Heavy rains can overwhelm sewer systems. The EPA's proposed solution, blending, is a topic of debate. (photo by Sarah Griggs)
The Environmental Protection Agency is finalizing
a policy that will allow sewage treatment operators to send largely untreated sewage directly into rivers and lakes. It’s a cost-savings effort pushed by the Bush administration. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Lester Graham reports:
The Environmental Protection Agency is finalizing a policy that will allow sewage treatment operators to send largely untreated sewage directly into rivers and lakes. It’s a cost-savings effort pushed by the Bush administration. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Lester Graham reports:
The process is called blending. If too much sewage is coming in to treat completely, this policy allows operators to “blend” mostly untreated sewage with already treated waste water, then release it into the waterways. That saves the federal government money by not having to pay for sewage plant expansions.
Environmentalists don’t like it. Nancy Stoner is with the group Natural Resources Defense Council.
“They’re saying that they’re going to save money by providing less treatment now even though that pushes the cost onto the public by contaminating our drinking water supply, by killing fish, by contaminating shellfish so it cant be sold, by closing beaches.”
The EPA says blending untreated sewage with treated sewage dilutes it so that it meets federal standards. The agency also argues that the policy merely sanctions a practice that already happens every time a sewer system gets swamped by heavy rains.
For the Great Lakes Radio Consortium, this is Lester Graham.
It takes a lot of work to turn a cow or chicken into a hamburger or chicken nuggets. And the process creates a lot of waste. Now, the Environmental Protection Agency is aiming to reduce the pollution that’s released into rivers, lakes and streams. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Rebecca Williams has more:
It takes a lot of work to turn a cow or chicken into a hamburger or chicken nuggets. And the
process creates a lot of waste. Now, the Environmental Protection Agency is aiming to reduce
the pollution that’s released into rivers, lakes and streams. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s
Rebecca Williams has more:
The EPA estimates meat and poultry processors use 150 billion gallons of water every year.
Most of that water becomes wastewater. That wastewater can contain oil, blood, manure, and
If the wastewater isn’t treated, organic wastes and nutrients are released directly into waterways.
Excess nutrients can cause harmful algae blooms, and kill fish.
The new rule targets about 170 meat and poultry processors.
Mary Smith directs a division of the EPA’s Office of Water.
“The meats industry will have to meet tighter limits on the pollutants that it discharges to the
water. And then, of course, for poultry, this is the first time they will be regulated at all, they
didn’t have preexisting regulations, unlike the meats industry. And they will have to meet limits
for ammonia, total nitrogen, and what we call conventional pollutants.”
These regulations are a result of a lawsuit against the EPA, settled 13
For the Great Lakes Radio Consortium, I’m Rebecca Williams.
It takes a lot of water and a lot of grain to brew a good beer. And once that beer is made, there’s a lot of spent material and water left over. This excess is usually just considered waste. But two guys in the Great Lakes region decided to start a brewery that would focus on reducing pollution and waste and then re-using whatever was left over. They wanted to show how helping the earth could also help business. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Annie MacDowell reports:
It takes a lot of water and a lot of grain to brew a good beer. And once
that beer is made, there’s a lot of spent material and water left over. This
excess is usually just considered waste. But two guys in the Great Lakes
region decided to start a brewery that would focus on reducing pollution
and waste and then re-using whatever was left over. They wanted to
show how helping the earth could also help business. The Great
Lakes Radio Consortium’s Annie MacDowell reports:
(ambient pub noise)
It’s a busy summer night at The Leopold Brother’s of Ann Arbor
Brewery. People have shown up to unwind after a long week. Some are
here to listen to the live band. Others to play a rowdy game of Pictionary
in the beer garden.
But mostly, people are here to drink the beer.
Brothers Scott and Todd Leopold own and run the brewery. A family resemblance is
obvious between the brothers.
But their roles in the business are totally different. Todd Leopold brews the beer. He’s a
big, friendly guy who seems at home in a comfortable-looking pair of old
overalls. Todd went to the Siebel brewing school in Chicago and got hands-on
training in four different German breweries. He uses techniques he learned over there in
his own facility.
