Nature’s Remedy and Science Deliver Fix for Critical Treatment Issues

Nature’s Remedy and Science Deliver Fix for Critical Treatment Issues

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The desert town of Jal, New Mexico, recently discovered a surprisingly affordable and effective new technology to remedy its failing treatment plant and effluent compliance that delivers results thru the combination of nature’s remedy, science and cutting edge technology. 

As the state’s southeasternmost city, New Mexico’s desert town of Jal nuzzles the Texas border on the east and sits not far from it on the south. Its location in the center of the Permian Basin — a prehistoric depression in the Earth, from which 50% of America’s oil production comes — makes it a key player in accommodating the thousands of people who arrive each year to help build and operate infrastructure in the surrounding oil fields.

The fact that the town was built to house roughly 2,500 residents, but currently plays host to at least twice that many if not more, is the kind of thing that would keep any wastewater treatment plant operator up at night. Add to that the reality that, even before the most recent drilling boom, Jal’s 50-year-old wastewater collection and treatment facilities were already far beyond their designed service life, and you’ve got the makings of a nightmare.

Not a new problem

Jal’s treatment capacity issue has long been on the radar of state regulators in Santa Fe. Before the oil boom, the lagoon-type system was processing about 125,000 gpd. In the middle of the boom, it got up to about 280,000 to 300,000 gpd. Currently, intake ranges from 230,000 to 240,000 gpd. Nearly the entire town is on the public collection system.

The current plant was designed to handle up to 400,000 gpd, “but that’s really pushing it,” says Jal City Manager Matt White. “If we got to that point, it would be real hard to keep up, mainly because we only have one location to go to with the effluent water, and that’s a golf course. During the summer, they can take everything. During the winter, it becomes a real problem. They just don’t need the water.”

In 2013, a $1,180,000 loan/grant package from the federal USDA Rural Development’s Water and Environmental Program (WEP) was implemented to begin upgrading the existing wastewater treatment facility. However, this wasn’t sufficient to overcome the massive influx of wastewater from long-term, temporary workers, after the pioneering of horizontal drilling methods in the 1990s put previously inaccessible crude sources within reach.

There are only a handful of actual hotels in Jal, and three so-called “man camps,” constructed to house workers — 500 in one, 300 in another, and 50 in the third — in single-person mini apartment housing units with cafeteria-style food service. Most have sanitary facilities that flow into the municipal wastewater system. These camps no doubt put a strain on Jal’s already insufficient treatment infrastructure. But the real culprit is the 700-plus recreational vehicles that began showing up after all the man camps had been filled.

New stressors

Instead of building more man camps, oilfield producers figured out that it required far less up-front costs to simply encourage incoming workers to arrive in their own, fully equipped RVs. Then the only problem would be finding spaces for them to park, and to offload their sewage and graywater tanks — a single dump site made available by the town.

That worked for a while, until the few local RV parks filled up. Then, according to an area law firm’s website, “almost every vacant lot has been turned into an RV encampment.” This created its own problems, to the point when, in summer of 2020, Jal had to impose a six-month moratorium on new RV parks. This gave experts time to determine the next steps to best accommodate itinerant workers, while continuing to address the city’s long-out-of-compliance wastewater treatment facilities.

In an article in the News-Sun newspaper from January 2020, White explained the dilemma:

“A man camp is like a house. It’s flow-through water. They don’t put chemicals in it. It’s basically either gray or black water, which doesn’t hurt your plant. A man camp is a different story. RVs are what kills you, because of the chemicals in them.”

He was referring to the widespread use of chemicals in RV waste tanks. When those are emptied into the city’s sewer system, the chemicals reduce the wastewater treatment plant’s effectiveness in lowering nitrates and total dissolved solids.

This was an issue, because the city had found a way to reuse the effluent from the out-of-compliance treatment plant by applying it to a local golf course to keep it green. With the bombardment of the treatment plant by the chemically treated RV waste tank flows, White explained that the wastewater plant is not meeting the state requirements on total nitrogen and other measurements. “We have to meet a certain nitrogen level to put that water on the golf course. So, to try to get that down, we don’t want any more RVs than we have now.” So the moratorium went into effect and was voted to remain in place in January 2020, for at least another six months.

Multiple challenges

The city, roughly 9 square miles in area, is in a full desert setting, but its main challenge is that its treatment plant and collection assets are all past their 50-year design life.

“When it was built, it was a good system for what it did, and it’s done very well,” says White. “About 10 to 15 years ago, we did two major renovations. The axial lagoons had to be relined and cleaned. We did some headwork in there. Of course, any time we put (new construction) in, we also put new sewer lines in.”

But the main issue is with the lagoon system. The operators find it difficult to keep BOD and TSS within the range of state requirements. When White became city manager about four years ago, Jal was out of compliance with state regulations on BOD, TSS and total nitrogen.

