Spreading the Word

MWRD of Greater Chicago builds awareness through its award-winning biosolids program and receives national recognition for public education.
Spreading the Word
Biosolids processing and drying operations at the MWRD Lawndale Avenue Solids Management Area (LASMA).

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In the world of biosolids, field trips are not just for kids anymore. At the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District (MWRD) of Greater Chicago, regular Field Days allow the district to get the word out about the beneficial use of biosolids.

"Field Days target users in the Chicago Metro area who are using our dried biosolids as fertilizer and soil amendment," says Albert Cox, MWRD soil scientist. "This includes schools, golf courses and park districts."

MWRD produces about 165,000 dry tons per year of Class A biosolids among four of its seven water reclamation plants. The Calumet, Stickney, Hanover Park and John E. Egan plants distribute the biosolids, mostly on farmland but a small portion locally in the Chicago Metro area.

MWRD received the 2008 National Environmental Achievement Award in the Public Information and Education — Educational Program category from the National Association of Clean Water Agencies.

The biosolids process includes storage of the material in lagoons for a minimum of 18 months, and air-drying on asphalt pads in a process accelerated by mechanical agitation. The district gives the biosolids granules away in bulk.

Get talking

Field Days are the district's main approach to education about the biosolids program. Each Field Day lasts about three to four hours and includes presentations, demonstrations and awards for people and organizations who have successfully used the biosolids.

Says Cox, "The format of Field Days is to get current users and potential users to meet and interact and share information on how they're able to use the biosolids. The day includes seeing a site where biosolids are being used, or a demonstration on how the material could be spread and the equipment used."

Field Days are held at various locations, including suburban villages, park districts and MWRD facilities where users can see the biosolids processes. Greenhouse demonstrations are another aspect of the Field Days.

"Since the use of biosolids in the metro area was relatively new, the greenhouse demonstrations allow people to see how the product could be used," says Cox. "We show comparisons between turf and ornamental plants grown with and without biosolids."

A team of five soil scientists do the technical presentations and provide guidance at the Field Days. "Of the five soil scientists, on average about one-third of staff time goes toward promotion and technical support of biosolids," Cox says.

Residential support

At present, biosolids are distributed to larger organizations and on farm fields, but MWRD wants to get residential users involved. "We've attempted to invite residential people, but we haven't had much success," says Cox. "We've had a lot of calls from homeowners asking about using biosolids on their properties."

Under Illinois law, biosolids distribution on residential properties is severely restricted. "We tell homeowners that based on the current Illinois EPA Part 391 rule, we cannot distribute biosolids to homeowners," says Cox. "We let them know that we are working with the Illinois EPA to change that."

Dan Collins, supervising civil engineer and head of the biosolids program, adds, "While biosolids can be used on residential properties, the way the regulation is set up, you can't apply the material close enough to a dwelling to use it properly. It eliminates many of the users because they don't have that size property with their home."

National recognition

MWRD received environmental management system (EMS) certification from the National Biosolids Partnership (NBP) in 2008. Last year, Collins was selected by the NBP to mentor the City of Houston, Texas, wastewater agency as it implements a similar biosolids program.

"Texas used to do Field Days like we do," says Collins. "They want to get back to that because it's part of the program, to have Field Day events, public participation and communication with outside agencies and residents."

The environment management system Houston will create with Collins' help includes 17 elements. "I'm trying to help them find the 17 elements for their company," Collins says. "A lot of times it's an overwhelming process, and you're trying to teach them that the EMS they're implementing just reflects what they're already doing. It's about documenting what you're doing and continuing to follow and improve on that."

Whether helping residents at home or across the country, MWRD makes sure everyone knows its biosolids are usable. "I'm a big safety guy," says Collins. "From a safety standpoint, it's important that people understand when they're using our Class A product, which we bring out to park districts, that kids can play on that immediately."

Adds Cox: "We want to communicate to the public the district's commitment to the quality of the biosolids and the quality of the program. The district goes beyond what is required."


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