Opinion

Wastewater Mistreatment

For the past ten years, Hamilton has turned a blind eye to the operations at Woodward Avenue. Since the City has now regained full control of these systems, I am frightened at the prospect of what they will find.

By Roger Lambert
Published January 14, 2005

In 1974, the Regional Municipality of Hamilton-Wentworth hired me as a general operator at the Woodward Avenue wastewater treatment plant (WWT). The Municipality operated three WWT systems, the Woodward Avenue plant, the Waterdown Plant and the Dundas plant. After obtaining the highest level license in WWT from the Ontario, Ministry Of the Environment, I had the good fortune of gaining operating experience in all three systems.

During this time, I experimented with my own ideas of trying to improve the efficiency of the systems at hand. I became very skilled in certain areas that I considered most important for these systems and the results were carefully recorded. My "hands-on" experience, coupled with the knowledge gained, would prove to be a very valuable asset in my retirement. I remain active in the business and now consult owners and engineers.

In the early days, engineers did not appreciate getting advice from non-engineers, and many systems throughout Ontario encountered problems in this area. Many engineers now seek those who have actual hands-on experience with certain types of equipment. It is in their best interest to do so in order that the owner/operator gets the proper equipment for their particular application.

But in many cases, efficiency benefits the purchaser more than it does the manufacturer. In my twenty-five years on the job in Hamilton in WWT, I have witnessed many installations of new equipment with much dissatisfaction associated. The operators were left trying to operate the equipment, the owner - the Municipality - tried to sort out the details of warranty, and the manufacturer cashed in the cheque. It continues to this day and I put the blame squarely on the lack of experience of all the players.

Wastewater treatment is a non-steady state system because of the biological nature of the actual treatment process. The biological phase is only one part of many for these systems. Complex and undergoing continual change, a process upset is always waiting in the wings. It takes skill and experience to try and prevent any potential upset and a great deal of extra skill in fixing it.

The Woodward Avenue plant has not demonstrated these skills, at least in my opinion, since 1995. A certain volume of solids contained within the raw sewage must be removed on a regular basis as well as the volume of biological growth that takes place in the biological treatment section. Failure to monitor these volumes on a regular basis and eliminate them through standard procedures can lead to an upset system.

In 1996, the Woodward Avenue system became filled with excess solids that are probably plaguing the system to this day. I firmly believe that the remnants from this time are periodically surfacing in the Windemerre Basin. In my opinion, it was a simple case of not eliminating the solids that were generated on a daily basis and the city's bureaucrats tended to look in another direction.

Blame was put onto "old" and "outdated" equipment. There was no doubt that the equipment was old, but it certainly wasn't outdated. All that was required was an experienced hand.

Since the system creates solids, it then poses a problem for the owner because removing the daily "solids production" is time consuming and very expensive. There is another method of dealing with the daily solids production and that is to ignore it. The system is biological in nature and if you don't remove the daily solids production, the system will find a way of doing it for you. The plant fills up and the solids exit the system via the final effluent. When this happens, the system can be in violation of the certificate of approval (C of A).

The operator of the system at Woodward Ave. decided that more primary clarifiers were required to upgrade the plant. American Water bought more primary clarifiers that I predicted would only serve as more holding space for the excess solids if they were operated in the same manner. Whether or not the added primary clarification was required, a more detailed, precise and dedicated operation could have resulted in less solids laying around.

I have always been an advocate of public ownership and accountability for the water and wastewater treatment systems. In private hands, profit tends to be the ultimate driving force rather than the protection of our environment.

After the transfer of the operations to a private contractor/operator in 1995, the contractor pocketed the wages of many employees. When you eliminate employees, profits can be realized from this point for the first year, but from where do the profits come the following year?

Since the City has now regained full control of these systems as of January 1, 2005, I am frightened at the prospect of what the City will find. For the past ten years, the City has turned a blind eye to the operations at Woodward Avenue and has provided favourable reports as outlined in the original contract from 1995.

Let us not forget that the very first report from the Region on the private operator after their first year was not very favourable. The authors of that report did not present a second report the following year. The newly selected authors for the Region found the private operator a glowing success, saving the taxpayers a great deal of money.

Who, from the City, has monitored/inspected the new equipment? Who has verified that the new equipment is operating efficiently? Who, at City Hall possesses the qualifications?

I get this very uncomfortable feeling that in 2005-2006, we, the taxpayers, will learn the untold story.

Roger Lambert was born in Hamilton in 1947 and lived most of his childhood years in the north end. Six years after high school, he was hired nto the Woodward Ave. wastewater treatment plant. He completed a certificate program for environmental studies at Mohawk College and passed the fourth class operator's exam from the Ministry of the Environment and Energy. He is presently retired, but still active in the environmental field, particularly, wastewater treatment.

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