Upgrading Wastewater Treatment: The Human Factor
By Kathryn G. Arlen
“Building a better mousetrap” is always a welcomed analogy to mining technology, particularly within the mineral-rich yet geologically-challenged Alaskan vastness. And the tired-yet–true cliché, “necessity is the mother of invention,” provides an even more precise working axiom.
Such was the case for environmental engineer and consultant Bob Tsigonis back in 1999 when some friends whose house was perched upon permafrost asked him to design a more suitable wastewater system for their particular situation. “They had their home on pilings, keeping their permafrost cold, shoveling snow away from it in the winter to reduce insulation and planting shrubs close to it for shade so it wouldn’t warm up in the summer.
“They wanted something totally above ground, no leach field, would work at 60 below [zero,] not too expensive, not too hard to operate, and be approved by the Department of Environmental Conservation [DEC]” Tsigonis explained. Definitely a tall order. But with zealous determination, ideas from previous jobs, and “prayers for wisdom” he researched “the right aerobic treatment so that I could apply arctic engineering to make it work in the cold. The design came together in about four months; I applied for both U.S. and Canadian patents and eventually got them. But I couldn’t find anyone to build it [the system,] and that’s when I got into production.” Tsigonis’ firm, Lifewater Engineering Company, produced just two systems in 1999, added a few more the next year, and now has about 150 around the state.
Lifewater’s purpose is designing and manufacturing sewage treatment plants for cold climates, “nasty ground, or any kind of project, any time or place—it’s about wastewater,” Tsigonis emphasized. “And we can do this anywhere in the world. We had a request to build a system for the Indian army for use at 20,000 feet in the Himalayas. And of course we’re marketing in Canada. Our specialty really is making a wastewater system work in any climate by applying arctic engineering. And ice road construction has a big need for this,” as do the various mining camps peppered throughout the state of Alaska, or any other type of terrain-challenged geographic location.
One of the beauties of the Lifewater system is portability: they can be designed for delivery by a wide variety of transportation methods—barge, Hercules aircraft, DC-6, DC-3, helicopter, or dog sled. The technology allows for optimum performance and results for both commercial and residential needs including remote sites of all types. Tourism with its lodging needs is another typical Lifewater customer. “And we did it for Mt. Washington in New Hampshire, a popular tourist destination in the White Mountain National Forest—average temperature 27.2 degrees, almost the same as here in Fairbanks, AK, which is 26.9 degrees F. They can have winds up to 231 mph and could not get a sewage system to work on that mountain, though they had tried several. Now with our system they can treat from 100-5,000 gallons/day and meet the effluent standards of the NH Dept. of Environmental Services,” stated Tsigonis. Meeting this type of climate and geological challenge mirrors some of the most rigorous conditions mining camps and communities encounter not only in Alaska and Canada but in other parts of the country and world as well.
HOW IT WORKS: BUGS AT THEIR BEST
This is membrane technology, purifying sewage discharge water without the need of a high-maintenance clarifier. “When I first did systems, I was very familiar with clarifiers, but I wanted to stay away from them because they are high maintenance. With clarifiers you’d have a ‘settling tank’ to separate the solids from the liquids, and if you’d have a ‘hydraulic surge,’ for example, with a lot of water rushing through, solids would get stirred up, couldn’t settle,” Tsigonis began. “They’d require a lot of operator attention, since you couldn’t let the solids stay in there long as they could generate methane gas--you have to scrape down the sides, that sort of thing. But the membrane is used as a filter, separating the solids and liquids, that’s really all it is,” he continued. “And with a membrane bioreactor, you’re doing aerobic, biological treatment. You’re growing ‘bugs,’ [microorganisms in the sewage] that do the work for you. Typically they’re suspended, and you’re adding air, bringing in oxygen, mixing the microbes with the sewage, which is their food. We want the ‘good bugs.’ Then when they’re suspended, you filter, or settle them out with the membrane.”
Tsigonis also stressed one of his most difficult initial challenges was finding the right type of tank [insulated three compartments] for this system: “Then I realized I would have to build it myself.” One compartment provides the pretreatment, “settling” process; the next introduces the oxidizing and disinfecting agents, and the third stores the clean water awaiting discharge via an effluent pump. An added economic benefit is that the discharge water can be used for additional purposes, such as irrigation or other similar types of reuse.
But for the mining industry, one of many significant benefits to Lifewater’s sewage treatment system lies within satisfying critical permitting demands. “If you’re a miner, you’re going to be under close scrutiny by the regulators and the public, and the same is true of the oil industry,” Tsigonis carefully added. “You don’t want to have hydraulic surges, or ‘upsets.’ You want to have pristine output all the time. You want to always be in compliance with your permits. We do systems that work extremely well: they produce good quality effluent all the time, and that’s what membrane systems do—that’s what we do,” he concluded. Tsigonis and Lifewater Engineering Company can contacted through: www.lifewaterengineering.com.
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Kathryn G. Arlen is a communication consultant and writer in Fairbanks, Alaska and can be reached at: email@example.com.