By Carl Weiser
Enquirer Washington Bureau
WASHINGTON - It flocculates! It coagulates! But what most excites local sewer officials about a house-sized gizmo called the Actiflo system is that it could save ratepayers hundreds of millions of dollars.
The Actiflo system is essentially a mini sewage-treatment plant. Only three are operating in the United States. The Metropolitan Sewer District plans to install one in Reading, near the General Electric Aircraft Engines plant, to treat the sewage-infused water that floods into Mill Creek after heavy rains.
"The whole purpose of this thing is to help limit the financial impact on our ratepayers" while cutting down on overflows, said Director Patrick Karney of the sewer district, which has 800,000 customers in Hamilton County. "We're talking savings to ratepayers in the hundreds of millions."
That's because the other alternative to cope with the overflows is to build a pipe 13 miles long to the Mill Creek Water Reclamation Facility in Lower Price Hill.
With more than 300 places where the sewer system can overflow during heavy rains, other Actiflo plants could - if it works - be bought for several dozen spots, saving hundreds of millions locally, Karney said.
The Reading location was picked because it was the worst overflow site where untreated water flows right into Mill Creek from a pipe during big storms. Mostly, that water is gray, with an occasional toilet paper roll, paper and other stuff that might get flushed down a toilet.
"It will be discharging for days after a rain," said Marilyn Wall, an environmentalist who has visited the site where the Actiflo system would be installed.
But while she and Karney agree on the problem, they disagree on whether Actiflo is a good enough solution.
While an Actiflo plant may be better than what's there now - nothing - "if it doesn't make the river downstream fishable and swimmable, it's still not compliant with the Clean Water Act," said Wall, conservation chairwoman for the Sierra Club's Ohio chapter.
The sewer district could build the 13-mile pipe or build a real treatment plant there, she said. Her group may sue to stop the Actiflo plant from being built.
An agreement between the sewer district and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency obligates the Metropolitan Sewer District to end sewer overflow violations by 2022 and end sewage backups in customers' basements within five years. It caps total costs at $1.5 billion.
The Actiflo plant will cost about $15 million. The local congressional delegation provided $800,000 for it in the giant fiscal 2004 spending bill President Bush signed Friday. The rest will come largely from ratepayers.
Karney, who hopes to have the Actiflo system up and running by 2006, said it would be impossibly expensive to ensure that all water entering Mill Creek during every storm will be perfectly clean.
"You can't build for the 500-year storm. It's economically impossible," he said. "You have to make some decisions."
The Actiflo plant won't directly help solve the sewer district's biggest headache: sewage that backs up into people's basements after heavy rains. But it may help indirectly by relieving some of the excess.
The Actiflo uses tiny grains of sand, called microsand, and a special chemical to pick out pollutants in the wastewater rushing through it. The pollutants get clumped together, much the way kitty litter works, and settle at the bottom into a sludge that is sent back into the sewer system to be processed. (That's the flocculation and coagulation.) The sand itself goes through a small cyclone and gets sent back to pick up more pollutants.
The Actiflo process is "absolutely on the cutting edge. It's a new innovation," said Adam Krantz, lobbyist for the Association of Metropolitan Sewerage Agencies. The trade group represents organizations like the Metropolitan Sewer District.
The Actiflo plant would kick in only after rainstorms or snowstorms overwhelm the pipes there now, Karney said.
Made by a Cary, N.C., company called Kruger Products, the Actiflow process is aimed at areas like Cincinnati with older sewer systems that can get overwhelmed when it rains.
"You don't have to rip up streets," said Mike Gutshall, Kruger's vice president for marketing.
The first one was built in Bremerton, Wash., on Puget Sound. It has helped clean the water in the area enough that shellfish beds have reopened, according to William Sullivan, Actiflo's product manager.
Port Clinton on Lake Erie also has built an Actiflo plant, expected to come on line later this year.
Greater Cincinnati gets $25 million
President Bush signed an $820 billion spending bill Friday, finishing the fiscal 2004 budget for the federal government almost four months late.
Besides $800,000 for the Metropolitan Sewer District, it contained about $25 million especially for Greater Cincinnati, including these projects:
$3.5 million for The Banks intermodal facility, mostly a two-story parking garage for cars, vans and buses to be built between Great American Ball Park and Paul Brown stadium.
$2.4 million for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to begin replacing their facilities in Cincinnati.
$2.2 million for Underground Railroad education programs, much of which, though not all, will end up at the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center.
$2 million for Cincinnati-Northern Kentucky International Airport for equipment that will guide planes to its new north-south runway, scheduled to open in 2005.
$2 million for a Brent Spence Bridge replacement study.
$2 million for the Transit Authority of Northern Kentucky to replace buses.
$1.88 million for the University of Cincinnati's College of Medicine to renovate its 2,500-room Medical Sciences Building. The renovation is key to keeping medical education and research thriving in Cincinnati, said Greg Hand, University of Cincinnati spokesman.
$1 million for the Knowledge Works Foundation for its Ohio High School Transformation Initiative.
$1 million to Sanitation District No. 1 in Northern Kentucky for water and sewer system infrastructure improvements and construction.
$1 million for the Uptown Crossings project near the zoo to build a footbridge to the Cincinnati Zoo and make the intersection of Vine Street near Erkenbrecher Avenue friendlier for pedestrians.
$750,000 total for the Cincinnati Museum Center at Union Terminal.
$700,000 to update and expand Clinton Memorial Hospital's emergency room
$640,000 for a drug-mixing robot at the Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center
$500,000 for Northern Kentucky University's Urban Learning Center, which provides mostly adults with continuing education and job training.
$500,000 for the Cincinnati Police Department to improve its record-keeping.
$500,000 for a University of Cincinnati program that studies efforts to prevent underage drinking.
$300,000 for the University of Cincinnati's Ohio Partnership for Accountability, which is examining how the preparation of new teachers affects students' performance.
$250,000 for Senior Services of Northern Kentucky.
$200,000 for the Taft Museum of Art.
$100,000 for the Cincinnati Zoo and Botanical Gardens for fiber-optic data transmission.
$100,000 for North Star Productions to build an amphitheater in Bracken County, Ky.
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