by Randy Pellis
FULTON, May 7, 2019 — It’s not every day you get to tour a sewage treatment plant. Maybe that’s a good thing. When I told Fulton’s Commissioner of Public Works C. J. Smith I’d never been to one, his response? “You’re a lucky man.”
And so, with that ominous opinion in mind, I pulled up one morning last week to an odd conglomeration of small cinder-block buildings, high strange domes, large revolving equipment way up on a hill, and lots of pools of water, all on the west bank of the Oswego River at the city’s northern border. I really didn’t know where to begin.
So, let me begin with the name of the place. It’s not the “sewage” treatment plant. It’s the “Waste Water Treatment Plant,” or as the sign off Route 48 calls it, the “Water Pollution Control Center,” just the first example of perhaps the greatest use of euphemisms I’ve ever come across in business or government, and whose only rival could possibly be the military. Nothing is called what it simply is. Everything is given a kinder and gentler name. And maybe that’s a good thing too, for what we’re dealing with here is rather…well, you know.
If you’re anything like me, you know basically what a sewage treatment plant does, but you don’t have a clue as to how it does it. That’s where Tony Nastasi comes in.
Tony has worked at the sewage treatment plant for 27 years, is its chief operator and was kind enough to be my tour guide. First up on the tour? The Grit Room, a vaguely- named little two-story building that’s step one in this whole process, and if its name signifies anything, it might be the true grit it takes to walk into this place of raw sewage and everything that comes with it.
“This is kind of stinky here, so I don’t know if you want to go in here, or…,” Tony tried to warn me as I proceeded up the narrow concrete stairs. With each step up, I thought back on C. J. Smith’s explanation of a recent plant upgrade: an air conditioning unit that completely changes the air in one of the plant’s buildings EVERY FIVE MINUTES! That building? The Grit Room.
In 1902, Willis Carrier invented the air conditioner, and all I can say is, bless his heart. That isn’t the room’s only improvement, but is probably the one I appreciated most.
Over the last five years, all the machinery in the room has been upgraded or replaced.
The Grit Room was certainly tolerable. A narrow conveyor belt, hardly a foot wide and about seven feet long, loaded up with whatever’s pumped in from an outside receiving tank, angles downward from the wall to a pool of water where two vertical chain-like conveyors keep the mixture moving. And here I start to learn the basic technical premise behind this plant’s entire process: “solids,” as they’re called, drop to the bottom while cleaner water floats to the top. In a nutshell, this is what happens again and again and again, through finer and finer filtration and separation methods throughout the plant
until the end result is clean, chlorinated water pumped back into the river and truckloads of compressed “solids,” also called “sludge,” carted off to a landfill.
Here, in this sewage treatment world, where everything is something you’ve probably never thought about before, I learned that even “sludge” has quite the value, and in this case, it didn’t work to Fulton’s advantage.
The Bristol Hill landfill used to dispose of their contaminated waste water, known as “leachate,” at Fulton’s sewage treatment plant for which it paid Fulton hundreds of thousands of dollars a year, according to Tony Nastasi. But it seems everything in this world can be traded, even sludge, and so, Oswego offered to take the landfill’s leachate for free if the landfill would take Oswego’s sludge for free. And just like that, there went a valuable Fulton customer.
At this point I realized the sewage treatment plant isn’t just a service, it’s also a business. And it’s a very expensive business to maintain.
Once the Grit Room has done its initial separation, what’s left is pumped to three large pools where gravity and floatation again come into play. Solids drop to the bottom, and lighter waste rises to the top. What floats is swept from the surface of the water by a large moving arm. The surface water is held in place awaiting the arm’s sweep by large metal rings surrounding the entire pool. These are original plant equipment, are over 50 years old, and they leak, allowing some of that floating waste to escape the sweeping arm. That’s not good.
“It’s not bad bad,” said Nastasi,”but the DEC’s not happy with it. They want this repaired, so we’re working on that now.”
That repair, mandated by the DEC (New York’s Department of Environmental Conservation) will cost $3 million. The entire system of pools, sweepers, and rings will be replaced. According to Fulton DPW Commissioner, C. J. Smith, Fulton is looking into obtaining funding for this project through multiple environmental grants.
