Some nifty engineering work may have saved the city $10 million in upgrades to its sewer plant, according to Racine wastewater officials.
The state determined in 2008 that Racine's sewer plant was non-compliant in the treatment of ammonia. Ammonia levels are monitored and regulated by the state because high levels of ammonia can harm the environment and harm people (the Australian government ranked ammonia 45th out of 90 harmful pollutants).
In 2008, the state required the Racine utility to reduce its ammonia levels or risk further sanctions that could force the utility to install expensive equipment. Rick Pace, superintendent of the Racine Wastewater Utility, reported Tuesday that his staff had found a way to reduce ammonia levels by making relatively minor adjustments - what Pace called " process control" - to the sewer plant.
As a result, the city likely will avoid needing to spend between $500,000 and $10 million on new equipment, Pace said.
Tom Bunker, former head of the Racine water and wastewater utility, thanked Pace and his staff for their efforts. Pointing to a single sheet of paper reporting the declining ammonia levels, Bunker said their efforts saved the city millions of dollars.
"I applaud them," he said.
Lake Michigan dumping
The city of Racine has spent millions of dollars improving its sewer system in recent years to reduce, even eliminate, the need to bypass effluent into Lake Michigan. While mostly successful, the system couldn't handle the massive rain that hit the city - particularly the southside - around June 19.
Six inches of rain fell on the city in a short period of time, overwhelming the sewer system and forcing bypasses into the lake. (In other words, so much rain fell the utility's holding tanks ran out of capacity and had to release water into the lake or risk damaging the utility's equipment.) In all, the city had to dump 322,723 gallons of untreated effluent into Lake Michigan - a number that's not as bad as it sounds four a couple of reasons:
1. The massive rain in a short amount of time means a majority of the bypassed effluent was rainwater, which dilutes any effluent that had to be dumped.
2. A few years ago it would have been much, much worse. The utility doubled its capacity in 2005 thanks to the "sewer agreement" between communities east of I-94. That allowed the plant to handle more stormwater and avoid dumping millions of gallons into Lake Michigan. During the same storm, Milwaukee dumped nearly 1 billion gallons of untreated sewage and stormwater into the lake.
Racine area officials aren't resting on their improved system. Water and wastewater utility head Keith Haas said a committee is working on a plan to eliminate all dumping in the lake - even in massive storms - by 2035. The initial price tag seems to be around $210 million, he said.
It's also worth noting that sewage backups into homes are also being addressed. Eighteen homes experienced backups during the June storm, which is a small number compared to about 1,000 in Kenosha and Pleasant Prairie during the same storm, but still more than the utility wants.
Utility officials said Tuesday they are studying pieces of the wastewater system - much of which is owned by the city of Racine, not the utility - to eliminate backups in specific areas like along Illinois Street in Racine and Danbury Lane in Mount Pleasant.
An auditor from Clifton Gunderson reported an audit of Racine's water and wastewater utility Tuesday night. He gave the utility the highest rating possible for how it was managing its finances.
Racine's wastewater utility passed a state inspection with a 3.63 GPA, according to a report discussed Tuesday. The one blemish on a report card that was otherwise straight-A's was an "F" for the city's "Collection System." But Pace said the grade had more to do with the weather than the system itself. He noted in 2005 the city received an "A" for its system. Last year heavy rains flooded the Root River and caused problems for the wastewater utility, which likely led to the failing grade. Recommendations from the state to increase the score are underway, Pace said.
Open Cell Technology
The utility is applying for about $250,000 in stimulus money to pay for a piece of equipment that will help break down effluent and save the city money.
Haas said the utility is looking into buying an open cell structure that zaps wastewater as it enters the sewer plant and ruptures its tough cell walls, which breaks the waste into smaller pieces and allows it to be further digested.
If enacted, it would reduce the amount of waste that needs to be trucked away from Racine's sewer plant and increase the amount of methane gas produced to run generators and heating systems in the plant. Haas estimated the $1.5 million piece of equipment would save $300,000 per year, essentially paying for itself in five years. And, the equipment would run for far longer than five years, he said.
The downside is the upfront cost, which has to be split by all communities east of I-94. Receiving stimulus money would be a big help in convincing the communities to support the new technology, Haas said.
The utility won't know if it will receive any stimulus money for several weeks, he said.
Household Hazardous Waste collection
The Racine Wastewater utility held its household hazardous waste collection on June 20. A total of 387 people brought hazardous materials for safe disposal. Here's a breakdown of where they came from:
Racine - 126
Mount Pleasant - 142
Caledonia - 112
Sturtevant - 5
Elmwood Park - 2
The utility is also close to adding North Bay to the program. The City Council needs to approve an agreement that will add the village's 97 homes next year. It will cost village residents $3 on their sewer bills, though they get half off in the first year.
Once North Bay is added, Wind Point will be the only community east of Interstate 94 not included in the program. Haas said negotiations are underway to include Wind Point in 2010.