What a waste!

Sewage treatment plant operator pushes for reuse of treated effluent

Associate editor — Features

Wednesday, January 16, 2019

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Fifty -five million litres of water — enough to fill your bathtub 133,000 times — is pumped into the Rio Cobre from a single source every single day.

It's quite a waste as far as Avrham Rubinchik is concerned, because if you ask him, it's water that could be used to irrigate crops instead.

Rubinchik is general manager of Wastewater Operation and Management Company Limited, the operator of Soapberry Sewage Treatment Plant, which serves some 250,000 people across the Kingston Metropolitan Area. The system, which currently operates at 83 per cent of its 75,000 cubic meters daily capacity, treats sewage to a tertiary stage — the Government's standards for discharge into the environment.

“Every day I discharge 55,000 cubic metres of good quality water in the Rio Cobre. It's a waste,” he told the Jamaica Observer in a recent interview.

Rubinchik is baffled that there doesn't seem to be more interest in and push from Government to have the water re-used like it is in his native Israel, where he says 87 per cent of wastewater is reclaimed.

According to a 2015 article published in The Tower, Israel's Minister of Strategic Affairs and Public Diplomacy Gilad Erdan is reported to have said that, “Today, nearly 90 per cent of our waste water is recycled […] That's around four times higher than any other country in the world. It is a remarkable achievement, and this benefits not only Israel; Israeli companies are helping save water around the world, from Africa to California to India.”

Also according to that story, an estimated 25 per cent of Israel's total water supply is provided by water reclamation. The country, which also uses desalination, now has a national water surplus and exports water to adjacent nations.

The Jamaican Government — through the National Environment and Planning Agency (NEPA) which creates standards for and monitors water quality in the island — noted that its standards currently allow for the re-use of tertiary treated water but not for agricultural use, and pointed out that the agency has several active licences under the Wastewater and Sludge Regulation permitting the operators of private sewage treatment plants to use the treated water for lawns and golf courses.

As the agency's senior manager for environmental management, Richard Nelson, explains it, there is an inherent public health risk to using wastewater to irrigate crops as any potentially dangerous disease-causing bacteria, if present, can be transferred to produce whether directly or indirectly. The most common of these pathogens is E coli, a type of fecal coliform commonly found in the intestines of animals and humans. The presence of fecal coliforms in water suggests sewage or animal waste contamination.

“We know that thousands of gallons are being discharged into the Rio Cobre, and eventually into Hunt's Bay. Yes, it could be better used for irrigation rather than relying on our aquifers, but our regulations do not currently support that,” he said.

Nelson disclosed, however, that the Government is considering the move.

The Observer could not ascertain if that proposed move was related to the November visit of Minister of Industry, Commerce, Agriculture and Fisheries Audley Shaw to Israel where he met with his counterpart, Uri Yehuda Ariel HaCohen. A press release issued upon his return to the island made references to “Israel's interest in deepening the sharing of its vast agricultural technological knowledge with Jamaica”, but there was no specific reference to wastewater or its use.

Shaw said the mission “serve(d) as a source of inspiration to Jamaica”.

“Israel has achieved a per capita income of US$40,000 with far less natural resources than Jamaica has. This is a wake-up call for us to get our act together to move swiftly from poverty to prosperity. If we apply the proper technologies and training , we can achieve the needed food security and economic prosperity to sustain us going forward,” he said in the release.

The Soapberry sewage treatment facility is located some three miles along a dirt road through thick vegetation off Mandela Highway. It is owned by Central Wastewater Treatment Company Limited and was commissioned in February 2008.

“The main purpose of the project,” says Rubinchik, “was to stop the discharge of raw sewage into the Kingston Harbour. Sewage is now collected and transported to Soapberry for treatment. After treatment the high-quality effluent is safely discharged to Rio Cobre.”

The sewage is treated in the following stages:

- Screening at the pumps / transmission stations in Nanse Pen, Greenwich, Portmore, Caymanas;

- Secondary /biological treatment in a re-circulated oxidation lagoon system;

- Tertiary treatment using dissolved air flotation and sand filter; and finally,

- Discharge to the Rio Cobre

Admittedly, Rubinchik said while the Soapberry discharge meets and/or exceeds NEPA's standards in four water quality criteria, it falls down in one area.

The Soapberry product, he said, has about five milligrammes/litre (mg/l) of biochemical oxygen demand; 20 mg/l of chemical oxygen demand; 12 mg/l of total suspended solids, and 0.2-0.4 mg/l of phosphates. When it comes to fecal coliform, however, the facility records roughly 300, when the standard is 200.

Rubinchik concedes that the fecal coliform figure is high, and would disqualify the Soapberry discharge as a helathy crop irrigation alternative, but he says the treatment plant's principals are already planning to remedy the situation by including a disinfection unit complete with either a chlorinator and or ultra violeyt lights in its next phase of expansion.

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