Note: This is the second in a series of articles featuring the unknown jobs within the Department of Public Works at White Sands Missile Range.
One of the dirtiest jobs that falls within the Department of Public Works realm is that of Waste Water Treatment. White Sands Missile Range Water and Waste Water System Mechanic Supervisor James Lopez has worked in this line of business for 22 years and now supervises some of the employees he started with back in 1994.
“Some folks are not aware that there is a whole other world once the water is flushed down the drain,” Lopez said. “We rely on each other. We put the pedal to the metal whenever they do any type of work.”
Lopez’s team is made up of 12 members. His team manages both the waste water and well water treatment. Aside from treating water, his team is also on call and respond to emergencies 24 hours a day. The emergencies vary from stopping water leaks, sewer stoppages, overflowing water storages, and water well power outages.
The waste water that is treated by Lopez and his team goes through a series of treatments before moving into Davies Pond, WSMR’s local pond that is used to provide a source of water for the local wildlife.
“(The pond) feeds the ecosystem,” Lopez said.
The treatment facility currently has several projects going on to be able to update some of their systems and create a more streamlined process for waste water treatment.
“We’re trying to keep up with the times, things don’t happen right away over here,” Lopez said.
The treatment facility handles all of the waste water coming in from main post. The influent, waste water coming into the facility, comes from housing and office buildings that are collected into a network of service lines and collection lines that accumulates into one single pipeline. The first process for the wastewater is a micro-screening process known as the Head Works, designed to remove rags, sand and eggshells from the waste. The micro-screening machine is 17-years-old and sometimes malfunctions. When the system is down, employees have to go in and manually remove rags, and large debris from the waste water.
The second process is the known as the Primary Clarifier, which brings the water into a sedimentation tank that removes oil and grease from the waste. The process can take anywhere from 45 minutes to an hour. Ernest Acevez, Water and Waste Water systems mechanic, said the process can be a bit messy when there is a clog in the tank. Acevez recalled a time when a new employee who did not know to turn off the water flow when unclogging the tank almost fell into the water when the tank was finally unclogged and Acevez had to jump in there in order to avoid having the new employee covered in waste water.
From there the water without sludge goes into a Trickling Filter, which is currently being updated to a more modern process known as a Sequential Batch Reactor. The sludge water goes to what is known as a Digester, two large tanks about 30-feet-tall that are completely enclosed. The tanks are heated to a 97 F temperature to resemble the temperature inside of a stomach. The digesters act like a stomach and consume the sludge to an inert form where there are no nutrients. This process takes about 30 days. Methane gas is also naturally produced within the digester and burned off.
“Over the years better ways have developed to do the job,” Lopez said.
The water that goes through the filter, trickles the waste water down into a layer of rocks, the rocks collect the sludge and forms bugs like protozoa to eat the sludge. The bugs then multiply and the sludge water goes back to the Head Works to feed on more nutrients coming in. The filtered water then goes to a Secondary Clarifier.
The sludge that spent 30 days in the Digester is collected in its dry form and dumped. Once the solid waste reaches a determined altitude, WSMR Environmental representatives are called over to determine if the waste is clean enough to dump on a landfill outside of WSMR.
A Biological Oxygen Demand test is then done on the treated water which measures the strength of the switch coming in and the switch coming out. A high BOD can kill of the oxygen in the water and therefore kill of the animal life in the water. The final process is an ultra-violet light treatment to reduce the amount of fecal microorganisms. The facility produces about 20,000 gallons of water per day. After the final phase of water treatment the water is distributed through a 15-inch-wide pipe to Davies Pond to provide a source of water for the surrounding wildlife.
“It’s a grassland over there,” Acevez said.
The location of the waste water facility is green with several pecan trees filling the area. Lopez said that is because the area was once watered with the effluent that had already gone through the sanitation process and was still rich with nutrients. Lopez said EPA began regulating the water disposal and the site can no longer be watered by the effluent water.
“A lot of people think it’s gross, but what they don’t understand is the plants and the grass only take the nutrients they need and this water is rich in nutrients,” Lopez said.
A standard waste-water facility has enough flow to remain running throughout the entire night. Due to the size of the installation there is a reduction of waste water at night. In order for the systems to continue running at night, a tank was developed within the facility to continue with the constant flow of waste water treatment.