His brother Scott Leopold is an environmental engineer, educated at
Northwestern and Stanford. Scott spent years helping big companies
save money by using environmentally sustainable business techniques.
But four years ago he decided to put his money where his mouth was.
One night, at a bar in Colorado, the two brothers came up with the idea
to combine their talents and start the world’s first zero-pollution brewery.
They wanted to build the model, then show people that it could really work.
Their idea was met with some skepticism by family and friends. Simply put, they
thought Scott and Todd were nuts. And Scott says they weren’t all wrong.
“Most of the entrepreneurs who are out there will tell you if they knew what they were
getting into before they got into it…they probably wouldn’t have done
it. We might not be alone in that.”
But so far the idealistic business venture has proved to be a success. Scott and
Todd have reduced the volume of a typical brewery’s waste by 90 percent.
To accomplish this, Scott and Todd designed a brewery where every detail was taken into
account to conserve resources.
“What we wanted to do was put science ahead of marketing…to ensure that anyone could
look within our production processes to ensure that it would stand up to the rigors of
science within the environmental engineering world.”
(ambient sound of brewery)
In the brewhouse, stainless steel machines gleam like they’ve just been washed. They’re
not brewing today… that only happens about once a week. But the factory computer is on
and its small, colorful graphics are showing everything that’s happening in the facility.
The computer helps cut down on the brewery’s waste by tracking and regulating all
energy and water use. So there’s always an accurate record of what was
produced versus how much of the raw materials and energy was consumed.
Todd Leopold says this helps him brew better beer.
“When you know everything that’s going in and everything that’s going out, if suddenly
that changes or there’s a spike you know there’s a problem and you’re able to track it
down. So it’s really helped me run a much tighter ship.”
All the other devices in the brewhouse are specially tailored to reduce waste. In fact,
they’re so efficient that Leopold Brothers generates 25 percent less solid waste residue
and buys 25 percent less grain than most small breweries.
That means they’re saving money.
Scott Leopold says their profit margins are nearly a quarter higher than they would have
been if they hadn’t made the investment in better equipment early on. But even with all
the complex equipment, there’s still some spent grain and water left over.
It’s all put to good use. The used organic malt and hops make great food for
animals at organic farms. Excess water from the brewing process is used in the
greenhouse in the back.
Pots of basil for the menu and moonflowers for the beer garden grow in there.
Conservation even extends beyond the brewhouse to the brewery’s decor.
Fat vinyl green tubes with zippers up the sides snake across the ceiling. They’re part of a
more energy-efficient heating and cooling system. And old doors hammered together
make up the bar.
The Leopold Brothers pay the same attention to detail when it comes to marketing their
product. The labels are made from vegetable-based inks. And they use recyclable
cardboard boxes as packaging.
But the brothers want to have an impact on brewing beyond just their own facility.
Todd says they have to start off small.
“We’d love to see the larger, world class…well, not world class, but world size breweries
that distribute their beer internationally to adopt some of the things that we do. It’s just
very difficult to infiltrate the corporate culture as opposed to where there’s one or
two owners. You sit down with them, have a beer, and say this is how you need to do
things. It’s much easier to have an impact on that level, I believe.”
Scott and Todd Leopold say the big breweries have adopted some conservation
techniques simply to save money…but they still generate a lot of waste water.
Scott thinks they could reduce the amount by introducing new machinery and changing
their cleaning techniques.
But U.S. Environmental Protection Agency environmental scientist Erik Hardin says the
big breweries will have to be shown that trying more new things will help the bottom
“With most any big business, pollution prevention steps seem to be incorporated after the
people in charge have been convinced thoroughly that these things can actually save them
And the Leopold Brothers say that is the exact mission of their brewery …to show, by
example, that sustainability means profitability.
For the Great Lakes Radio Consortium, I’m Annie
The state legislature in Minnesota is looking at a bill that would restrict phosphorus levels in automatic-dishwashing detergents. Supporters say it would reduce harmful algae blooms in lakes and streams. If the bill passes, it would be the first state to make such restrictions. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Christina Shockley reports:
The state legislature in Minnesota is looking at a bill that would restrict phosphorus levels in
automatic-dishwashing detergents. Supporters say it would reduce harmful algae blooms in lakes
and streams. If the bill passes, it would be the first state to make such restrictions. The Great
Lakes Radio Consortium’s Christina Shockley reports:
Phosphorus in detergents helps to clean dishes, but when the mineral ends up in lakes and
streams, it promotes algae blooms. Large algae blooms can kill fish and restrict sunlight to
bottom-rooting plants. In the 1970s, phosphorus was restricted in other types of detergents.
