Aspen sewer plant puts bounty on problem flushers
ASPEN ” Few people dreaded Aspen’s record low temperature Thursday as much as the folks at the wastewater treatment plant.
The Aspen Consolidated Sanitation District isn’t biased against winter. Officials there just have an aversion to the problems it brings.
Aspen hotels and lodges activate their boilers at this time of year, and that often means flushing anti-freeze substances. Out of ignorance or belligerence, some operators flush the anti-freeze into drains tied to the sewer system. The anti-freeze raises hell with the multimillion-dollar sanitation plant.
“It throws the whole system out of whack, out of balance,” said Nathan Nelson, an operator at the wastewater treatment plant. “It can have a catastrophic effect on our ability to treat wastewater.”
The sanitation district is so concerned about the problem that it started running an advertisement offering a $500 reward for information that leads to the successful prosecution of anyone willfully dumping banned substances into the sewer system.
It’s no longer the old West where anything can go down the drain, said district manager Bruce Matherly.
That’s because the sophisticated plant depends on bacteria to breakdown and treat sewage. In simplified terms, here is what happens when someone flushes a toilet or sends water down a public sewer drain in Aspen: The wastewater first goes through a straining system that separates out substances that cannot be treated. The wastewater then is directed to aeration basins where bacteria is held. When oxygen is shut off in those basins, the bacteria breathes nitrogen and starts breaking down the wastewater. The water is sent to clarifiers, where the bacteria separates from the clean effluent. The water is exposed to UV rays for further cleansing before it is released into the Roaring Fork River. That process ranges from as little as eight hours during times of high capacity to 20 hours during offseasons.
Nelson said anti-freeze, paint thinners, solvents, diesel fuel and other petroleum products contain toxins that destroy the bacteria and threaten the plant’s ability to effectively treat wastewater. The plant staff can detect when toxins have entered the system due to ongoing, complex testing. It requires a major “baby-sitting effort” to prevent all the bacteria from getting killed during invasions by hundreds, and sometimes thousands, of gallons of toxins.
“It’s sort of like intensive care,” Nelson said.
There have been times that the bacteria couldn’t be saved, and plant officials made emergency trips to the plants in Snowmass Village and Carbondale to restock bacteria.
The toxins cannot be treated before they are dumped, in diluted form, into the river ” the lifeblood of the valley. Dumping anti-freeze into the sewer system is the equivalent of releasing it directly into the river, Nelson said. That has obvious environmental implications on one of the best trout fisheries in the West, and it can land the sanitation district in hot water for failing to meet state and federal treatment standards, Nelson said.
The sanitation district hasn’t invested in a more elaborate and expensive system to handle industrial wastewater since Aspen doesn’t have any industry. It’s an expense that doesn’t make sense. So it needs the cooperation of residents and business operators in Aspen.
Sanitation district officials hope the $500 reward alerts people to the problem. Nelson said there are cases where people ignored warnings and dumped toxins, but for the most part, it’s done because people don’t know the problems they can create. (Aspen’s water department once used caustic soda to clean its plant and nearly “nuked” the sewer plant, Nelson said.)
“It’s more about getting the word out,” he said of the $500 reward.
Anyone who needs to know more about the issue can call the Aspen Consolidated Sanitation District at 925-3601.
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In the six weeks since Independence Pass has been open this season, the Pitkin County Sheriff’s Office already has received 15 reports of semi-trucks trying to or actually driving over the pass.