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A news magazine about the Delaware River and the people who use it.

What happens after you flush and why it matters to the Delaware River

You're not going to believe me, but it's fascinating.

There are big-city wastewater treatment facilities with a lot more bells and whistles, but seeing this system in Hancock, N.Y., gives you a pared-down version of a vital process.

It's a process we don't think about, and probably don't want to think about much: When you flush, where does it go?

You and I can maybe avoid thinking about it, but it's a constant worry for Bernard Wormuth (Butch to his friends), the chief operator of the Water Pollution Control Plant for the Village of Hancock, N.Y.

Part plumber, part electrician, part scientist -- it all comes in handy when you're the lead guy in a two-man operation. Wormuth and Earl Swartwout, who is the assistant operator, do it all, sometimes in the middle of the night when the alarm rings for a host of different reasons. They are on call 24/7, year in, year out.

Because, well, that stuff you don't want to think about never stops.

This is the wastewater treatment facility -- an extended aeration activated sludge plant -- for a village of just over a thousand (1,182 bodies at the last census.) It's the first wastewater treatment facility on the Delaware River -- the East and West branches meet up just upriver, also in Hancock.

It's a closed system, called a sanitary sewer system -- the only thing that comes into the plant is the wastewater from the village's toilets, showers, tubs and sinks. Any storm runoff is taken by a different drainage system and goes into the Delaware. 

Before 1985, when this plant went into operation, that's exactly what happened to all the waste -- it went right into the Delaware. This plant is part of the story of how the Delaware has become so much cleaner in the past 60 or so years. It's a story of constant improvement.

Back in 1983 when this plant was being planned, there was a sense that Hancock was on an upswing. The plant was built to be operated by four people. There were good jobs in the area, and expectations were high that there would be a population increase. So this plant is built to handle 350,000 gallons of wastewater a day.

Unfortunately, that didn't happen. There was no new industry and the ones that were here closed. The expected daily load of wastewater now is about 125,000 gallons.

Drinking water, the other water system, is groundwater drawn from two wells. There's a chlorine application and then it gets pumped to a water tower and gravity fed to the village.

But if something goes awry with that system it's likely to be Swartwout who'll try to find the problem and fix it.

There are significant regulatory requirements. In order to operate, the plant needs a SPDES (State Pollution Discharge Elimination System) permit, which is regulated and supervised by New York State's Department of Environmental Conservation. 

As for how the water gets clean enough to go back into the river, you could hold a gun to my head and I couldn't give you all the steps -- all the plumbing, engineering, technology, biology and chemistry that is involved in the process even though I took notes and asked LOTS of questions. 

So I went to this site: 

What are the parameters of an extended aeration activated sludge system?

And got this:

An extended-aeration system includes capabilities for aeration & mixing, settling, return of activated sludge and solids removal, this last in the form of a biomass known as waste-activated sludge.  An activated sludge process re-circulates part of the biomass as an integral part of the process.

Awareness of the basic parameters measured in controlling an extended-aeration system can ensure proper treatment is carried out, such that legal and regulatory requirements for effluent discharge quality are met.

It seems that a system like this has several key steps.

First, all the "stuff" that goes into a sewer all comes to the plant, and it has the big pieces pulled out. Nasty stuff like tampons, diapers, even the occasional rubber ducky. (Wormuth says they have a collection.)

That's the screening, which is paired with grit removal as part of the preliminary treatment. And that gets taken to the on-site drying bed, and when dry, taken to the Delaware County Composting Facility in Walton, N.Y.

What remains gets thoroughly mixed and aerated. (Remember the "aeration" part of the process?)

There's an intricate dance performed on the wastewater that's left, which involves letting some of it settle in some stages (called sludge) and mixing it with lots of air -- oxygen.

The bulk of the processed waste is now dark water. Or, as Wormouth calls it "food."

Yep, food for the microbes that do most of the work getting this dark water into water that's clean enough to be put into the Delaware River.

When they've done their job, they -- and the sludge -- sink to the bottom where they are eventually lifted out. Some go with the sludge to the drying beds, where again, they will be taken to the Delaware County Composting Facility.

But some go back into the system -- these microbes are constantly regenerating themselves in what is, for them, a happy environment. Wormouth said (you can tell he's taken countless school and Scout troops on tours):

"Microbes are like people, when they're young, they eat a lot but they make a mess. When they're older, they are tidier but don't produce as much.

You want them to be adult enough to clean their plates," he said with a smile.

Keeping that balance between young and old microbes is what will keep the plant humming along. Now, when you look at the water as it's spilling over the sides of a tank before being piped into the river, it looks much, much cleaner.

Both Wormuth and Swartwout are anglers, and they're clearly proud of what they do to keep the river cleaner, and the fish happy.

There are some downsides to living in the village. There's some grumbling about the water bills from residents, since we all secretly feel that water should be free. (It's just hanging about in rivers, right?) 

Wormuth can see both sides. He doesn't particularly like it when he's accosted when he's out for dinner with his family, but on the other hand, he recognizes that there aren't a lot of dollars in anyone's pocket in the village.

Phyllis Fallsetta, the village clerk, has all the details:

Water bills are $58 per quarter, for usage from 1 to13,000 gallons in the quarter. Overage is charged at $4.50 per 1,000 gallons

Sewer bills are $143 per quarter, for usage from 0 to 18,000 gallons in the quarter. Overage is charged at $4.80 per 1,000 gallons.

There are 476 accounts, combined residential and commercial and no industrial.

Wormuth is aware when upgrades or repairs are needed but he's careful about dipping into the village's resources, and is careful to prioritize the needs. He tips his hat to the mayor, Eugene Morgan, who is responsive to the needs of the system. The plant's annual budget is $361,000. Another hat tip goes out to the Rural Water Association, which helps systems like Hancock's with guidance and hands-on help.

In fact, that organization is behind a bill that's before the New York State Legislature -- the Safe Water Infrastructure Action Program (SWAP) --that would provide new and permanent funding for wastewater, stormwater and water-supply infrastructure on a reimbursement basis to New York municipalities, similar to CHIPs program for state highway funding. 

Jeff Skelding, the executive director of the Friends of the Upper Delaware River, said that this funding is much needed particularly for small communities like Hancock.

The fact of the matter is that we all want the cleanest river possible, and because of the lack of development in the Upper Delaware, we're lucky that it is as clean as it is. But it's hard for these small communities to carry all that responsibility with not very deep pockets.

About Meg McGuire

Meg McGuire has been a journalist for 30 years in New York and Connecticut. She started in weekly newspapers and moved to full-time work in dailies 25 years ago. She knows about the tectonic changes in journalism firsthand, having been part of what was euphemistically called a "reduction in force" six years ago. Now she's working to find new ways to "do" the news as an independent online publisher of news about the Delaware River, its watershed and its people.

2 Comments

  1. Holly Wells on September 14, 2018 at 5:30 pm

    We’ve included Delaware River-front properties in our new home search, so this is good to know. Thanks for keeping us informed, Meg!

    • Meg McGuire on October 2, 2018 at 3:52 pm

      Holly!! How the hell are you? In your house-hunting, remember that the climate change forecast for this part of the world is for less rain and more rain. In other words, extremes. That’s important to remember when you’re on the river. The likelihood is that we’ll have more floods and more droughts. If you’re near the river, make sure you’re up on a hill!!

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