The Cold, Hard Facts About Treating Wastewater at an Antarctic Research Site

A California operator leaps at the chance to ply her trade at the wastewater treatment plant at Antarctica’s McMurdo Station.

The Cold, Hard Facts About Treating Wastewater at an Antarctic Research Site

Jeanne Sabin

There are plenty of opportunities for adventurous treatment plant operators, but none so much as the McMurdo Station treatment plant in Antarctica.

There is a period during summer when the sun never breaches the horizon and in winter when the sun doesn’t set. Temperatures are frigid year-round, and psychological challenges abound. Despite that, Jeanne Sabin, formerly an operator with the Sacramento (California) Regional County Sanitation District, jumped at the opportunity to work there for five months.

Today, she continues her adventurous streak as a Ph.D. student in the University of California, Davis civil and environmental engineering department. As part of her studies, she is working on a pilot project for nutrient recovery in human urine, with the goal of promoting full-cycle wastewater resource recovery. She spoke about her once-in-a-lifetime experience in Antarctica during an interview with Treatment Plant Operator.

TPO: Why did you apply for a position in the most isolated place on Earth?

Sabin: I’ve always been interested in going to Mars, and Antarctica is the closest analog on Earth. That’s as close as I’m ever going to get to going to Mars. It was: How can I use my talents to find a way in — to go down to Antarctica in a fairly specific capacity? I didn’t want to just wash dishes or something — that’s what a lot of people do their first year to get in. But I had the skills and the background, and I was what they were looking for.

TPO: Why were you chosen for this opportunity?

Sabin: I have my bachelor’s in biochemistry from the University of California, Santa Barbara. At that point, I had been on the board of a water district for two years. I tend to max out things that I like to do, so I got the Grade 5 certification in two years and went on to the next ladder rung. At that point, I really didn’t have much experience being a sole operator, but the Sacramento Regional Wastewater Treatment Plant is a major inland-discharging facility, and I’d been upgraded to senior operator there when I did my interview. So I had some direct management experience.

TPO: What is the team like at McMurdo Station?

Sabin: Everyone at McMurdo Station is pretty near the top of their game in whatever they’re doing. If you do something stupid, you’re just off the ice, because there are a hundred people who want to have your job. They have three or four people lined up to replace you at the drop of a hat. Not that it was stressful or anything; it was just to make sure that safetywise everything was totally fine. I was just super excited to do it. It’s a bunch of people who have always wanted to be there. It’s many skill sets, but everyone’s at a pretty high level. There are dishwashers I met who had their master’s degrees, because a thousand people apply for 10 dishwasher positions over the summer.

TPO: What were the biggest challenges, operational and otherwise?

Sabin: Mechanically, everything did fine while I was there. It was more having to overcome what wasn’t engineered into the plan. The plant seemed to work well at around 20,000 gpd. The highest flow we had during the summer was 52,524 gpd. We weren’t necessarily running to meet discharge requirements — we were running it as best we could. Day to day, we just operated for process control. The challenge was trying to reconcile that there are solids going through and there’s a minimal amount that I can do about it.

TPO: What was it like being in such different day-length conditions?

Sabin: It’s psychologically intensive. The sun is up the whole time. I saw my last sunset the second or third week there, and I didn’t see the sun set below the horizon again until I was flying away. There are really only so many things you could do. A lot of the fun stuff, social stuff, happens during the day. There were 50 or so other people stuck on night shift, so we’d hang out sometimes. I was super lucky to get a room without a window. I know that sounds not lucky most of the time, but it was great not having to worry about blocking out the sun.

TPO: Antarctic stations are subject to the international Antarctic Treaty. Was obeying those requirements a challenge?

Sabin: What’s cool about this plant is it’s the largest plant on the continent and it goes above and beyond what’s required by the treaty. The only thing that is required for treatment of wastewater is if any permanent base has an average of 30 people or more for the year, they have to grind up their wastewater before it’s discharged. The National Science Foundation decided they wanted to be the example. Even though it’s not perfect, for being 800 miles from the South Pole it’s a pretty good example. So in perspective, I guess, it’s great for what it is.

There are things within this plant where they’d get fined a million dollars by California, but there are no requirements other than to grind up your waste, so everything above and beyond that is peachy. There was no space in the collections system at all; there was no wiggle room. If those grinder pumps failed at any point, you would have discharge to the environment, or even discharge through the floor drains of the plant, in 60 seconds, depending on influent flow. We wouldn’t get fined, and we wouldn’t get fired. It sucks for the environment, but that’s what’s been happening to the discharge for McMurdo Station since the 1950s. This plant is a thousand times better than whatever was there before, and it’s above and beyond what’s currently required.

TPO: How does a station this isolated receive supplies for treatment or repairs?

Sabin: You get what you get. For example, we didn’t have any way of externally adjusting the alkalinity. Alkalinity really dropped from the influent to the effluent, but there was no way to bolster it in extended aeration. It would have required too much soda ash, and it wasn’t feasible to have soda ash feed. There’s no reasonable way to transport large volumes.

I went down in the first couple weeks of October 2016 and got the turnover from the winter operator. He’d had a pretty hard run of it when he was taking down the trains during the winter. He found a bunch of corrosion that hadn’t been found in previous years. He had spent the whole winter basically patching up pinhole leaks in those trains and then coating the entire trains with epoxy that he had had flown in specially. Once we needed to remove volume from the anaerobic digesters. We put it through a belt press and then onto cargo ships to California for landfill.

TPO: Do you have a favorite part of the experience?

Sabin: It’s pretty close to the bottom of the planet, and hardly anyone has ever been here. Without the supply lines for McMurdo Station, people wouldn’t be able to live there. It was great, but I don’t think I’d do it again. I definitely would recommend it to anybody else, but I don’t like getting stuck. I always like to max out something and then choose something different. It was a once-in-a-lifetime experience. It was kind of like a summer camp for adults at the end of nowhere. I guess physically being down there was my favorite part.

TPO: Were you able to experience life outdoors in the Antarctic?

Sabin: There are places you can walk, with rock cairns to mark where you could go out and look over the sea ice. Across it there’s this range of mountains. You can literally walk a quarter-mile away and not hear a single other person, any equipment, or even see the buildings of McMurdo Station. You just hear the wind whistling over the ice, and you can see places where not a single person has ever stepped. It was like being completely alone on the planet. And I’ve never felt like that anywhere before.


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