The way that North Bergen Municipal Utilities Authority Executive Director Robert Fischer looks at it, the warning signs came last December, when the six of the rotating biological contactors (RBCs) at the township’s Central Water Treatment facility on West Side Avenue began to break down.
The RBCs are the heart of the wastewater operation of the township. Ever since 1979, the gigantic gear-like structures have collected grit and sludge from the township’s sewer lines, cleaned the water, then sent it back into either the Hudson River or the Cromakill Creek, a tributary of the Hackensack River.
For the last 21 years, it’s been a continuous process – grit and sludge from the raw sewerage comes into the treatment plant, gets filtered through the RBCs, gets treated with the help of microorganisms and then gets shipped back out as clean as possible. But when six of the township’s 32 gears break down, then it’s cause for concern.
“The grit settling on the outside of the in-tanks become too heavy for what it’s designed to hold,” Fischer explained. “We repaired some of those shafts, but the others became overworked, because we had lost 20 percent of our capacity. With the general wear and tear, the RBCs usually have a life of 15-to-20 years. They’re not predicted to last much longer. When [we lost] six in a span of four months, it gave us an uneasy sense, that if we didn’t do something soon, we could be in trouble later on.”
Frank Restana, the operational superintendent at the Central Treatment Plant, put it in more layman’s terms. “It’s like a car with 200,000 miles,” Restana said. “Sooner or later, you’re going to need a new car.”
For the township of North Bergen, in terms of maintaining its water treatment, it’s more sooner than later. The MUA will introduce a plan that will eliminate the current RBC approach of treating water and replace it with an activated sludge system, which will feature giant tanks that will hold both the microorganisms and the wastewater together, will be fed oxygen and will clean the water inside the tank.
The new water treatment facility, with an estimated cost of $28 million, could begin construction in June, 2002, with a completion target date of June, 2004. It will be built closer to the present facility.
The activated sludge system has been proven to be cost-effective and a more efficient way to treat wastewater. It is already being used in several local municipalities, including the township of Edgewater, the Bergen County Utilities Authority and the Passaic Valley Sewerage Commission Treatment Center in Newark.
“When we upgrade our system, we will be able to take in more wastewater when it rains,” Fischer explained. “Because of our terrain in North Bergen, when it rains, the velocity of the wastewater through the sewers double and the grit gets carried faster. There are times where bricks are flushed through the system. And everything comes straight on down the hill.”
Restana added, “You have no control over what comes down that hill.”
The township could spend millions on repairs to the existing plant, but there’s no guarantee as to how long the RBCs will remain effective. Right now, five RBCs have been totally shut down, while the remaining ones in need of repair are operating, but the MUA is literally holding its breath.
“It’s really not worth the capital advance,” Fischer said about making repairs and improvements to the existing facility. “Plus, to make the sufficient repairs, we would have to raise the roof of the building just to get at the RBCs.”
Plus, to make such a significant upgrade, plans have to be made now. It cannot be transformed in a piecemeal fashion. It’s all or nothing.
“We can’t miss a beat,” Fischer said. “It has to be a synchronized procedure, going from one to the other. You have to have a new facility in place.”
Repairs to the existing facility wouldn’t make sense, considering that many of the existing metal structures in the facility are severely rusted and oxidized from 21 years of use.
“It is a major project with major benefits to the township,” Fischer said.
And the good news is that the funding for the project will not come from an increase in usage fees.
Fischer explained that the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection will offer a low-interest loan as part of the DEP’s New Jersey Environmental Infrastructure Trust, with half of the loan coming at no interest rate. Last year, the MUA finished its $3.3 million Combined Sewer Overflow Project with DEP money, with a final saving of $1.5 million to the township.
The new activated sludge system will also handle a greater volume of water flow. Right now, the capacity is 17 million gallons per day. The new system will handle 25 million gallons, so that will alleviate any flooding problems.
Plus, since most of the structures will be made of concrete, the system should have a longer shelf life. “It’s not labor intensive,” Fischer said. “There will be no gear boxes or metal shafts.”
If the MUA receives the approval for the proposed project, it would also mean that North Bergen will be ahead of its time. The state DEP is expected, within the next seven years, to require a nutrient limit level in its wastewater, to reduce the amount of nitrogen that is released. The current RBC system has no way to determine nitrogen levels.
Fischer credited the workers who man the Central Treatment Plant.
“Given the failure of the RBCs in the past year, the workers have been under an intense workload,” Fischer said. “It’s been a juggling act to keep it at an efficiency level and a lot of that is related to Frank [Restana] and Andy Castillo [the plant’s superintendent of maintenance]. We have a good group of workers and they’ve gone beyond expectations.”
Right now, Fischer is at work putting together a conceptual design plan for the proposed project.
“We’re about a month away from having a preliminary design,” said Fischer, who has already called upon the services of a prestigious waste management construction consulting firm, Metcalf & Eddy.
“We will then have to collect permits from the DEP and other regulatory waste management agencies, like the Hackensack Meadowlands Development Corporation,” Fischer said. “Then, it will go out for bids.”
But the plan is in place – before the existing treatment facility becomes obsolete and unable to function properly. “I think it’s better now than when we receive fines of $50,000 a day from the state,” Fischer said. “We’re taking the proper steps.”