Nearly three tons of thick, red sludge are produced each day between the three water treatment plants along Little Toby Creek. For as long as those plants have operated, it’s just been disposed of in landfills.
But the sludge produced at the plant near Brandy Camp may have a more practical application. Scientists say that it could even be used to treat other sources of water pollution.
Bob Hedin, of Pittsburgh-based consulting firm Hedin Environmental, said it shows particular promise for reducing the amount of phosphorous in agricultural wastewater.
“It reacts very readily with phosphate,” he said.
The sludge, which Hedin referred to as an acid mine drainage residual, is the result of the water treatment process carried out at the plant in Brandy Camp. Water pumped into the plant is aerated and treated with potassium permanganate, lowering its acidity and binding together the iron that contaminates it.
The water is then separated from the iron and pumped back out of the plant, while the iron accumulates as a thick mud.
When dried, Hedin said, it can be applied to manure.
“It’s a big deal in the Chesapeake Bay Watershed,” he said. “Manure management is becoming a very important thing.”
Hedin explained that the manure used by many farmers to fertilize their crops contains phosphorous that washes away in rainstorms and contaminates bodies of water. Working with the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection, Hedin Environmental tested over the past several years treating manure with acid mine drainage residuals.
The iron, Hedin said, helped to bind the phosphorous in the manure together and prevent it from being washed away easily. The residuals from the Brandy Camp plant, he said, for whatever reason, appeared to do the job very effectively.
That one contaminant could be used to treat another is a little ironic to Bill Sabatose, of the Toby Creek Watershed Association, which manages the Brandy Camp plant.
“I’d like to get this material where we could try and use it as a moneymaker to help operate the system,” Sabatose said.
But Hedin said wide-scale usage of the Toby Creek residuals likely won’t happen any time soon. The issue, he said, is that the plant doesn’t produce enough for such efforts to be sustainable.