Dilemmas for Wastewater Treatment Plants

  • Water contamination from sources that might include some wastewater treatment plants closes some beaches. (Photo by Lester Graham)

Municipal sewer plants are sometimes blamed for high E. coli bacteria counts that close beaches to swimmers. Some cities are working to find better ways to treat the water and put it back into nature. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Chris McCarus reports:


Municipal sewer plants are sometimes blamed for high E. coli bacteria counts
that close beaches to swimmers. Some cities are working to find better ways to treat the
water and put it back into nature. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Chris McCarus

(sound of cars moving along a small street and a few people talking)

A typical summer day by the lake: SUVs pull boats on trailers. People saunter from an
ice cream shop to the city beach. Jet skis and water skiiers slice through the waves.
Carpenters raise trusses on homes being built into the remaining lakefront lots.

Just a few years ago it seemed towns like this were just for loggers and locals. But now
people are flocking to the lakes around the Midwest and staying there. And that’s putting
a strain on local sewer plants.

(sound of machines inside the water treatment plant)

For 40 years, the treated waste water from the Boyne City, Michigan sewer plant has
been released into the big lake it was built on…Lake Charlevoix.

“It’s located right adjacent to a public swimming beach, park, marina and some valuable
waterfront property. We are only a block off the downtown district.”

Plant manager Dan Meads wants to stop mixing the end product with the water where
tourists and the locals swim and play. He tests daily for E. coli bacteria. He
doesn’t want anyone getting sick. But it’s still a concern, and there are other concerns.

In recent years, the United States Geological Survey has reported on new kinds of
contaminants that they’ve found in ground and surface water. The USGS says treated
wastewater from sewer plants can contain hormones from birth control pills, antibiotics,
detergents, fire retardants, and pesticides.

USGS microbiologist Sheridan Haack says the effects of all these compounds are still
unknown. Most are found in tiny quantities, but combined they could cause any number
of chemical reactions.

“There are many different chemical structures and it would be very difficult to state for
all of them what we would actually expect the environmental fate to be and how they
would actually be transported through the environment.”

Haack says the medicines people take don’t disappear. They eventually leave the body
and are flushed down the toilet. Those drugs have been tested for safe human
consumption, but the question is: what happens when those chemicals are mixed in with
industrial waste, accidental spills and nature’s own chemical processes? Haack says they
just might come back around to hurt humans, fish and wildlife.

The Boyne City solution is to build a new wastewater treatment plant two miles from the
beaches up the Boyne River. Officials say contaminants will be diluted by the time they
flow back down into Lake Charlevoix.

(sound of the Boyne River)

Larry Maltby volunteers for a group called “Friends of the Boyne River.” The group
doesn’t like the city’s plan to discharge treated wastewater directly into the river. It wants
them to consider some non-traditional methods. They say the new sewer plant could run
a pipe under a golf course or spray the treated water on farm fields… or let it drain into
wetlands to let nature filter it out.

“It will seep into the soils which are very sandy and gravelly underneath the golf course
and then the filtration through the ground will have a great deal of effect of continuing to
purify that water. Much more so than it would be with a direct deposit, straight into the
surface waters of Michigan.”

Lawyers for the Friends of the Boyne River have appealed to the state dept of
environmental quality and filed a lawsuit.

But wastewater treatment plant manager Dan Meads says the city doesn’t want to please
just one group and end up angering another…

“There isn’t any guarantee that you can satisfy everybody. We think we have the best
option available.”

As municipalities are short on funds and personnel, they don’t want to wait for decades
for the perfect solution. Still, nobody wants any amount of pollution to affect their home
or their recreational area.

Sheridan Haack with the USGS won’t take either side in this dispute. She says not only
are the dangers from contaminants unknown, the best way to deal with them is unknown.

“I am not aware of any consensus in the scientific community on the nature or types of
treatment for this broad range of chemicals.”

In the meantime… communities such as Boyne City have the unenviable task of trying to
dispose of their residents sewage without polluting the beaches, the fishing, and the
environment that brought folks there in the first place.

For the Great Lakes Radio Consortium, I’m Chris McCarus.

Related Links

Female Hormones Found in Waste Water

Millions of American women rely on birth control pills to prevent pregnancy. Millions more depend on replacement hormones to prevent symptoms of menopause like hot flashes and osteoporosis. Both medications contain a synthetic version of the female hormone estrogen. And now, researchers at the University of Mississippi found that some of that estrogen ends up in wastewater. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Steve Frenkel has more on the potential effects: