By Gwendolyn Craig
During this coronavirus pandemic we’ve seen shortages of toilet paper, baking ingredients and hand sanitizer. Perhaps less known in this time of crisis and curtailed tourism is the fact that some wastewater treatment plants are seeing a shortage of—you guessed it—sewage.
That’s a problem for systems that rely on human excrement to feed single-celled organisms that are part of the treatment process. Such a system operates at Silver Bay YMCA Conference and Family Retreat Center on Lake George.
Brian Suozzo, of Cedarwood Engineering Services in Warrensburg, designed the system, which is called a membrane bioreactor facility. It uses tiny organisms, often nicknamed “bugs,” which eat the nutrients, like phosphorous and nitrogen, in the waste. The effluent also goes through a microfiltration process, and the water that comes out the other side is extremely clean.
At $3.5 million, it’s considered among the creme-de-la-creme of treatment systems, which is a good thing considering it’s close to Lake George, a drinking water source.
But since Gov. Andrew Cuomo ordered the shutdown of nonessential businesses due to the pandemic, the YMCA, like so many other businesses in the Adirondacks, has had to close.
Steve Tamm, CEO of the organization, said he has temporarily laid off about 50% of the staff. No one is staying at the center except for four employees that live on site. While Tamm has offered the facility as a temporary hospital, it hasn’t been needed so far. He has also not received any requests to house essential workers, like healthcare professionals.
So what does that mean for the wastewater treatment system and all the bugs inside?
“We actually have to feed it,” Tamm said.
With three membrane bioreactors inside the plant, generally, Suozzo said, you can shut two down during the slower months and keep one up and running. Even in the winter and early spring months, however, more people are usually at the YMCA. Therefore, the one left running needs some food.
For those adventurous bakers trying to create a sourdough starter while self-isolating at home, the process for feeding the bugs at the wastewater treatment plant is surprisingly similar. If you don’t keep feeding them, as you would your starter, eventually it all goes kaput.
Inside the wastewater tank, the bug cells will start to split if they don’t get food. Then, it’s chaos and cannibalism. The cells start eating each other.
“It’s bad,” Suozzo said.
Sludge will start rising to the top of the tank, and the pores of the filter will start clogging, he added.
Feeding a sewage system when there’s no sewage requires something with sugar and nutrients.
For a while, Suozzo was getting expired whey protein powder from an Oneonta farm and adding it to the mix. He has also bought calf milk replacer to feed the waste system. It needs about five pounds a day to keep the bugs happy.
Suozzo helps run a couple of wastewater treatment plants at ski resorts in the Catskills, and in the summer months when no one is there, they have to do a similar kind of feeding.
But calf milk replacer is a bit pricey for feeding bugs that eat poop, and so Suozzo and Tamm will be glad to hear from any local farms that may have excess milk to donate. Those interested may contact Suozzo at (518) 491-9254.