“When the state came in, they didn’t violate us, but told us we had to fix the system,” he says. “It was going to cost way too much to keep a lagoon system in operation, especially with the RVs coming in and dumping all the chemicals. So we worked with the state — we actually had a PER done — and with the USDA to finance a new system that gets away from lagoons.”

Jal officials talked to state regulators about alternatives like a rock filter or infrared system. They actually installed infrared, which helped, but didn’t get them where they needed to be. With new federal requirements coming, on top of the state requirements, “there really just wasn’t a way to bring the lagoon system into compliance,” White says. “It’s just going to gradually get worse over the years.

“Our headworks is so old, we’re going to have to replace the whole thing. We’re looking at building a wastewater plant that can actually recycle the water. We’re in the middle of the desert, so we use the water at present on the golf course. But we actually have some extra water we would like to put onto our parks. And we even have a little lake here, we’d like to put it in there. So we’re actually looking at trying to reuse all of this water.”

The compliance challenge

Jal’s plant holds a Class 1B effluent quality permit. Its 30-day average for BOD should be around 30 milligrams max; TSS, around 30 milligrams, 45 max; and total nitrogen 30, with 30 maximum. In 2018, Jal’s BOD was 45.2 for the year; TSS, 59.3; and nitrogen 33.7. By 2019, it was 39.5 BOD; TSS, 44.3; and total nitrogen 41.5. In 2020, numbers had dropped to 20.2 BOD, 48.5 TSS and 29.1 total nitrogen.

“You can see we were starting to get it a little bit under control, but we were really still out of compliance,” says White. “In 2021, January through June, we had 12.2 on the BOD, 30.5 on TSS and 25.6 on total nitrogen. That was during COVID, when all the trailers left, so that actually came nearly back into compliance.”

New technology

In early 2021, White was introduced to EnBiorganic‘s bioaugmentation technology. The compact treatment solution seemed to be worth at least a trial to determine if it could be the answer to Jal’s challenges. By design, it would not be trying to fight a chemical problem (from the RV population) with more chemicals; instead, it uses naturally occurring soil bacteria to eliminate Jal’s wastewater pains. The EBS-Di from EnBiorganic Technologies combines the power of customized proprietary soil microbiology with autonomous delivery technology for all-natural, sustainable biological treatment of wastewater.

The EBS-Di unit measures 4 feet long by 2 feet wide by 3 feet tall. Through a patent-pending process, it generates and activates customized microbiology just before it enters the wastewater system. This means the microbes are immediately ready to go to work dominating a system and delivering consistent results. The consortium of microbes is customized to each application; in this case, suited to Jal’s wastewater stream. Unlike indigenous microbiology, this efficient consortium can perform without oxygen. It is also highly adaptive, translating to reduced retention time requirements. This, in turn, lowers the cost per volume treated. It generates, activates, adapts and dispenses EBT-Microbes in one package.

The generator grows microbe cultures at a rapid pace, on a massive scale. It is positioned where it can inject these microbes into the natural or manmade body of water, at a level that simply overwhelms the inappropriate or problem nutrients or contaminants. For Jal, it was placed at the plant’s headworks, the location identified by Jal and EnBiorganic’s technical team as the most advantageous location to achieve desired outcomes.  

All that was required to set it up was a physical footprint to accommodate the equipment, and a reliable electric power source. The EBS-Di did not require capital expenditure or additional operational labor/expenses by Jal. It is provided by subscription, or through the Technology As A Service (TaaS) model. The unit is remotely controlled and monitored by EnBiorganic‘s technical team.

The Results

With RVs starting to return in July of 2021, Jal installed its EBS-Di unit at the headworks. They will soon be housing it in a small building, simply running the feeder line into the headworks as wastewater enters the treatment system. White says according to the July through October numbers, the system seems to work. “These numbers are shocking, but they are the numbers. BOD has dropped down to 5.5 milligrams, TSS is down to 5.2 and total nitrogen is at 10.9. I was skeptical when they said they were going to do this, but it has seemed to work.”

White made other notes on outcomes of running the EBS-Di unit:

  • BOD, TSS and total nitrogen concentrations have consistently met NMED’s Class 1B efficient reuse limits since the system was installed.
  • The aerated lagoon has a nice, fresh odor to it now, typical of a biological activated sludge plant.
  • The floc within the lagoon is uniform in size, and actually settles out evenly now.
  • Clarity within the chlorine contact chamber has improved to 2-3 feet, where it was previously less than one foot.
  • There is a slight reduction in fats, oils and grease within the splitter boxes. White is not certain it’s because of the new system, as it may be because of the RVs moving out a little bit, but it has shown up.
  • Sludge volumes — checked before and afterwards — have shown no increase within the lagoon.

The city of Jal has signed a long-term contract to run the EBS-Di system until the new treatment facility can be built. But if the new plant takes longer, the system will continue deferring costs while getting the job done, says White. “At the present time, we’re very pleased with what we’ve seen. It seems to be working very, very well.”


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