NSA To Cool Computer Center With Treated Wastewater

Any publicity is good publicity for the clean-water industry

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A new National Security Agency computer center in Fort Meade, Md., will be cooled by treated wastewater from Howard County, Md. Under an agreement announced early this month, and reported on in the Baltimore Sun, the NSA will pay an estimated $40 million to build a pumping station and as much as $2 million per year for up to 5 mgd of treated wastewater. 

While most are heralding the deal as a “win-win” situation for taxpayers and the environment (wastewater that would otherwise be dumped in the Little Patuxent River will be used to cool the massive servers at the data center), others see the project as an opportunity to coral the massive agency, which, thanks to former contractor Edward Snowden, has been the focus of an international debate on data collection programs.

In Utah, for example, a coalition recently lobbied state lawmakers to make it illegal for local governments to supply water and other utilities to the agency. The NSA center in Bluffdale, Utah, requires up to 1.7 million gallons of water per day to operate.

That said, the partnership between the NSA and Howard County really marks an innovative and green approach to water and wastewater needs. And, as the Sun article indicates, it’s an opportunity others are noticing. Howard County wastewater is also being courted by Dryer’s Ice Cream, which boasts a football-field-sized refrigerator with immense cooling needs.

“Across the industry, the effluent out of wastewater plants is of such high quality nowadays that it’s actually a marketable commodity,” said Stephen Gerwin, chief of the county utilities bureau, to the Baltimore Sun. “Not so much on the East Coast, where we have a lot of water. But out West, it’s a big deal. And we’re beginning to do that now. It’s a resource that we used to dump into rivers and let it go. But it gets cleaner and cleaner and cleaner.”

And if Howard County Executive Ken Ulman, who is seeking the Democratic nomination for Maryland’s lieutenant governor in 2014, has anything to do with it, similar partnerships could be more common in the future.

“You look around the port of Baltimore, cold storage facilities, power plants … This is really underutilized resource in the state,” he said in the Sun. “Frankly, this is something that I’m really looking forward to driving statewide.”

Until then, the NSA deal, complete with its spy references and political turmoil, will force the wastewater industry into the national spotlight, reminding us that any publicity is good publicity. 


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