EPA begins wastewater discharge
by Emily Adams
Site engineer James Fletcher secures a filter that is part of the treatment system for REEF wastewater. The water is sent through a series of filters of decreasing size and a carbon filter before it is finished with a hydrogen peroxide solution and discharged through a one-mile pipe into Shirtee Creek.
SYLACAUGA – Cleanup of the REEF Environmental superfund site reached a major milestone this week as the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency began wastewater discharges into Shirtee Creek.

Discharge began Thursday after months of testing to develop an efficient treatment system for the estimated 15 to 18 million gallons of wastewater at the abandoned facility. Depending on weather conditions and various test results, EPA aims to discharge 250,000 gallons of treated wastewater into the creek five days a week. Another 500,000 a day will be sprayed onto a grassy field on the property. Federal on-scene coordinator Jason Booth said if all goes well, cleanup should be complete in 10 weeks.

“Our goal is to focus on discharging into the creek over the next few weeks to get the kinks worked out and make that process as efficient as possible, and also continue the land application,” he said.

EPA tested its treatment system for about a week before beginning discharge. A toxicity test showed that living organisms in the creek, specifically minnows and sand fleas, had a 100 percent survival rate over a 96-hour period when the treated wastewater was added at 1, 2, 5 and 7 percent dilution. Ten-percent dilution led to 90 percent organism survival. Those results determined the rate at which EPA could safely discharge.

Long-term toxicity testing will be conducted to see if and how the discharge affects reproductive systems of the organisms, Booth said. EPA will also take periodic water sampling from upstream and downstream the discharge point and continue 24/7 air monitoring in and around the Twin Street facility.

The process of treating the wastewater, which mostly originated from local auto and oil companies, begins by blending polymer and flocculent, two compounds that bind to suspended solids, with smaller amounts of wastewater through a system of hoses and pipes. Once blended, the water is sent to the 7-million gallon aeration basin, where it is kept in a healthy aerobic environment through use of aerators that were already in place on the site.

Hoses carry water from that basin through a system of filters decreasing in size from 25 microns to 10, 5, and finally 1 micron. The water then goes through a carbon filter and is finished with a wash of hydrogen peroxide, which kills odor-causing bacteria. From there, it is connected to an underground pipe that travels about one mile before opening to Shirtee Creek. A portion of the water is redirected to the field.

Wastewater from the aeration basin will be emptied first, followed by the two equalization basins. As the water level lowers in those basins, waste from the various tanks onsite will be poured onto drying beds that feed any liquids draining out of the waste back into an equalization basin for discharge.

Even untreated, Booth said the REEF wastewater itself is not hazardous, but has the potential to become so if it is not kept in an aerobic environment.

“It has a little bit of everything – metals, grease, volatile organic compounds, but not enough of anything to be a threat to the environment,” he said. “The hazardous parts are the ones that involve oxygen, or a lack of, and that’s where the aerators come in to make sure it stays aerobic.”

With cleanup well on its way, Booth said the future of the former treatment facility is still unknown.

“We were hoping to bust in the basins and fill them with dirt once we are done, but because REEF is in bankruptcy, creditors and debtors will have first claim to the equipment out here,” he said. “So, we’re not sure where it’s going to go at this point. I would love to sell some of this stuff to help pay for cleanup, but it doesn’t look like that will happen.”

The remainder of the funds budgeted for cleanup is about $308,000, which will last EPA about three and a half months at its current burn rate of $88,000 a week, Booth said. Another $500,000 contingency fund is available, if necessary.

Booth is offering site tours to any interested citizens. To set up a time, contact EPA community involvement coordinator Kerisa Coleman at coleman.kerisa@epa.gov.

Contact Emily Adams at eadams@dailyhome.com.

© 2013