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There’s gold in them thar sewers – there’s millions in it!

A new project has been added to the Red Pennant portfolio on this website; “Making a lake one drop at a time: Targeting the Water and Wastewater markets”. Though Red Pennant’s client, Tetra Tech Canada, based in Vancouver, has lucrative contracts with large oil and gas producers and refineries, it made sense for them to shift their focus to markets that are currently not as much at risk as Petroleum, and also more compatible with the “green” energies and industries of the wider Tetra Tech Group. So, the decision was taken to target the water and wastewater projects of municipal clients in BC. A core question is, why wastewater as a target market? Water is understandable – but wastewater – such an unglamorous (smelly) thing?

Engineers seem to find wastewater engineering as fascinating as any other area of work – it’s all about pipes and valves and meters and tanks and chemistry. I did not realize wastewater had “a certain connotation” until a few years ago. Wastewater is any water that has been contaminated by human use from any combination of domestic, industrial, commercial or agricultural activities, surface runoff or stormwater, and any sewer inflow or sewer infiltration. Contaminated water, particularly sewage, is a byproduct of human habitation, and the more people live in an area, the more handling and treatment of sewage is required, and the more sewerage, the infrastructure that conveys sewage or surface runoff, is needed.

It is a positive sign for the economy when a city grows and welcomes more people, but the water has to come from somewhere, and the sewage has to go somewhere. Like death and taxes, sewerage is one of life’s certainties that will always have to be deal with in a developed society. For that basic reason, Tetra Tech had already built a long track record of wastewater projects all over the world and expansion of the British Columbia waste and wastewater client base was as sound strategy.

Poop is a handy measurement of RNA

Apart from the pervasiveness of poop, so to speak, one must not forget that “Poop could help stop the pandemic. Really.” According to a story in Politico, the traces of RNA, the COVID-19 virus’ genetic material, that is found in sewage is a good way to track the spread of the disease.

The U.S. has struggled to keep pace with other advanced countries on coronavirus testing, and now is considering tracking the spread of the virus through sewage systems as a way to predict where the next hot spot may be. Jay Butler, deputy director for infectious diseases at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, raised the intriguing possibility on 27 April 2020 in a conference call with private-sector representatives. Butler fielded a question about wastewater and explained that while flatulence is not a known way of spreading the virus, the virus can sometimes be present in human waste — and that may be a feature, not a bug.

“It does raise the intriguing possibility, though, that wastewater could potentially be monitored for the presence of the RNA as a marker for whether or not it’s in the community,” he said. “If you’re new to public health, that may seem really odd but that’s actually a practice that’s been done for literally decades to look for reemergence of polio viruses in parts of the world where polio has been eradicated.”

While wastewater surveillance has been used for years in developing countries to detect outbreaks of polio, in the U.S., it has been used more recently to track opioid use within communities. A spokesperson for the CDC confirmed that the agency is eyeing wastewater as part of its response to the pandemic, though it is not yet doing so.

Iona Island Wastewater Treatment Plant in Richmond, BC, is a new facility that will be built by the end of 2030 to replace the existing primary level treatment plant in Richmond. It will be located on the site of the existing wastewater treatment plant on Iona Island. (Photo: Metro Vancouver)

Because the novel coronavirus can be detected in feces within three days of infection — days before most individuals begin showing symptoms — there is hope that wastewater monitoring could provide an early warning of new outbreaks of the virus as the country tries to avoid a second-wave of the pandemic that could arise as states begin to open up.

Recent research out of the Netherlands has shown that the virus’ genetic material, or RNA, can be detected in wastewater as much as two weeks before the first diagnosis of a sick patient by a doctor, said Peter Grevatt, a former Environmental Protection Agency water official who now runs the nonprofit Water Research Foundation. His group this week convened a summit of wastewater utility leaders, researchers, and other experts to chart a path forward on the method.

“There is some near-term potential to use this sewer-shed monitoring as a signal of a trend, and it seems that there could be tremendous value in that as we’re reopening economies around the world and there’s so much uncertainty about what will happen next,” he said.

(From: “Poop could help stop the pandemic. Really.”, by Betsy Woodruff Swan, Daniel Lippman, and Annie Snider, in, 05/01/2020)

There, you see, apart from dealing with human waste and generating energy, wastewater treatment facilities have another potential use. Don’t pull up your nose at wastewater treatment projects. There’s gold in them thar sewers – there’s millions in it! (Misquoting Gold Rush geologist, Dr. Matthew Fleming Stephenson, 1802–1882).

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