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What the fluff? Unidentified substance causing problems at Smiths Falls water pollution control plant

The Smiths Falls Water Pollution Control Plant has seen an influx of a “fluffy” material that is clogging up the screens. Staff suspects it may be disposable wipes that have been flushed down toilets. They caution residents not to flush items such as wipes, and sanitary products, etc. – Laurie Weir photo

What is clogging up the water pollution control plant (WPCP) in Smiths Falls?

That’s the question staff are trying to figure out as they’re removing wheelbarrows full of “fluff” that is clogging up screens during the treatment process.

Jason Barlow, manager of the town’s water and waste water, shared with council’s committee of the whole on Monday, March 25, that they’ve been having some “major issues” with solids.

“We’re having an issue with an unknown substance,” he said. “We’re saying that it’s wipes, or something else that’s being put into the system, (and) with our process for solids’ handling, it’s creating an issue in our pelletizer.”

Barlow said wipes, “and things of that nature,” don’t break down. They’re able to break them down somewhat with their systems, “but there is a substance that is getting through that preliminary treatment and is ending up in our sludge.”

When the pelletizer heats the sludge to burn off the contaminants, Barlow said it’s creating a “fluff,” which is getting stuck in the screens.

“Right now, we are operating on a day-to-day basis and we’re (moving) two or three wheelbarrows of this fluff out of our system every day to be able to run,” Barlow said. “It created a major issue in December, and January this year where we had to truck a lot more sludge out to Ottawa and to a facility in Iroquois.”

There is not a lot of capacity for sludge at the Smiths Falls facility.

Coun. Dawn Quinn said it’s time to educate people because they’re running into issues with “something” that is blocking the screens.

Barlow said there are many campaigns that share information about what you should not be flushing down toilets.

“We’re trying to analyze what this material is,” he said, as they’ve been searching for a lab to help identify the substance.

“If we knew what it was it would be much easier to target.”

They’re “researching institutes” in the area to see if there have been any changes to what they’re doing that may be impacting the plant.

Coun. Chris McGuire asked if this substance was specific to Smiths Falls.

Barlow said, this is “localized to Smiths Falls … it costs us money to remove those from the system.”

Sludge is processed into pellets, which are then sold to GFL Environmental Inc. to facilitate sales for farmers to spread on their fields as fertilizer. These pellets are regulated by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) under the Fertilizer Act. Exact locations of the farmers’ disposal sites (fields) are decided by the farmer.

Last year, 14,153 cubic metres of sludge was processed into 234 tonnes of pellets. The WPCP also experienced three bypass episodes due to high flow from extreme weather events in April of 2023.

Director of Public Works and Utilities Paul McMunn said that as long as they continue to invest in the water pollution control plant and continue with reconstruction efforts (sewer separation at the north end), these operations will increase operations at the plant. Once the new water tower and trunk line are built, this should also alleviate capacity at the WPCP.

“Of course, we can’t control Mother Nature and the weather, we can do what we can to invest into that part of the system,” McMunn said.

“Operators in both facilities and out on the street had never seen water flow at that capacity,” Barlow said, and these are 25 and 30-year operators.

Mayor Shawn Pankow asked what the risk to the environment would be during high flow events.

“Is there a possibility with some of the storm systems we’re seeing … is there any risk of an earlier bypass in other words, before we even get primary treatment?”

Barlow said he would hope not, but “this day and age anything is a possibility … those rain/flow events were extreme. Let’s hope that is the worst we see. We did exceed our objectives in April because of those flow events.”

There is a possibility that events like this could happen year over year due to climate change, Barlow said.

In 2023, the WTCP experienced a volume of 115,348 cubic metres over 205 hours for three events compared to three events in 2022 over a 69-hour period with a volume of water just under 12,000 cubic metres.

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