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How is Wastewater Treated to Protect Our Waterways? Learn from Jersey WaterCheck Metrics

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Kimberley Irby, Policy Analyst, New Jersey Future

Jersey WaterCheck, which launched in March 2021, is a Jersey Water Works project that features more than 50 metrics related to our drinking water and wastewater systems. Recently, we created a short video to explain the context and nuances of the metric “et NJ effluent discharge quality requirements.” Wastewater utilities must ensure that the water discharged from the treatment plant (i.e., effluent) is free of pollutants to preserve the health of our waterways. Watch the video to learn more about how this metric reports on this important process.

To supplement the video, we talked to Jersey WaterCheck Data Advisory Committee member Kevin Whitney, who is a wastewater regulatory compliance specialist at Atlantic County Utilities Authority (ACUA), about the wastewater treatment process and what it’s like to work at a wastewater treatment plant. Here’s what he had to say:

JWW: What are the sequential steps once wastewater enters your treatment plant and before it is released as effluent?

KW: 1) Headworks: This is where debris in wastewater, such as cloth, paper, and plastic, is screened and removed.

2) Primary clarifiers: Next, the wastewater enters large, circular tanks and stays there until heavier solids settle to the bottom as sludge and lighter materials float to the surface as scum.

3) Aeration basins: “Mixer” technology (i.e., large motorized mixing paddles) is used to agitate the water. This assists microorganisms that require oxygen to break down pollutants.

4) Secondary clarifiers: The microorganisms (i.e., activated sludge) are removed so that just clean water is left. The secondary clarifier operates in the same manner as the primary clarifier.

5) Chlorination: Chlorine is added to the water to disinfect it, removing harmful pathogens.

6) Discharge: The effluent leaves the treatment plant and enters a waterway, such as the ocean.

JWW: What does a typical day look like at a wastewater treatment plant?

KW: There is never a dull moment when you are dealing with the multitude of equipment, both at the plant and in the collections system throughout Atlantic County, the miles of underground piping infrastructure, and the unrelenting flow of about 30 million gallons per day coming to the plant. There is no ‘off’ switch or ‘hold’ on the flow—it is constantly entering our system, entering our plant, and needing to be properly treated and discharged in a timely manner to avoid any backup at the plant.

JWW: What do you want community members to understand when it comes to wastewater treatment and the work you do everyday?

KW: The average person takes for granted how simple it is to access a bathroom, use a dishwasher, or wash a load of laundry. People typically don’t pay any attention to their reliance on our infrastructure unless there is a hiccup in service but there is a large and essential operation that sustains these activities and allows us to live in the modern society to which we have grown accustomed. Wastewater treatment keeps our waterways free of harmful pollutants that cause disease. Wastewater infrastructure allows buildings, businesses, and homes to be built with the tools and pipes needed to integrate into this important public health system. Wastewater operators are the people who work around the clock, 365 days a year to ensure this service is up and running. Because the service is so important, it is essential that it is continually funded, reinvested in, and maintained to provide the level of service our lives depend on.

JWW: What happens when a test result does not meet regulatory requirements?

KW: If a sample doesn’t meet the requirement, the sample must be re-run with stored samples from the same time period. If it still does not meet permit requirements, it is included as part of the monthly reporting that the utility submits to the NJDEP, and the State investigates the issue. If found at fault, the treatment plant could face fines and must take immediate steps to rectify the issue.

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