Where the Water Goes

Where the Water Goes

Arlington's Waste Water Treatment Plant gets an upgrade; sewage rate increase explained.

Sewer rates rose in Arlington by 38 cents in April with the adoption of the county budget. Yet, a look at the needs of the county's waste water treatment plant — on Glebe Road, near Four Mile Run — shows the money will not only bring it up to code with the state, it will safeguard the local environment.

"Where we're heading, not just in Arlington but around the nation, is to improve the quality of our water for the future," said Thomas Faha, water permit manager for the Department of Environmental Quality. "It's a challenge and it's expensive, but we're striving to make it better and better."

Arlington's waste water treatment facility, like many around the United States, is undergoing a significant upgrade to meet a higher standard of pollution control. Construction and demolition crews are working there now as part of a $350 million renovation that must be completed by 2011, according to facility spokesman Phil Loar, in order to meet state requirements. The project, Loar said, will meet the deadline so long as it hits no delays. Part of the costs are going toward the building of three 4.9 million-gallon equalization tanks. Construction of the first one is underway. Its purpose, Loar said, is to prevent what is known as a "bypass" from occurring when the facility is hit with more water than it can handle. This happens most often during heavy rains. Too much water means that some of it has to be pushed through the first stage of treatment — removal of solid wastes — and diverted straight to the last stage, a final disinfection with chlorine. The result is that a lot of phosphorus and nitrogen, chemicals tied to the pollution of the Chesapeake Bay, remains in the water that is pumped into the Potomac. The last bypass, according to the facility's staff, was done in February of 2004. The new tanks will allow the plant's operators to have a cushion, a place to siphon off the excess water so it can still be treated. The plant's capacity, he added, is also effected by the county's population.

"Arlington's population only grows by about 3,000 people each year on average," Loar said. "That's really not that much, but during the daytime the rise in population is 250,000, and that does impact our capacity."

Other improvements are also underway. Most are to replace parts of the plant's aging infrastructure and add capacity, and others will fix portions of the plant Loar described as "band-aided" and in need of maintenance.

The plant operates 24 hours a day, seven days a week, with four shifts of workers managing it for 12 hours at a time. Its capacity is taxed the most around 9 a.m., when most of Arlington has just finished their morning shower before rushing to work. In total, Loar said, the plant handles about 30 million gallons of water each day, putting it through a complicated system of turbines, settling tanks and filters to remove solid waste. Much of the solid material, about 80,000 pounds of it, is converted into fertilizer and trucked away. It was once incinerated, but Loar said sharing the byproduct with farmers saves the county money that would otherwise be spent on burning it or disposing of it.

WHEN TEARING DOWN the older sections of the plant — some of which are remains from the original structure built in 1933 — keeping costs low is essential. Along with the renovations, Loar said, the county is now looking at measures to address endocrine disrupters, a growing threat to the Potomac and the Chesapeake Bay watershed. Cleansing the water of them, said Faha, will be an expensive proposition for treatment plants around the United States.

According to documents from the Environmental Protection Agency's new research initiative, endocrine disrupters include a broad class of chemicals encompassing everything from pesticides to dioxins — estrogen derivatives in products like birth control, steroids and the basic components of items like shampoo, antibiotics, even aspirin.

"When someone uses an antibiotic, those chemicals are still active when they are flushed or run down a drain," said Loar.

Faha said treating the chemicals is a major challenge.

"Because it's a whole class of them, each one could require a specific treatment," he said.

Evidence suggests that in humans the chemicals could be linked to reduced sperm count and cancer. But in local watersheds, scientists believe them to cause mutations in fish. Faha said some bass in the Chesapeake have been found with both male and female sex organs, for example. Loar said several options are being explored to reduce the levels of endocrine disrupters, but there is no official method. The county, however, will have to follow state guidelines in the future. One idea is to use a beam of electron radiation similar to those seen in post-9/11 mailrooms to neutralize biological weapons.

TO ARLINGTONIANS surprised by the increase in sewer rates, Loar said there is more to it than the construction. The juggling of county finances during the fiscal year 2006 budget process, he said, is the real explanation. Improvements to the plant, once funded out of Arlington's general fund, are now being paid for through money generated by the water and sewer rate. In a sense, Loar said, what Arlingtonians once funded with property taxes — which also rose this year — is now accounted for with the sewer rate increase.