MWRD team to vie for gold in wastewater olympics

  • By Jennifer Slosar
  • Environment Reporter
  • October 17, 2008 @ 12:05 PM

Come Tuesday, the Commode Commandos, Sea Coast Sewer Snakes and Fecal Matters will go head to head at McCormick Place in the Olympics of the wastewater industry.

Teams will race to rescue a 110-pound dummy from the bottom of a well, fix a burst sewer pipe and identify and analyze an unlikely pathogen in the water, among other simulated crises.

It’s called the “Operations Challenge” and it tests the skills of 40 teams representing wastewater facilities across the country in the categories of collection systems, laboratory, process control and maintenance and safety.

 “It’s a fun competition, but it’s serious at the same time,” says Jill Horist,  spokeswoman for the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago, which will be competing as the Windy City Wizards.

“It’s an opportunity to hone skills and analyze techniques that will help with real life operations challenges.”

The contest is part of WEFTEC—the 81st annual conference and exhibit of the Water Environment Federation that begins this Saturday.

The conference gathers over 20,000 professionals and 1,000 exhibitors in the wastewater and water industries. Over five days of educational sessions and meetings at McCormick Place, they’ll exchange ideas about the  collection, treatment, and reuse of wastewater and learn about the latest in water quality technologies.

Over 120 scientists will be educating industry professionals in 115 technical sessions.

Issues of renewable energy and challenges posed by global climate change provide the theme for many sessions, such as “Green Power: Renewable Energy Options for Water.”

The wastewater industry is on the “cutting edge” of alternative energy development, says Matt Ries, managing director of technical and educational services for WEF.

 Turns out what’s going down the toilet could be used to power plants in the near future.

Take “sludge,” the solids that are separated out from liquid in the sewage treatment process, says Ries, When it’s cooked in digester tanks sludge emits a methane gas—called biogas-- that can be captured and used to heat office buildings and fuel plant processes.

WEFTEC attendees will learn about a plant in Strass, Austria that’s  completely energy independent because it uses methane gas from sewage.

“We’re now looking at ways to not just be consumers of power but generators of power,” says Riesl.

Another  session will focus on how to identify and measure trace contaminants from pharmaceuticals that enter the waste stream, an area of growing concern for the industry.

Field trips will include a tour of the water reclamation plant at Stickney, the world’s largest, and a Chicago River cruise that focuses on sewage treatment and flood control.

A “Getting’ out of the Gutter” community service project on Saturday morning teams WEF-tec members with Chicago’s Center for Neighborhood Technology to construct rain gardens in Pulaski Park.

It’s part of a push for “green infrastructure” to support the gargantuan “grey infrastructure” of sewers and tunnels that MWRDGC has built to manage the 1.5 billion gallons of wastewater pumped through its treatment plants every day.

Horist says this is only the second year that MWRDGC has competed in the Operations Challenge—but she’s not worried.

The district face two real-life emergencies in August and September, Horist said, noting the failure of a pump in the Racine Avenue pumping station and the 112 billion gallon rainfall that soaked Cook County.

Says Horist, “In the highest form of operations challenge, the district had an incredible success rate.”

Jennifer Slosar is a Chicago-based freelance journalist. She covers environmental issues for the Daily News