Chase named treatment plant operator of the year

Thu, 03/11/2021 - 5:45pm

Behind the scenes of the pristine environment that gave Block Island the designation of one of the Western Hemisphere’s “last great places” by The Nature Conservancy in 1991 are the people and infrastructure that protect it while providing vital services to the people who live and visit here.

Those who provide water and electricity immediately come to mind. Then there’s the dirty little secret: everybody poops. Here’s where the sewer plant comes into play. It’s an important but overlooked service element of how the island works.

Hotels, restaurants, marinas, visiting boats, and even all homes with individual septic systems produce waste that eventually ends up at the wastewater treatment plant. Unobtrusively tucked away off Spring Street just south of downtown, Block Island’s sewer plant is a modern-day model of how to do things right.

Earlier this month, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s New England office announced that Sewer Superintendent Dylan Chase was the recipient of the 2020 Regional Wastewater Treatment Plant Operator of the Year Award – an award “established to recognize and honor the employees of publicly owned wastewater treatment plants for their commitment to improving water quality with outstanding plant operations and maintenance.”

Chase was “recognized for his outstanding work over the years operating and maintaining the facility. Mr. Chase was one of only three individuals across New England to receive this award. The R.I. Department of Environmental Management was instrumental in Chase’s nomination,” wrote the EPA.

On Saturday, March 6, The Block Island Times took a tour of the plant with Chase, who was proud to show off how the whole operation works.

The plant receives 40,000 to 60,000 gallons of wastewater per day in the offseason, and approximately 250,000 gallons per day during the summer – with a peak of 300,000 that usually occurs on the Fourth of July.

It’s a complex operation to collect all that goes through the sewer system and properly treat it with the end result being clean water and “cakes” of driedout solids. The plant is fed by five satellite pump stations. There are three in New Harbor – at Champlin’s Marina, the New Harbor Boat Basin, and by the Hog Pen. Closer to Old Harbor is the brightly painted Ocean Avenue pump station and then finally, the last one, hidden in a quaint little building between the Post Office and Ballard’s. From there, all of the wastewater flows another 600 feet in an underground pipe to the sewer plant.

There, Dylan and his team that includes Joe Cantone, Jamie Casady, and Kody Nicastro get to work. First, the incoming water flows through a bar rack where large debris such as rags and clumps of hardened grease are raked out. Then it flows to the primary settling tank where, with a rake moving it all around, grit and heavier solids are removed and shoveled into a bin. “Wipes,” even those labeled flushable, usually get stuck at the pump stations and are a major source of clogging.

Then the real “treatment” begins. It is a process where the biological and chemical combine in a dance to break down the waste. Bacteria are the major drivers – Chase calls it “activate sludge.” The bacteria need the proper pH (that’s where the chemicals come in) and plenty of oxygen to thrive and do their thing. They’re hungry and when they are done with one batch, they are saved to do it all over again. The method is somewhat akin to maintaining a sour dough starter or yogurt cultures. There’s a reason they call it “wastewater management.”

With a series of pumps, pipes, and tanks the water that arrives dirty eventually leaves clean and is discharged to the ocean, but not before it is both chlorinated to remove any pathogens and then de-chlorinated. The removed solids are squeezed through a large wringer and pressed into a “cake” that goes to the state’s Central Landfill in Johnston.

Untreated wastewater can result in all kinds of diseases, shut down shell-fishing for amateurs, and wreak havoc on aquaculture. Block Island wouldn’t have the attraction it has if the waters all around were polluted.

Chase says it’s an important public service. When he heard that storm water run-off from the town beach parking lot was diverted to the Great Salt Pond after a storm earlier this winter, Chase got on it. From then on, a truck was provided to take the water to the sewer plant where it was properly treated.

When Covid hit he instituted the then-novel practice of having the wastewater tested to see if the disease was lurking in the community. It was.

Although Chase is proud of being named in the award, he is quick to point out that it is, truly, a team effort, and he appreciates the opportunity to share how this important function works with the community.