10/04/10 — Down by the water plant

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Down by the water plant

By Laura Collins
Published in News on October 4, 2010 1:46 PM

The Job: Plant employee

The Company: City of Goldsboro Water Reclamation Facility

The Location: Goldsboro

All week long as I was planning to go to Goldsboro's Water Reclamation Facility, or Wastewater Treatment Plant as many people know it, people would snicker whenever I told them where I was headed.

That kind of response always makes me a little nervous, but the facility was like nothing I'd expected.

I first began to realize the job was going to be a little over my head when I met with Karen Brashear, public utilities director, and she gave me a flow chart with periodic table elements and compounds to describe the transformation that goes on at the facility. NH3-->NO3-->N2

"Basically we convert something that is very harmful and toxic into nitrogen gas," she said.

Then she said something else that gave me some concern:

"We don't use any chemicals here," she said.

I thought she was joking, but then she explained what they do instead, and it turns out that perhaps the hardest working employees at the facility aren't even on the payroll. They grow microorganisms and create conditions that prompt them to remove organic material that would otherwise be harmful to the Neuse River.

Plant Superintendent Bert Sherman gave me a tour of the facility so I could see how it worked, and I was surprised at how hands-off most of it was with computers running everything. The process begins on-site at the influent structure which removes any grit or sand from the sewer water. The water is then divided into four basins that each hold about 3.7 million gallons.

"When we start I want you to visualize what's coming in there and what it smells like," he said.

"Not a problem," I said. I was already one step ahead of him.

From there, the microorganisms get to work, eating any organic material. The facility manipulates the conditions of the water, adding more oxygen in some areas, or removing much of the oxygen in others to direct, in a sense, the microorganisms and control how much work they are doing.

When that process is complete the water goes through a sand filter and the treatment process is complete. The water is then disinfected by going through ultra-violet lights which destroys any remaining bacteria.

Through a man-made waterfall, oxygen is added to the water and it is sent out to the river. Throughout the process and touring the grounds, Sherman asked me several times if I smelled anything, and aside from that first stop when the water is coming in from the sewer, the plant is odorless, which is not at all what I anticipated.

"When you don't smell anything, that means we have a good running plant," he said.

I ended my day in the lab. All along the entire treatment process the water is tested, including when it comes in and before it leaves the facility. Kathy Hill, lab supervisor, showed me how to run some of the tests.

"What are we testing?" I asked.

"An influent sample," she said. I didn't ask for any more details, but I had a pretty good idea what that meant.

Using a probe and a machine that reads the Ph levels, I tested the water, with Ms. Hill's help. It was pretty neat being in the lab and seeing the other tests that were going on at the same time. I felt like a real scientist.

I talked to Ms. Brashear afterward about how much science is actually involved in the whole process.

"We're working with natural systems here. All we're doing is speeding up mother nature. You're learning the science and beauty behind it. We think it's very cool," she said. "Everyone who's been here finds it very interesting and says, 'We didn't know we had this in Goldsboro.'"

I couldn't have said it better myself.