SUNDRE — The cutting-edge technology pitched by a company to not only supplement but also substantially improve the municipality’s existing wastewater treatment process has a proven track record, say officials.
“The system does work,” said Aileen Garrett, chief administrative officer for the Town of Unity, Sask.
The facility, which uses a method called electroflocculation to treat sewage, was commissioned in that community in 2017 and was at the time the first of its kind in the country.
While there have been some “growing pains” such as discovering the need to upgrade to natural gas from propane as a power source for air exchanges, Garrett told The Albertan on July 6 during a phone interview, “We’re very pleased with the system.”
The town, which has a population numbering fewer than 3,000 residents, still has its three-cell lagoon in reserve as a back-up, she said.
“It hasn’t replaced our system,” she said about the new facility. “But it does augment it – it enhances it.”
Darrell Behan, chief executive officer of Arizona-based Soneera Water, said that project was a pilot like the one coming to Sundre.
“We actually paid for it, and the town paid us once they received their certificate to operate,” Behan said.
The science behind the system
Engineer Gonzales Lee, Soneera Water’s vice-president of technical services who essentially designed the system, said the process involves using electrochemical induction to separate waste from water.
“Aluminum and iron ions are being released into the water and then it will coagulate — or bond — with the contaminant from the water,” said Lee, who gained his BE (Electrical, Electronics and Communications) from the University of Santo Tomas, Manila in 1989.
“Coagulating means it’s going to float to the top of the water.”
Lighter contaminants separated through this process will end up floating to the water’s surface, while the rest settles to the bottom and is subsequently drained out, he said.
“Electroflocculation is a process wherein flocculating metal ions are electrolytically added to polluted water at an anode, and gas micro bubbles are released at a cathode. The flocculating metal ions adhere to pollutants in the water, increasing their size, and the gas micro bubbles capture the flocculated pollutants and float them to the surface, from where they can be easily removed,” reads a portion of Soneera’s website that further elaborates.
“By the appropriate choice of electrode materials, this process can remove a wide variety of pollutants without the need for chemicals or filters, with pH adjustment to near neutral at discharge excluded.”
The process is said to not only treat water in less than one hour — a substantial reduction in time compared with the anaerobic method employed by traditional lagoons that can take roughly 200 days — but also reduce greenhouse gas emissions while meeting or exceeding environmental regulations of effluent released back into waterways like the Red Deer River.
Additionally, the process creates a byproduct that can be converted into Class A fertilizer, generally used by the agricultural sector to grow alfalfa for cattle feed, or even sold for use in flower gardens, said Behan.
“The waste that we pull out, we de-water it, we run it through a high temperature, it then comes out in pellets,” he said.
While Garrett said she has been contacted by many other municipalities in Saskatchewan that are curious to learn more about adopting the new technology, the administrator added there have not yet been any new facilities installed elsewhere in the province.
She was also surprised by the $7.5-million funding commitment the Alberta government made toward the facility in Sundre, estimated to cost about $11.5 million, as Unity had not received such support from their provincial government.
“Proof is in the pudding”
Asked how he would respond to doubtful sceptics, Erhard Poggemiller, a mechanical and construction consultant as well as Didsbury town councillor, said, “You get critics in everything you do. As far as I’m concerned, the proof is in the pudding.”
Anyone who’s so inclined, added Poggemiller, need simply contact the operators in Unity to hear for themselves.
“They don’t have to take my word for it. All I know is it was a success,” he said.
Behan said the Unity project clearly demonstrates the technology’s viability.
“That’s why, instead of saying, ‘Trust me, it works!’ we put our money backing our technology,” Behan said. “We’ve proven it works in the harsh environment of Canada.”
The company now has four years of lineal data to corroborate its claims, he said, adding Unity’s certificate to operate had been renewed for another five years.
“It’s not as if we’re saying it will work, we’ve proven it works,” he said. “Our backers and our shareholders wouldn’t be putting up that type of money if they didn’t have faith in the system.”
Although the Town of Sundre’s population is similar to Unity’s, the municipality also serves many more regional users from the industrial sector to rural acreages and campgrounds that require septic services to haul away sewage, he said.
“Unity is very static, so it doesn’t change much. Whereas Sundre changes a lot,” he said, adding the town anticipates future growth.
“It’s not just the size of Sundre, but the surrounding area grows to 20-odd thousand during peak season,” he said, adding as many as 20 truck loads — or about 200 cubic metres — of sewage are on average brought to the municipality’s lagoon on a daily basis.
During the summer, that volume can increase to anywhere from 400 to 600 cubic metres, he said.
“It’s all new technology and the only way some of this stuff gets proved, is by introducing it in various situations and then making sure that the bugs are ironed out,” said Poggemiller.
With Soneera Water fronting the initial cost burden and thereby assuming all of the risk, the municipality won’t have any financial obligation to repay until the provincial government is satisfied with all of the testing that will be conducted throughout a prescribed period of time, said Poggemiller.
“Sundre’s got a really good sweetheart deal that we’ve negotiated,” he said.
Upon previously hearing about the municipality’s multi-pronged predicament of needing to prepare plans to upgrade its wastewater treatment facility to not only improve the quality of effluent but also accommodate future growth, Poggemiller said he was surprised by the initial cost estimates that ranged as high as around $40 million.
Since he was familiar with the new technology, which would cost considerably less, he began to have conversations with Barry Morishita, president of the Alberta Urban Municipalities Association to solicit his interest.
One thing led to another, and before very long, Poggemiller was in contact with Sundre CAO Linda Nelson, which paved the way forward to further discussions with Alberta Environment representatives and eventually an on-site tour in Unity with members of council.
As Poggemiller is running for mayor in Didsbury, The Albertan inquired whether this kind of facility is something he would envision for his own municipality in the future should he be elected.
“I suppose if it’s needed. My understanding when we came to Alberta, is Didsbury had just undergone an expansion of their lagoon facilities,” he said.
“The unique thing about this technology, is it uses your existing facility and expands on it. Right now, Didsbury is sitting good for a number of years.”
But he expressed confidence that the new approach to treating wastewater would benefit Alberta municipalities as a whole.
“Because here’s the situation — there’s a lot of communities in Alberta that need to expand their lagoon facilities, and the government has only got so many dollars to spend. If we can do this new technology for 30, 40 per cent of what the traditional costs are, that’s money available for a whole bunch of other things the province needs,” he said.
“My main mission is to see to it that new technology gets to be adapted in our province and that we’re able to adjust” and progress away from traditional methods, along the way hopefully saving “a bunch of money.”
Technology partners and construction timeline
While Soneera Water, whose head office is in Scottsdale, AZ., is fronting the initial funding for the pilot, Behan said Tecvalco, which has a head office in Niagara Falls, Ont., is their North American distributor and manufacturer.
Tecvalco has its main manufacturing facility in North Battleford, Sask., and also has a facility in Florida, he said.
Soneera also has its sights set on expanding into Canada, with plans to introduce a headquarters in Calgary.
Additional, Behan said the company is looking at buying a site in Sundre to establish a research and development centre.
“For Canada, Soneera will be based in Alberta,” he said.
The municipality had already graded and levelled the site in anticipation of the new facility, and Behan said the next step was to complete groundwork studies prior to starting construction.
Although the company has a lofty goal of completing the project prior to the new year, Behan said that timeline could end up running into next March.