David Mulla is a professor in the soil, water, and climate department at the University of
Minnesota. He says that legislation did make a difference.
“We had a very large reduction in the amount of phosphorus that was being emitted to our waste
water treatment plants as a result.”
However, Mulla says dishwashing detergents are not one of the primary sources of phosphorus in
lakes and streams today. Detergent manufacturers say if they don’t use phosphorus, their
detergents might not meet some health standards. They also say a reduction won’t have any
environmental benefits. The bill is currently being discussed in the state legislature.
For the Great Lakes Radio Consortium, I’m Christina Shockley.
A city along Lake Michigan is fighting the construction of a waste-treatment plant. The town filed a lawsuit against the local waste-treatment company that wants to dry and burn sludge from half the surrounding county. City officials say they don’t want an eye sore on their lake front and environmentalists are worried about mercury getting into the lake. But the sanitary district says it has a system that will virtually eliminate emissions. As the Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Annie MacDowell reports, environmentalists say that’s not enough:
A city along Lake Michigan is fighting the construction of a waste-treatment plant. The
town filed a lawsuit against the local waste-treatment company that wants to dry and burn
sludge from half the surrounding county. City officials say they don’t want an eye sore on
their lake front and environmentalists are worried about mercury getting into the lake.
But the sanitary district says it has a system that will virtually eliminate emissions. As
the Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Annie Macdowell reports, environmentalists say
that’s not enough:
After rolling out of bed in the morning, what’s the first thing you do? Do you use the
toilet? Take a shower? Brush your teeth? Probably one or all of the above. And what
happens to that unwanted dirty water? It just vanishes, right? Flushes into oblivion?
Disappears down the drain? Wrong. All that scummy sludge heads straight for your
local waste water treatment plant.
The North Shore Sanitary District along Lake Michigan in northern Illinois receives 187
tons of waste water a day. That adds up to 20 trillion gallons of the stuff a year. And in
among all that waste there are 26 different toxic metals. At this point, North Shore is
trucking the toxic sludge to landfills and dumping it. Brian Jensen is the general manager
of North Shore. He says toxic chemicals aren’t necessarily safe in a landfill because a
landfill liner can leak.
“If in fact, that liner were to leak, and there’s been a history around our country and in
Europe that these liners do leak, when that happens, the environmental liability is
With these worries in mind, a couple of years ago Jensen started looking around for a
new way to dispose of the sludge. He says a process called “sludge-drying” was the best
Here’s how the system works: the sludge is pumped into a dryer where most of the water
is sucked out. Then the dried sludge is burned as fuel for the next part of the process –
the melter. The melter burns up the organic part of the sludge at 3000 degrees. That’s
hot enough to melt heavy metals. So after everything else is burned away, what remains
are the toxic metals locked up in a glass matrix that looks a lot like lava. It’s called glass
aggregate. It can be used in concrete where it’s sealed and can no longer pollute water or
The only toxic metal that doesn’t go into the glass matrix meltdown is mercury. That’s
because in the hot melter, mercury becomes a vapor. Over the course of the year, north
shore gets about 33 pounds of mercury – a third of it comes from fillings in people’s
teeth. The rest is from industry and commercial sources.
People in the area and environmentalists, object to the idea of the plant emitting all that
mercury into the air. That’s because it could further contaminate Lake Michigan which
already is contaminated by mercury from coal-burning power plants. Cameron Davis is
the head of the Lake Michigan Federation. He says mercury is a dangerous neurotoxin.
“You know the MadHatter in Alice in Wonderland? That character was developed
because in the old days, people who made hats actually used mercury in the hat
manufacturing process, and that mercury being around it in the manufacturing of hats,
would cause people, literally, to go insane, to go crazy.”
