Palo Alto’s assistant public works director. “The avoidance of landfill disposal and reducing greenhouse gas releases are major drivers, but first we need to determine if it makes sense from both a technology and a cost perspective,” he said.
A successful program
In February 2012, the East Bay Municipal Utility District (EBMUD) WRRF in Oakland, Calif., became the first in North America to be a net producer of energy. Much of the credit is attributed to having an effective program for attracting organic wastes to the facility, said Ed McCormick, manager of wastewater engineering at EBMUD.
“In order to become energy-positive, a WWTP [wastewater treatment plant] cannot just rely on digesting wastewater solids alone,” McCormick said.
Wastes utilized by EBMUD include fats, oils, and greases (FOG); food scraps; and high-strength organic wastestreams from a variety of industrial food processors. “Utilities across the U.S. are beginning to receive high-strength organic wastes from dairies, wineries, and other sources,” McCormick said. “These are highly volatile organic waste materials that are transformed into biogas very quickly after being pumped into the digesters. Additionally, some utilities in the Midwest are taking in acidulated soybean oil waste and other agricultural products.”
On rare occasions, EBMUD’s facility receives dairy waste from a Bay Area producer. “Sometimes they will have a batch that spoils and cannot be consumed, but we can sure use it to generate energy,” McCormick said.
Wastestreams from industrial food manufacturers are great sources because of the limited amount of inert substances, but post-consumer waste scraps from restaurants and food waste from grocers have to be preprocessed and screened, according to McCormick. “We have to keep materials like silverware, chopsticks, oyster shells, and other contaminants from getting into and filling up the digester,” he said. “It is important to minimize the amount of material that will not break down and produce energy.”
Glycerin, a waste byproduct from biodiesel production that can yield considerable energy, represents a good example of how the waste market can fluctuate, depending on supply and demand. “When demand was low, we could actually charge to take it, but now that demand has increased and supply has become more limited, this option has become less promising,” McCormick said. “But since glycerin produces so much energy, it still may make economic sense occasionally for plants to purchase it.”
FOG represents a highly beneficial wastestream both for its energy generation potential and because brown grease can be collected using a separation process for creating biodiesel. “Biodiesel production from brown grease has traditionally been cost-prohibitive, but with a $1 million grant from the California Energy Commission, we are continuing to evaluate techniques for generating it cost-effectively,” McCormick said. “We are hoping that eventually we can run part of our diesel truck fleet on biodiesel.”
Although an increasing number of waste products are being utilized in energy recovery — including more on the forefront that are being tested or explored — the organic waste market also is anticipated to become increasingly competitive as more agencies develop digestion processes and vie for sources.
WWRFs that pursue waste-to-energy initiatives should “proceed cautiously and be realistic about what markets they can capture, because if they overbuild, they could end up with stranded facilities and have a money loser,” McCormick said. “Agencies should not count on receiving waste supplies from outside of their own service area communities.”
Long-term expenses also should be considered. “FOG is going to occasionally clog up pipelines and will undoubtedly increase maintenance costs,” McCormick said. “Food-waste processing technology is also changing very rapidly. Facilities need to stay current and be prepared to allocate the necessary resources for sustaining operations. After subtracting all the costs, does it still make sense for the ratepayers?”
Another important consideration is developing the in-house expertise for evaluating the impact of potential waste types on the treatment process, according to McCormick. “For example, with poultry blood waste, our Ph.D.-level environmental engineers conducted bench- and full-scale testing to confirm that anaerobic digesters could be operated beyond the traditional industry textbook operating limits for nitrogen concentrations,” he said.
Adapting to changing conditions
Communities also have to be prepared to handle changing market conditions. A good example is the Gloversville–Johnston (N.Y.) Joint Wastewater Treatment Facility (GJJWTF) which for years had anaerobically digested industry wastes — primarily from leather manufacturing — to produce biogas for fueling an energy recovery system. But around the turn of this century, the local industry in Gloversville and Johnstown changed dramatically when many of the larger leather manufacturers either closed or relocated. As a result, the GJJWTF anaerobic digesters became underloaded and unable to produce sufficient biogas for the cogeneration system.
In response, GJJWTF sourced and experimented with various organic wastes, testing their digestion performance, said Tyler Masick, GJJWTF wastewater plant engineer. “Eventually the GJJWTF secured and starting accepting cheese whey from a manufacturer of mozzarella and ricotta cheese and also from a producer of feta cheese,” he said. “Yogurt whey from a Greek-style-yogurt manufacturer was also secured.”
However, procuring these wastestreams proved challenging due to competition from farmers who can use whey as a feedstock for animals or as a land application on crop fields, Masick said. “Ultimately, the GJJWTF proved a more attractive option due to a shorter hauling distance and because the facility offered more reliability as compared to farming operations,” he said. “Industries do not want to have to shut down production because they can’t dispose of their waste.”
Digesting these high-strength whey streams has provided sufficient biogas to run the combined heat and power system effectively, resulting in the generation of more than 90% of the facility’s daily electrical demand.
On the horizon
As the waste market evolves, new wastestreams are being added to the list of materials that can be beneficial to an organics management program that produces renewable energy.
“Ethanol refineries generate high-strength organic wastewater that can be a preferred source because of its potential for being less contaminated as compared to other wastestreams, such as FOG,” Chung said. “Wastes from sugar-rich crops, such as sugar beets or cassava, are other potential sources which could be very beneficial.”
In addition to utilizing organics as a feedstock for driving digestion, more-progressive approaches also are being explored, including how a combination of wastestreams could be used to produce a high-energy-yielding crop, such as “algae … or other crops specifically grown for energy extraction,” Chung said.
— Jeff Gunderson, WE&T