A lot of things have changed at the Yelm Wastewater Treatment Facility over the last three years.
Back when Treatment Plant Manager Bill VanBuskirk took over in 2016, he said he inherited a facility in disarray, including years of deferred maintenance, rapidly crumbling infrastructure and a self-sampling system he describes as not being as honest as it could have been.
Today, things are different though, he said.
The facility regularly sends samples out for unbiased reviews, and the facility is slowly but surely catching up on its maintenance.
“It was a huge mess,” VanBuskirk said. “But I’m OK with that, ‘cause I like cleaning that up.”
But there’s one thing that can’t be ignored — the 25-year-old treatment facility and its technology are quickly becoming obsolete, and there are some repairs that cannot be made.
That’s why the city council and staff are discussing the construction of a new membrane bio-reactor system that would bring more efficiencies to the system and process cleaner reclaimed water. It would likely cost upwards of $17 million to construct the facilities and install the system.
Those connected to the facility say it’s likely a question of “when” a replacement will come and not “if.”
The city of Yelm recently finished step one of a three-step plan to revitalize the aging facility. Upgrades within the first step included purchasing new system management software, putting in operation a third equalization basin and installing new pump skid engines, among other upgrades.
Public Works Director Chad Bedlington said the first phase cost just under $1 million. For the second phase, Bedlington said the city plans on looking at the viability of installing the membrane bio-reactor system.
Most of the facilities were built back in the 1990s, Bedlington said. So in addition to the system being used a lot, there’s also been necessary expansions.
“The plant has not seen significant upgrades since that timeline. And so that plant has grown as Yelm’s grown,” he said.
Bedlington said Public Works and the city is evaluating funding models for an MBR system and they plan on looking into grant and state funding.
Wastewater treatment facilities are used to remove contaminants from wastewater and sewage collected by the city and repurpose reclaimed water. Yelm’s reclaimed water currently feeds into Cochrane Memorial Park, Centralia Canal and the Nisqually River.
When tested and processed properly, reclaimed water is safe for use in irrigation, agricultural fields and other areas.
VanBuskirk said it’s best to think of the facility as a giant digestive system.
The plant currently treats around 500,000 gallons of wastewater a day. VanBuskirk said the facility’s busiest day of the year is also coming up, the first day of school. Flows can reach up to 600,000 gallons in that one day.
At first glance, the facility seems like a wondrous marvel of technology — and it is. But a closer look shows that much of the facility, such as the facility’s variable frequency drives (VFD), are aging and exposed to malfunction from daily use.
“These things are going to break any day,” VanBuskirk said of the facility’s VFDs. “That’s really how old and decrepit this plant is.”
VFD computers increase and reduce the flow of water depending on the needs of the basins.
VanBuskirk said while the city has replaced a few VFDs, most if not all are susceptible to power outages and aren’t surge protected. So a lightning strike, for example, at the wrong place could be catastrophic to the operation.
Power sources to the different VFDs also vary.
One of the facility’s basins is also out of commission, and city staff recently installed a bypass in the system to account for this. They’re currently waiting on valve repairs, and the basin will need to be cleaned.
VanBuskirk said a new membrane bio-reactor overhaul is needed to keep the facility to its mission of producing clean, reclaimed water. The technology of the older sequential batch-reactors, the ones the city uses, are faulty.
“There’s a lot of room for error when compared to the MBRs,” VanBuskirk said. “They say MBRs are so efficient, microbes can’t even get past the basin.”
MBR plates are also 10 times more efficient in processing wastewater, he said.
VanBuskirk is passionate about the work he does. The thing he takes the most pride in is keeping the environment clean. But most people don’t see that because the wastewater treatment facility is mostly out of the taxpayers’ sight and mind.
“They probably wouldn’t see anything or they wouldn't notice anything (if we were to build a new facility),” he said. “The environment would know, (Washington State Department of Ecology) would know, we would know.”
But VanBuskirk said he has hope that the city will continue to improve the system. He said Public Works and the mayor are on the same page with a lot of the improvements that need to happen.
“The new management is different than the old management,” he said. “First off, with transparency and accountability. Meaning we’re not hiding the fact that we need to make changes.”
If the city decides to further pursue the MBR system, Bedlington said he plans on going forward to the Yelm City Council with reports detailing the facility design, rate impacts and a general overview of the project’s scope.