The Operators at the End of Nowhere: Treating Antarctica's Wastewater

A treatment plant operator shares her experience working at the bottom of the world at McMurdo Station, Antarctica

The Operators at the End of Nowhere: Treating Antarctica's Wastewater

Jeanne Sabin

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Jeanne Sabin always liked the idea of going to Mars. When an opportunity arose to operate a wastewater treatment facility at the most analogous place on this planet — Antarctica — she took it.

Spending five months at the bottom of the world in Southern Hemisphere summer, when the sun never sets, was “psychologically intensive” for Sabin, but also an experience like nothing else on earth.

“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. It was once-in-a-lifetime. It’s an experience that I don’t think I’ll ever have again,” she says. “It was kind of like a summer camp for adults at the end of nowhere.”

The unique challenges of living in such an isolated area for long stretches of time was reflected in her work. She was the sole night-shift operator, something of a paradox considering the lack of darkness.

Located on Ross Island, directly south of New Zealand, McMurdo is operated by the U.S. National Science Foundation. Its treatment plant is the largest on the continent.

An adventurous operator

Prior to working at McMurdo, Sabin had achieved California Grade 5 operator certification working for the Sacramento Regional County Sanitation District. By comparison, the Antarctic three-train treatment plant is fairly basic from an operational standpoint.

JWC Environmental Muffin Monster grinders are followed by simple bar screens, then influent flows into an anoxic basin and extended-aeration activated sludge clarifiers, with medium-intensity UV disinfection before discharging through a heated pipe that dives under 6 feet of ice into the ocean.

“What’s cool about this plant is it’s the largest plant on the continent of Antarctica, and it goes above and beyond what’s required by the International Antarctic Treaty,” Sabin says. “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.”

Prior to building the treatment plant in 2013, the station was simply discharging directly into the ocean.

“NSF decided they wanted to be the example,” she says. “Even though it’s not a perfect example, it’s still — 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.”

Basic doesn’t mean that day-to-day process control was without unusual challenges. Because it’s such a small system, and there is no equalization basin preceding intake, waste streams typically hit the plant within 30 seconds of going down the drain. Extreme diurnal flows could be difficult to manage, and occasionally surpassed the plant’s intake capacity.

“The plant seemed to work well around 20,000 gallons a day,” Sabin says. “The highest flow we had during the summer was 52,524 gallons in a day.”

On average during the summer, when the population was at peak, average treatment was closer to 35,000 gallons a day.

During those peak flows, operators fell back on the sole redundancy plan in place for the facility — a bypass for direct discharge into the ocean.

Though not an environmentally friendly backup plan, there are no penalties if it happens. Fortunately for the operators, there are no reporting standards or governing bodies that regulate treatment.

“We wouldn’t get fined, we wouldn’t get fired,” Sabin says. “It sucks for the environment, but that’s what’s been happening to the discharge for McMurdo since the '50s. This plant is a thousand times better than whatever was there before, and it’s above and beyond what’s currently required.”

Kindred spirits

One of her favorite parts of the experience was meeting the diverse group of people who, like her, were crazy enough to spend six months in the middle of nowhere.

“It’s just a bunch of people who have always wanted to be there,” she says. “It’s a bunch of different skill sets, but everyone’s at a pretty high level. There are dishwashers I met who had their master’s, because there are a thousand people applying for 10 dishwasher positions over the summer.”

Sabin was lucky to get a paid position in her field, something where she could utilize her existing talents instead of trading menial labor for the opportunity to be there. Most people who want to do research in Antarctica either vie for positions outside their field or simply volunteer their time.

“Everyone’s pretty near the top of their game in whatever they’re doing,” she says. “If you do something stupid, you’re just off the ice, because there’s a hundred people who want to have your job, and 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 safety-wise, everything was totally fine.”

With a bachelor’s in biochemistry and two years on the water district board in addition to operational experience, Sabin fit the mold of what NSF looks for in Antarctic staff.

“I was just super excited to do it, which is what they’re looking for,” she says. “At that point, I really hadn’t had that much experience being sole operator of a wastewater treatment plant, but the Sacramento Regional Wastewater Treatment Plant is the largest inland-discharging wastewater treatment plant, and I’d been upgraded to senior operator there when I did my interview, so I’d had some direct management experience.”

She says one of the other operators that she worked with in Antarctica was a government operator who had a 20-year career working on small systems across the globe, including Afghanistan.

“I wasn’t anywhere close to that level, but I tend to max out things that I like to do, so I got the Grade 5 certification in like two years, and I went to the next thing, the next ladder rung. I’m kind of doing that right now, too, with my master’s.”

After her summer at McMurdo, Sabin was accepted to the master’s program at University of California-Davis, in civil and environmental engineering.

Not in California any more

Running a plant that doesn’t have discharge requirements to meet and won’t get in trouble for issues was an adjustment, to say the least.

“It’s kind of you get what you get,” Sabin says. “For all its shortcomings, comparatively to California — there are things within this plant where they’d get fined a million dollars by California — but there’s no requirements other than to grind up your waste, so everything else above and beyond that is peachy.”

The operators at McMurdo gave weekly reports to NSF and were required to do a 24-hour characterization of the plant with a full gamut of tests annually, but there were no goals to meet our penalties to fear.

Despite the lack of potential repercussions for what would typically be considered inadequate treatment, there were aspects of the system that kept operators on their toes.

“There was no space in the collections system at all, there was no wiggle room,” Sabin says. “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.

“Mechanically, everything did fine while I was there, it was more having to overcome what wasn’t engineered into the plant,” she says.

In addition to the limitations of the plant, the infrequency and difficulty of transporting large quantities of resources made it difficult to maintain high-quality effluent. For example, the plant experienced alkalinity issues, but maintaining a soda ash feed wasn’t feasible, so there wasn’t anything they could do to fix it.

“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 and to do the best we could,” Sabin says. “The challenge was trying to reconcile that there’s solids going through and there’s a minimal amount that I can do about it.”

A worthwhile endeavor

An experience filled with isolation and challenges, there’s no denying that spending five months in Antartica is a bold move for any operator. But for Sabin, now that this opportunity is under her belt, she’s looking to the horizon for the next big adventure.

“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,” Sabin says.

As for overcoming the unique difficulties of Antartica, she says the benefits outweigh the cost.

“There are places you can walk, with rock cairns to mark where you could go out and look over the sea ice, and 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,” Sabin says. “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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