Davis says Lake Michigan already has a fish advisory because mercury has contaminated
the water so badly. If people eat the fish, especially expectant mothers and children,
there could be serious health effects. Mothers could pass mercury poisoning onto their
infants. Children’s bodies are especially susceptible because they’re developing so fast.
Davis says anyone who cares about the environment is against the construction of any
new source of mercury emissions.
But Brian Jensen says the North Shore sludge incinerator will fix that problem too. The
plans include a filtration system, to catch mercury in the vapor state. The air travels
through carbon canisters and the mercury particles cling to the carbon. The canisters last
for up to 5 years and then the mercury is recycled and reused. The result is something
less than two pounds of mercury emissions a year. Jensen says that’s such a small
amount that today’s scientific instruments can’t detect it in the normal emissions each day.
They’ve tried. And in the end, Jensen says it could very well be that the new North Shore
Plant will emit no mercury at all.
But Cameron Davis says any uncertainty is unacceptable.
“We do want to encourage different ways to be able to get to zero and if we are in fact
getting to zero, then we’ve got a different game here, and that’s important, but we are
talking about zero.”
But Davis doesn’t have any better ideas for getting rid of the sludge. He says North
Shore should continue landfilling for now.
Michael Murray with the National Wildlife Federation’s Great Lakes Office says there is
a better alternative. It’s a process called land application. That’s when sludge is used as
fertilizer for crops.
“There’s a study published on work in France recently where they looked at number of
different options for sewage sludge treatment and they found that land application in
general had the lowest environmental cost, in other words it was the best environmental
Murray says companies must have a really good pre-treatment program if they’re going
to use land application. That means capping levels of toxic metals before they get into
Brian Jensen at North Shore says he looked into land application and saw too many
problems. He says North Shore already has an award-winning pre-treatment program,
but they still get too many metals to land apply. And he’s heard about problems like e-coli bacteria growths from the fecal matter in the sludge. Beyond that, he says they just
have too much sludge and not enough land to fertilize.
Jensen says he’s confident the judge will not let the lawsuit stop north shore sanitary
district from building the plant. It already has the permits from the Illinois Environmental
Protection Agency. He’s amazed that people are giving north shore such a hard time,
when right next door to where they want to build the waste treatment plant, a coal-burning incinerator emits up to 450 pounds of mercury a year.
“The North Shore Sanitary District is truly people that are concerned about the
environment. And this process, even though it probably, it does, in fact, cost a little more
to own and operate than a landfill, the environmental gains, I’m saying the environmental
gains, not losses, are significantly greater than any other sludge disposal method.”
Jensen says environmentalists should be the first to recognize when a waste water
treatment plant is doing the very best job that’s possible with the most recent technology
available instead of criticizing the effort.
For the Great Lakes Radio Consortium, I’m Annie Macdowell.
The Inspector General of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency says the EPA didn’t fund clean up for seven toxic waste sites this fiscal year. As the Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Annie Macdowell reports, two of the seven sites are here in the Midwest:
The Inspector General of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency says the EPA didn’t fund clean-up for seven toxic waste sites this fiscal year. As the Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Annie MacDowell reports, two of the seven sites are here in the Midwest:
A tax on chemical and oil companies expired in 1995.
The tax was used to fund clean ups at some of the country’s most polluted sites.
Now most of the funding comes from tax payers.
Clean-up on two Midwest sites was pushed back – the Jennison Wright Corporation in Illinois and Continental Steel in Indiana.
Hazardous chemicals are seeping into the ground water at these two sites.
Bill Muno, the Regional Superfund Director at the EPA, says to clean up more sites each year, Congress would have to increase Superfund appropriations.
“There isn’t enough money in that annual appropriation to cover all the work that needs to be done each year.”
Muno says the EPA Inspector General’s report shows there were more sites in line for funding that were delayed under the Bush Administration.
But he adds that tests show the sites are not an immediate threat to public health.
For the Great Lakes Radio Consortium, I’m Annie MacDowell.
With the planet’s population at 6 billion and growing, it’s
becoming more challenging to handle all the human waste. Now,
scientists may have a way to reduce that waste, while at the same time,
creating clean electricity. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Wendy