COVID-19’s impact on wastewater treatment facilities
The COVID-19 pandemic has had a major effect on wastewater treatment facilities from many perspectives including maintenance, operations and safety.
The wastewater treatment facility is critical to the efficient functioning of any city or town. We conducted an informal survey about how clients were being impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic.
- Proactive and reactive maintenance: Many of our clients are delaying proactive maintenance and only performing reactive maintenance until the pandemic passes. These clients have acknowledged it could lead to longer term maintenance issues or equipment replacement and budget issues.
- Chemical deliveries: Most chemicals are still being delivered according to schedule. However, some clients have experienced a delay in receiving dry polymers.
- Discharge permits: Facilities that serve communities that have tourist-based economies have reported a significant drop in influent carbon. The drop in carbon is sufficient to impact their biological nutrient removal processes and the facilities cannot meet the requirements of their discharge permits without the use of chemicals. The costs for chemically removing phosphorus or additional chemical carbon addition required for denitrification was not accounted for in their annual budgets. To assist with budget issues, some of these clients are contemplating hiring local breweries to produce a carbon waste (e.g. unfermented wort) that the treatment facility can utilize in their process to meet effluent limits. They see this as a win-win approach for the community; the brewery receives payment and the treatment facility is able to meet the requirements of their discharge permits.
- Inventory maintenance: Several of our clients have reported that they have had to significantly decrease or completely turn off their wasting in order to maintain inventory. The facilities with this issue have also reported having trouble maintaining nitrification. Staff at these facilities attribute the inventory and nitrification issues to increased use of soaps and disinfecting chemicals by their residents. No data has yet been collected to support this claim, however, these issues have been reported at more than a few facilities.
- Rags: Some treatment facilities have reported increased rags in their headworks while others have reported decreased rags. Reports of decreased rags have been primarily from communities with proactive public relations programs geared towards clean water and from communities dependent on tourism. Facilities with increased rags have increased their dumpster changeout and disposal frequency in their headworks and increased their proactive mechanical bar screen maintenance. This requires more time from staff, who are currently stretched.
- Sludge collection: Several treatment facilities have reported reduced sludge collection in primary clarifiers. This had led to impacts in digester performance and biogas production.
Personnel and safety effects
- Workforce: This field typically requires staff to work in close proximity to one another. To address staff concerns regarding this, our clients have had regular staff meetings to chat and discuss staff concerns, stepped in to clarify rumors, isolated staff to different rooms of their facilities, rotated plant staff shifts to minimize interactions, had non-essential staff work from home, and increased disinfection and cleaning frequency of common spaces.
- PPE: Several facilities have also reported difficulty in obtaining personal protective equipment (PPE) as they work to support the health and safety of their workers.
- BioBot: A significant number of our clients are working with their local health departments and BioBot, which is a company that measures COVID-19 ribonucleic acid (RNA) in wastewater influent and relates the results back to a projected number of COVID-19 infections in the community. Our clients that have utilized this received results indicating approximately 10 times more infections than have been reported by the local health department. This information could be useful tool for communities to track the extent of an infection or a coming outbreak.
While many industries and public health entities are impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic, none are alone. We have clients across markets and regions that are learning how to address the current situation, while also maintaining operations and working hard to keep their staff safe.