FLUSH with technology
Until 2001, all the city of Troutdale's wastewater was processed and treated at a facility located immediately north of the downtown business district, near the present-day Columbia Gorge Outlets.
As the city evolved and grew, the location proved increasingly problematic — and for reasons not limited to a pervasive, powerful stench where many worked and shopped.
"The previous (plant) was built in the 1970s," said Shawn Anderson, superintendent of the current Water Pollution Control Facility on Northwest Graham Road. "There was always that problem. It was right in town. The plant was so overloaded. They had to do something. The city was getting in trouble."
Since the current, state-of-the-art facility was completed by the Sandy River a mile or so to the north near the Troutdale Airport, the city has flushed away those problems, allowing downtown residents and visitors to breathe much easier.
"What we want here is clean and boring," Anderson quipped.
While the plant — a 20-acre industrial farm peppered with tanks, pipes, pumps, electronic circuitry and other inscrutable apparati — appears as clean as one could expect from such a facility, the complex infrastructure and surprisingly technological processes are far from boring.
And in-progress renovations based on a $2.2 million investment with energy efficiency company Ameresco Inc. are making the facility even less so.
In addition to replacing the facility's heating, ventilation and air conditioning systems, upgrades include replacing the plant's blowers, which give micro-organisms oxygen to help eat bugs to clean wastewater, and adding ultra-fine bubble diffusers, both replacements meant to speed up the treatment process by providing the organisms more oxygen.
The plant's ultra-violet light system, which disinfects wastewater in the final stage of the treatment process, also will be replaced. The new system will help the costly UV bulbs, which break frequently, last longer.
"The new blowers are going to save the most money," said Erika Aspenson, the facility's chief operator. "And the UV (system) also will pay off."
Rather than using potable city water for various plant processes, the facility will harness its own filtered (wastewater) effluent, all of which previously was pumped into the Sandy River.
"We use 69,000 gallons of potable water a day," Aspenson explained. "Now we will use effluent, which will reduce our outflow a little bit. Instead of going to the river, it will circulate through the plant to (lubricate) seals and water the lawn. It's supposed to reduce at least 60,000 gallons (of potable water) a day."
Upgrades like UV-filtering water for plant use are increasingly common in this unique world.
"A lot of wastewater plants have it," Anderson said. "I wouldn't say we're ahead of the curve, but we're joining it."
Built on the fertile expanse of land immediately west of the Sandy River Delta, the wastewater plant processes everything that goes down a drain connected to Troutdale's public sewer system.
"You'll see toys, and anything anybody can shove down a drain," Anderson said. "So you never know what you're going to get in there."
The first step is sorting out those abnormalities. A sorting machine rejects any item larger than a quarter of an inch, along with any inorganic material. The unsuitable materials are washed, compacted, placed in a Dumpster and hauled to a landfill.
"It's mostly paper, sand and anything that's big," Anderson said. "We get it out of the system."
This first stage is when the plant is at its most pungent.
"Honestly, you get used to it," Anderson said of the mostly barn-like stench. "That's what everybody says. Then once you're here long enough, you don't even think about it."
Following that screening, remaining material flows through a multi-step process in which solid waste is separated from water and the waste is converted — in a chemical-free process with microorganisms — into biosolids used as fertilizer on non food-bearing agricultural fields.
"Most of ours is going onto hayfields. The farmers actually love it," Anderson said. "It saves them a bunch of money on fertilizer costs, and it works really well."
The remaining water is disinfected by ultraviolet light before it's pumped into the Sandy River, a process that long ago replaced the use of chlorine as a disinfectant.
Laboratory tests are performed each week to verify the quality of effluent going into the Sandy.
Despite the technology — a combination of decades-old and 21st century digital techniques — not even the most cutting-edge facility can successfully process all that goes down the drain.
"A lot of stuff we process is not treatable — not efficiently," Aspenson said, including flame-retardant chemicals and micro-plastics used in clothing and other materials. "Or pharmaceutical drugs. We can't treat everything. Not without costing a lot (more) money."
Now several months into the upgrade project, the grounds of the Troutdale plant are cluttered with rented pumps, tanks and a UV unit through which wastewater bypasses infrastructure currently being worked on or replaced.
Anderson, a Boring resident who started at the plant as a laborer 23 years ago, lauds the long-deferred project, which will help the city reduce maintenance costs while saving energy and increasing efficiencies.
"The equipment has been nickel-and-diming us," he said of the 20-year-old unit. "This is really the first significant upgrade of any kind since we've been online. (Upgrades) always fell to the wayside."
He credits City Manager Ray Young and Public Works Director Fred Ostler, among other city officials, with moving the plant into the future.
"They're all on board," Anderson said.
With any luck, the upgrade project will be completed by late January 2020 — with benefits to be felt in various areas.
"Everything's going greener," Aspenson said of the environmental benefits. "And we expect as much savings as we can get for the city — and it will save residents money as well."
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