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Sewer plant is end of the line for what goes down MacDill's drains

by Nick Stubbs
Thunderbolt staff writer
Photo by Nick Stubbs

Jason Turaniczo examines treated effluent. It isn’t drinking quality but it’s pretty close and good enough to water the greens and fairways at the base golf courses.

Photo by Nick Stubbs

Jason Turaniczo, a plant operator (left) and Bill Combs, plant supervisor, stand over one of the treatment tanks where waste is broken down for to create clean effluent.

Photo by Nick Stubbs

Wastewater Plant supervisor Bill Combs checks instruments that monitor the treatment process and the various lift stations around the base that collect wastewater.

Some people love their jobs. Some people think their job stinks. For the crew of MacDill's Wastewater Treatment Plant, it's a little of both.

Everything on base that flushes, washes down a sink or swirls down the shower drain - a half-million gallons a day - ends up at the plant. Tucked away on an isolated, dead-end road at the southern extreme of the base off Bayshore Boulevard, few, save those immediately down wind, know the plant is even there.

But each day, a half-dozen fully licensed “facilitators” at the plant oversee a natural process as old as life itself. The procedure is involved, but the result of their work is evidenced by the thriving greens and fairways on the base golf courses, along with everything from azaleas to zephyranthes growing around MacDill that benefits from the clean effluent produced at the plant for irrigation.

"It's an important job - a job that's got to be done," said Bill Combs, plant supervisor and employee of Del-Jen, Inc, which has been running the plant under contract since 1999. Mr. Combs has been on the job since 1982 and he's more than happy when a reporter shows up asking about the job he and his crew members perform.

"It's nothing, really, but a natural process that we sort of see along," he said.

Like most modern treatment plants, raw sewage and wastewater is collected in lift stations, which basically are what is under manhole covers. MacDill has 62 lift stations with pumps that move the water and waste to the plant via pipes, some of them dating back to the 1940s when the base was built.

There, the solids are screened out and the liquid is moved to a massive tank equipped with aeration and the secret ingredient that makes treating the water possible.

"What you have are micro organisms, living things, feeding on the waste," said Mr. Combs.

The hungry little protozoa and bacteria thrive on human waste. Eventually they fall to the bottom with most of the remaining solids and are separated out for phase two, the liquid heading to sand filters and the solids becoming waste sludge, which after a period of time ends up as fertilizer for Polk County farms.

It might be interesting for base residents to know that what they flush down the toilet may one day come back (in a way at least) to the diner table in the form of a vine-ripe tomato made possible by the rich nutrients of the fertilizer they helped create.

MacDill's golfers may see the biggest benefit, however. The golf course, uses on average, about 85 percent of the treated effluent that leaves the plant. While the water is not drinking quality, it is pretty close, said Jason Turaniczo, an operator at the plant as he peered through a glass beaker of effluent ready for irrigation.

"This is not the best I've seen, but it's pretty good," he said, casting his trained eye on the sloshing sample he pulled from a tap at the "end of the line" in the treatment process.

Most of the water now and for the remainder of the rainy season, will be pumped to holding ponds on base. Some 20 million gallons or more is on hand for irrigation at any given time until the dry months, when the course will use nearly all to keep golfers at the Bay Palms Golf Complex happy.

"This is clean water used to water the course," said Mr. Combs. "It has to be because people walk on the course and reach down and pick up balls that are rolling on it."

Mr. Combs added that while he wouldn't drink the effluent his plant produces, after the final step of chlorination to kill any dangerous organisms; it is very near potable water in quality.

In fact, the clarity of the treated water is amazing considering what it looks like when it first arrives.

"We find kids toys like little G.I. Joes and all kinds of stuff," said Mr. Combs. "Anything you can flush ends up here."

One worker found a $20 bill in the filtering screen. It's not clear if it was there by accident or someone somewhere on base has expensive taste in toilet tissue. But then chin scratching and speculation is a natural part of the solids screeners' job. What other odds and ends have emerged at the plant? Lots, is all Mr. Combs will say, a friendly reminder to all that what goes down the drain only appears to disappear.

The MacDill wastewater plant can handle up to 2 million gallons a day, though Mr. Combs admits that's "pushing things to the limit." At most, when heavy rains overfill the lift stations, about a million gallons a day can be expected. All the collection systems are monitored by sensors connected to computers at the plant and workers can flip through display screens at any given time to see the condition and levels at most of them, using the data to keep everything from getting out of hand.

The plant crew is on duty from 7:30 a.m. to 11:30 p.m. and is on call for emergencies the rest of the day.

Mr. Combs said the plant is maintained very well and equipment is upgraded regularly. A new office building on the site opened in April this year. Elevated so workers can survey the surrounding collection and processing tanks easily, it also has the benefit of a nice view of Tampa Bay.

Mr. Combs said ongoing drainage improvement work, particularly along Hangar Loop Drive, should help prevent a lot of the overload the wastewater system sees, particularly at this time of year when flooding rains are prevalent.

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