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Wastewater districts eye becoming more disaster-proof

The storm surge that inundated the Mississippi Gulf Coast during Hurricane Katrina caused an estimated $35 million to $36 million in damages to wastewater treatment systems in Jackson and Harrison counties, and that doesn’t include damage to lift stations and sewer lines that are used to deliver wastewater to the treatment plants.

Most of the Coast’s wastewater systems suffered extensive mechanical and electrical damage, especially those closer to the Gulf and/or on the west side of the Coast, said Phil Bass, director of the Mississippi Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ) Office of Pollution Control.

By two months after the storm, all but two of the Coast’s municipal wastewater treatment facilities are operating at secondary (advanced) treatment levels.

“The Long Beach-Pass Christian facility should be at secondary treatment soon,” Bass said. “The Keegan Bayou facility in Biloxi is still at primary treatment levels.”

Federal, state and local officials are working together to address immediate needs and develop long-term plans to make the wastewater systems more disaster proof in the future.

Recently the Governor’s Commission on Recovery, Rebuilding and Renewal recommended that Coast cities and counties consider putting some of the wastewater and water infrastructure that flooded on higher ground. Bass said while there are elevation considerations, the MDEQ’s primary issue regarding wastewater is the discharge point.

“We are talking to local officials about a number of options and ways of better preparing for another disaster,” Bass said. “These may include elevation considerations. But elevation is not the primary issue for DEQ, but rather the discharge point.”

Currently the major discharge points in Gulfport and Biloxi are into shallow bays. Consideration is being given to moving the discharge point farther north so the treated wastewater would have less impact on the sensitive estuary areas that serve as nursery grounds for fin fish and shellfish.

Kamran Pahlavan, executive director of the Harrison County Wastewater and Solid Waste Management District and an environmental engineer, said discussion of alternative discharge points is very popular.

“We need to look at land application or water reuse,” Pahlavan said. “We could possibly reuse the water. A couple of quick examples include if we could get the wastewater clean enough, we could pump it to the Mississippi Power Co. cooling tower, or the water could be used to irrigate a golf course.”

Another option is using land application for secondary treatment of the wastewater. Pahlavan said land applications in the long run might be cheaper because they don’t have to deal with as many mechanical and electrical parts. But land application requires a bigger footprint than a regular wastewater plant. Pahlavan said land application systems are initially higher in cost than mechanical systems because of the high cost of land. “But in the long run, it is good for everybody,” he said.

Biosolids, the primarily organic materials produced during wastewater treatment, can also be put to beneficial use supplying nutrients and replenishing soils. Biosolids can be used on agricultural land, forests or disturbed land in need of reclamation.

Right after Katrina, the Mississippi Gulf Coast Regional Wastewater Authority learned that it had won a second place award in the U.S. for biosolids disposal. The Environmental Protection Agency award was for the district’s West Jackson County facility on Seaman Road where biosolids (also known as sludge) are used to fertilize hay and, under the jurisdiction of the Sandhill Crane National Wildlife Refuge next door, grow some food crops for the endangered species. The West Jackson County facility also includes a low-cost artificial marshland wastewater treatment facility where marsh plants are used to purify the wastewater.

The Harrison County district has six wastewater treatment facilities, the East and West (Keegan Bayou) facilities in Gulfport, a plant in D’Iberville, two in Gulfport and one wastewater plant in Pass Christian and Long Beach. There is also a sewage lagoon treatment system in the Eagle Point area of Biloxi.

Pahlavan said the West Biloxi plant had a lot of wind damage, but the process itself had no substantial damage. The plant didn’t go underwater. The East Biloxi plant went underwater, destroying all of their control panels and wiring that goes with the plant. The D’Iberville, Pass Christian-Long Beach facilities and South Gulfport facilities also went under water, but are back now meeting permit limits.

The biggest challenge right after the storm was replacing mechanical parts destroyed by the saltwater. “Our number one goal was to remove the sewage from the streets by being able to pump and remove the wastewater,” Pahlavan said. “The second challenge was not sending raw sewage into local bodies of water. The challenge was to come up with innovative ways to disinfect the sewage without any treatment because initially we couldn’t treat sewage because we didn’t have power. We got some generators to work around it.

“The engineering challenge coming later on is how we can prevent or minimize similar kinds of damage of a similar type of storm in the future, to make our loss or downtime as little as possible. We came up with a water and wastewater taskforce, which is made up of myself and all our member agencies, brainstorming how we can basically minimize downtime and what we can do to help one another. One thing might be standardizing equipment. For example, perhaps we can have the same pumps all over in case we need parts.”

Member agencies include the cities served and Harrison County.

Another consideration is how to prevent the recurrence of the problem with Katrina where sewer manhole tops came off, and storm debris such as sand was sucked into the sewer system. In the future manholes may be attached so they don’t come off easily.

Estimates of the damage to the wastewater treatment system in Harrison County are approximately $15 million to $16 million, but Pahlavan said that number could go much higher. FEMA is paying 100% of the costs of repairing the wastewater systems, and is expected to pick up 75% of the cost of repairing the wastewater collection systems.

Curt E. Miller, general manager, Mississippi Gulf Coast Regional Wastewater Authority, said the work done by the authority’s maintenance and operation employees after the storm was outstanding. “My maintenance and operation guys did a job that is unbelievable,” Miller said. “They started out working 20-hour days, and now they are down to approximately 14-hour days.

Within nine days after the hurricane they had all the pump stations operational with band aids, bailing wire and duct tape. In nine days we were accepting all the wastewater the cities could deliver, and in two weeks we had processes together so we could meet treatment limits.”

Miller said other experts have told him either they couldn’t have gotten the system back operating that quickly, or they didn’t really have that much damage. But he said the truth is that heroic efforts were made to get the critical infrastructure back on line.

“We were very fortunate in that we had a former engineer on staff, Bill Rackley, who had moved away,” Miller said. “We were able to retain him to come back to do repairs, which we expect to take 12 months to complete. FEMA assigned a very sharp guy from Tucson, Ariz., Stu Staling, who is an engineer and manager of a wastewater treatment organization out there. Between him and Bill Rackley, and my operations manager, Kevin Elliott, and our maintenance manager, Wayne Dennis, they were able to assess damage and we are way ahead of the curve.”

The worst damage was sustained at the Pascagoula/Moss Point facility, which had eight feet of water in it that destroyed all of the electrical equipment. Damages are estimated at $8.5 million. The Escatawpa plant had seven feet of water, and damages are estimated at $2 million. The Gautier plant had minor damage, and West Jackson County Plant which serves Ocean Springs, St. Martin and western Jackson County had $2 million worth of damage.

The marshland treatment system that includes a series of lagoons suffered from wave damage that almost broke dikes.

“It never lost treatment function ability, and we were able to do 100% treatment there,” Miller said. “But it sustained some damage that has to be fixed to preserve the integrity of the dikes.”

Contact MBJ contributing writer Becky Gillette at bgillette@bellsouth.net.


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