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It’s Time to Build: This Is Not Your Mother’s Wastewater Treatment Plant

Posted on May 15, 2017 by | Comments Off

It’s challenging. It’s rewarding. It’s exciting. Water is essential for life. These are my answers to the question, “Why do you work for water?” In Hampton Roads, HRSD is working hard to ensure future generations inherit clean waterways and are able to keep them clean. This vision could never be achieved without investment in infrastructure. But infrastructure does more than protect the environment. Infrastructure also builds communities, grows the local economy, and develops jobs. A lot of jobs, as it turns out. Take a closer look at the impact of just one of HRSD’s current infrastructure projects: the latest overhaul of a wastewater treatment plant in Norfolk.  

Raw sewage ran in open ditches as children played in Portsmouth's Simonsdale neighborhood in 1944, documenting the need for construction of a sanitary sewer system.

Raw sewage ran in open ditches as children played in Portsmouth’s Simonsdale neighborhood in 1944, documenting the need for construction of a sanitary sewer system.

HRSD’s Virginia Initiative Plant (VIP) started out as the Lambert’s Point Plant in 1948. If you are wondering if that is old for a sewage treatment plant, yes, that’s super old. How old is super old? Consider this – in 1948, Scrabble and Polaroid cameras were new. Back then, the mere fact that we were treating wastewater at all, instead of just sending raw sewage directly into waterways, was innovative. But by 1987, nutrients had been identified as a major problem for the Chesapeake Bay and we expected more. Construction began on the plant’s largest overhaul, which included a biological nutrient removal process – a process that HRSD would later patent and share throughout the world at no cost to help advance wastewater treatment. Sounds ground-breaking for the 80s, right? It’s because it was. I may be a Millennial, but I’m an old Millennial with a certain fondness for the 80s. Scrunchies. Perms. Neon. I dig it. But ya’ll, personal computers were considered cutting edge technology in the 80s. We’ve come a long way since then, and I certainly don’t want my water resources protected by something that rivals the technology of the Apple IIGS I remember having as our first family computer.  Now don’t get me wrong, I did love my time spent on the Oregon Trail, but remember how long those things took to boot up?  Do we even still say “boot up”?

View of construction efforts at HRSD's Virginia Initiative Plant.

View of construction efforts at HRSD’s Virginia Initiative Plant in Norfolk.

Today, VIP is almost 75% of the way through another major overhaul, a project that will take nearly 5 years to complete. Think of it as version 3.0. While VIP has the capability to remove nutrients, it does not remove enough to meet the Virginia’s Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) or the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) requirements. To meet these requirements, HRSD and partners HDR and MEB General Contractors are installing a 5-stage biological Enhanced Nutrient Removal (ENR) process at VIP.  This new process will reduce the nitrogen to 5 mg/l and phosphorus down to 1 mg/l, providing a significant water quality enhancement in our local waterways. At the same time, VIP’s systems and treatment processes are being upgraded to treat a greater volume during storm events. The peak flow capacity of the plant is being increased from 80 to 100 million gallons per day. This ensures the plant has the capacity for major rain events, as rainwater often flows into the wastewater system during storms.  Without this extra capacity, the total amount of water flowing to the plant during major rain events could inundate the wastewater treatment plant, causing back-ups and potential overflows in the system. 

Version 3.0 costs over $150 million.  Is it worth it? Is it really time to build now? YES! Our water infrastructure is aging and we ALL need clean water. But it does so much more for the local economy than you may realize. The local economy receives a boost from any major infrastructure project. Our partner, MEB General Contractors, is based in Chesapeake and uses locally based subcontractors. Over the course of this one project, hundreds of jobs have been created and sustained.  The daily manpower onsite has ranged from 75 to 150 workers, not including support staff at home offices and supplier facilities, and has required 621,740 total man hours. These jobs allow many people to have stable employment close to their families, and in turn, the people involved in the design, construction and supply of materials funnel money back into the local economy. And speaking of materials (drum roll, please) this project requires the equivalent of 90 miles of concrete and steel piles, 5,700 tons of reinforcing steel, more than 45,000 cubic yards of concrete, 7,000 truckloads of excavation, 4 miles of piping ranging from ½” to 9’ in diameter, 182,000 feet of conduit and 1,160,000 feet of copper wire.  Whew.  I want to build something just thinking about it. 

The numbers are impressive, but Bruce Husselbee, HRSD’s Director of Engineering, knows it starts and ends with people. He recently told me, “We employ talented individuals and through their hard work and dedication make these infrastructure projects successful.”

Infrastructure may be crumbling across the country, but here in Hampton Roads, we are building. We are building now, so that future generations will benefit from clean water. We have a long history of not only meeting needs, but exceeding them and we will be ready when the next challenge arises.  Leggings may have made a comeback, but the Walkman’s glory days are long gone. We have to continue innovating and investing in infrastructure for the sake of our communities, jobs, and economy. Working for water means working for our future. 

Posted in: Waterways

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