WEFTEC Flexes Its Mussels

Sea shells find a second life at the world's largest water quality convention.

Today’s guest blogger is Matthew King, communications director for Heal the Bay.

In my past life as an editor at The Hollywood Reporter, I covered way too many film and TV trade shows. Heavy on the glitz and light on substance, these promotional confabs left you exhausted from sensory overload. The studios pulled out all the stops: Jumbotron video banks, hip-hop performances, prancing bikini babes, fog machines, you name it …

As you might imagine, attending something called the Water Environment Federation’s 84th Annual Technical Exhibition and Conference is a bit tamer. But what the world’s largest water quality conference and exhibition lacks in wacky, it certainly makes up in wonky.

Held this week at the Los Angeles Convention Center, WEFTEC 2011 features a dizzying array of the latest technologies and equipment involved in water treatment and sustainability.  I had been kindly invited to check out the conference by Alec Mackie, who serves as VP of the Los Angeles Basin unit of the California Water Environment Assn.

Staring out at the endless sea of UV filtration systems, contaminant and nutrient removal services, data monitors and old-fashioned infrastructure like pumps and pipes, I immediately thought of Mark Gold, Heal the Bay president and self-admitted water geek . With 20,000 participants spread over three giant exhibition halls, this was a veritable Versailles of wastewater. Gold must be in heaven, I thought. Unfortunately, I’m neither an engineer nor a scientist. I felt like a Stranger in a Strange Land.

I debated sitting in on one of the technical panels, but couldn’t choose between “Treatment Technologies for Landfill Leachate” or “Supplemental Carbon for Denitrification.” I wandered the convention floor, but it can be a bit intimidating to engage exhibitors when you don’t know your anaerobic from your aerobic.

 Like a toddler at a construction site, I was content to watch demonstrations of enormous grinding machines that chew up all kinds of solid waste so it doesn’t clog up pump stations.

Rounding a corner, something familiar, something organic, something welcoming caught my eye at one of the stands — mussel and oyster shells. Stacked and shimmering in a cylindrical Plexiglass tube, hundreds of shells looked like they were acting as some kind of filter, with water trickling through the mass and being aerated and then flowing on via piping below.

I had stumbled upon the exhibit of Anua, a North Carolina-based company behind a biofiltration system that eliminates harmful hydrogen sulfide emissions from wastewater pumping stations and the like. If you have ever smelled that rotten egg odor when walking by a sewer manhole cover, you’ve smelled hydrogen sulfide. Not only is the gas flammable, it’s also highly corrosive and can damage equipment.

Wastewater facilities spend a lot of time and money figuring out how to fight the smell. It’s hard to be a good neighbor when you are stinking up the joint – literally. Many treatment facilities have dealt with the problem by dosing sewer lines with chemicals or using carbon absorption systems, which come with their own set of problems.

I learned that companies like Anua are trying to take a more sustainable approach to odor control by using biofilters. Anua employs shells because the calcium carbonate and microorganisms that grow on the shells act to neutralize the hydrogen sulfide and the odors associated with it. Depending on the size of the biofilter, replacement may be a matter of months or years.

Shane Keaney, Anua’s president, said the company is testing the system in a few pilot areas in the United States. It has installed similar biofiltration set-ups in more than 600 locations worldwide.

The shells are natural by-products of the food service industry, Keaney explained. Shells that might normally go to landfill are now used to treat wastewater. So it’s a double win on the sustainability front.  He’s recently tapped into the clam chowder market in New England, as quahog shells have proven to be an effective filter.

Amid all the heavy man-made machinery and complex engineering systems, it’s reassuring to see the effectiveness of something so simple, something borne of the sea.

When you’ve got oysters, who needs bikini babes?


One Response

  1. Love the idea! Malibu might be a great candidate for testing this…

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