The waste that leaks through these “primary clarifiers,” as they’re called, is then pumped uphill to an even finer filtration system: the very large rotating sprinkler system known as the “trickling filters.” This is not the same as trickle-down economics, but I’m sure some analogy could be made. In any event, these rotating sprinklers, of which there are three, are each one very large piece of equipment, costing $200,000. Two have been replaced since 2017, and the last one will be replaced this year.
Having trickled on down through these filters, what’s left now flows down to the “secondary clarifier” pools that again rely on gravity and floatation. And now, the water’s getting pretty clear. It’s time to get rid of what you can’t see.
The chlorine room may be the most dangerous little building on the grounds of the plant. It is highly regulated. It has many alarms. It even makes Tony Nastasi nervous, and he’s been here 27 years. But it’s very necessary.
Not only does the room contain tanks of chlorine gas, it contains the newly re-lined ferric-chloride tanks meant to remove harmful phosphorous from the cleaned water that’s going back into the river. Phosphorous encourages the growth of vegetation, something you don’t want to encourage in a river.
Next the water is chlorinated and released to the river, and that does it for the water. Now onto the waste.
It’s been piled up over the course of this process in a large, domed 20-foot-deep pit and then flowed into the most euphemistically and possibly awkwardly-named piece of equipment in the plant, the recently-upgraded “digester.” That little beauty mixes, shreds, and keeps the temperature of the sludge up, thereby killing the bacteria.
On it goes then to the belt press. The object here is to get as much water out of this sludge as possible and then to compress it into what looks like almost sheets of solid, very dark matter. A polymer is added to the sludge to make that sheeting possible.
Those wide, compressed sheets are around half an inch thick. They roll off the press into some sort of transporting bin. The sheets of sludge are emptied into dump trucks and dumped onsite where the city’s DPW takes it all away to a landfill.
And so, a process that takes in about two million gallons of sewage a day, at a plant that used to be run by nine people and is now run by five, and will soon be down to four, is almost over at this point. Just one more very important piece of this process remains: lab testing.
According to Tony Nastasi, “We have certain limits we have to meet and certain testing we have to do. Some tests are every day, some are once a week. There’s a whole bunch of different ones. The ones we don’t do here we send out to a lab in Syracuse.”
Kevin Fowler has worked at the sewage treatment plant for 19 years. He runs the lab there. He runs a lot of tests: influent, effluent, temperature, pH, acetylene, phosphorous, and chlorine. Those are done every day. The results are kept and initialed in a log book.
He also tests the process waste that’s coming into the plant through the sewer lines from a number of Fulton industries: Huhtamaki, Sunoco, and K&N Foods (formerly Birdseye, now Martens Fresh) “to make sure that they’re sending what they say they’re sending.” The DEC keeps tabs on this and ensures the plant is testing that waste once a month.
If the industries are over their allowable limits, Fulton has to adjust the industry’s permit, or the industry has to find the problem and fix it.
“We work right along with them to make sure that they follow the guidelines,” said Fowler. “They’re very helpful, and we’re helpful to them. We’re here to help them.”
And the state Health Department, the DEC, and the EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) are there to make sure of that and everything else the plant does.
The plant is inspected by the DEC every year, by the state Health Department every two years, and by the EPA every five years.
Every six months the state Health Department sends an unknown for Fulton to test. Fulton’s results must match theirs.
So far, everything seems to be going well. And everything seems to be going well with everyone’s attitude about this very tough job, a job a lot of people wouldn’t touch with a ten-foot pole.
“It’s really a rewarding job,” Fowler said. “We come to work, and we know we’re making a real impact on the environment.”
Before I left, Tony Nastasi showed me two beakers of water he’d had Kevin Fowler prepare for me. One was original water as it came into the plant, and the other was treated water after it had gone through the plant’s whole process, ready to go back into the river on its way to the lake.
I have to admit, that treated water was very clear. And though I was rather thirsty, and Tony Nastasi seemed like a very nice guy, he didn’t even offer me a drink.
But when I thought about it later, I realized C. J. Smith had it right from the beginning when he said to me, with somewhat of a laugh in his voice, “You’re a lucky man.” And I guess I am.