By Sue Botos
Despite a year that has seen its share of heavy storms, the Rocky River Wastewater Treatment Plant has kept with the flow. Because of ongoing improvements and constant monitoring, the facility, which has existed in the same location since the early 1900s, is able to turn wastewater from Rocky River, Fairview Park, Bay Village and Westlake back to acceptably clean water, which is deposited into Lake Erie.
“There has been a treatment plant of some type here since 1905,” said Superintendent Jeff Harrington during a recent tour. He said that the low level of the land and proximity to the lake made the location a natural choice for the gravity fed facility. Those early plants, which Harrington said basically dumped sewage into the lake, were a far cry from the technological efficiency of today.
Harrington explained that the treatment process begins with a preliminary step, using mechanically cleaned bar screens and aerated grit chambers. Solids are separated out and become sludge, which is formed into “sludge cakes” and used as fertilizer for animal feed crops. Although there is a $15-per-ton charge to remove this material, Harrington said the cost for landfill deposit is $37 a ton. “Because of new (EPA) regulations we can’t use it for winter application, so from December to March it has to go to a landfill,” he explained, citing concern over runoff. He added that any methane gas produced is used to run the plant’s boilers.
After primary and secondary filtering, the water is released into the lake. Harrington explained that the plant can handle full treatment of up to 45 million gallons a day and primary treatment of 128 million gallons.
“This was a weird year. We’ve had a headworks bypass four times this year,” Harrington said, referring to situations in which water that has not been completely treated does find its way into the lake. The discharge, which has had large debris removed, is then submerged 1,500 feet offshore, far from any drinking water intakes. A lab on the facility grounds runs various EPA-mandated tests for water purity. Harrington dipped a glass into a container holding water that was ready for discharge and checked its clarity. It was only slightly cloudy, but he advised, “You wouldn’t want to drink this.”
A million-dollar expansion in 2000 of the 19-acre plant has greatly reduced the need for these bypasses.
“We used to have 40 to 50 a year before the plant expanded. Now we average 1.8 a year,” he said.
A new digital systems control allows monitoring of the entire plant, including levels of chemicals used in processing wastewater and the operation of gates regulating intake in the headworks building, where sewer lines converge. The process has become less labor-intensive. “We used to have to go in there and close those gates ourselves,” said Harrington, who began at the plant in 1985 in the maintenance department. The system even allows him and assistant superintendent Keith Bovard to check the plant at home. A weather monitoring system in the plant’s main control room allows the operators, who work two-man shifts around the clock, to see any storms approaching and ready the plant for excess rainfall.
Sometimes Harrington finds himself called in at night, as he was during a February rainstorm at 3 a.m. He said an average day for him starts at about 8:30 a.m. and lasts until 6:30 p.m.
The Rocky River plant is unique, according to Harrington, because it is owned by the four cities it serves.
“This is an unusual arrangement. The cities took over from the county in 1982,” he recalled. Each city’s share of payment is based on its calculated usage. In 2010, Westlake led in usage with 40.35 percent. Rocky River was next at 25.43 percent, followed by Fairview Park (17.9 percent) and Bay Village (16.35 percent). A committee of mayors or their designees from each city approves each year’s budget before it heads to Rocky River City Council, which votes on the budget, although it is not a part of its operating fund. Every four years, a sewer flow and strength study is conducted to update these numbers.
Harrington said about $2 million of the plant’s operating fund is earmarked for capital improvements, which this year have included $270,000 in asphalt work and $649,704 for upgrades to the “settled sewage pump station” which Harrington calls “the heart and soul of the plant.” He said the work will include a back-up plan for the 30-year-old station, in case of failure, allowing compliance with Ohio EPA standards, which state that primary treated water must be reconnected to the secondary process.
Working closely with the EPA is a major part of the job for Harrington, especially during the city’s current Sewer System Evaluation Study.
He said each overflow during a storm event must be monitored and reported to the EPA. Due to new technology, he said, this can be accomplished in minutes as opposed to hours.
Due to the nature of the business conducted at the plant and its proximity to residents, odor could be an issue. But Harrington said his staff strives to be good neighbors, and that much is done to control any offensive smells. “Because it’s here, people expect a smell. There’s always that perception,” he said.