Dumping Done Right: County Drain Commissioner Discusses New Septage Receiving Station Success

Clean, convenient and providing spiffs like holiday bonus gallons and cold drinks in the summer, a Michigan septage receiving station has become a model for the industry.
Dumping Done Right: County Drain Commissioner Discusses New Septage Receiving Station Success
Brian Jonckheere may be reached at 517/546-0040.

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During the planning stage to construct a large wastewater conveyance system from Livingston County (Mich.) to Genesee County, Livingston County Environmental Health Director Dianne McCormick approached county Drain Commissioner Brian Jonckheere about incorporating septage. The five-year maintenance cycle for the county’s 42,000 septic tanks produced 12 million gallons of septage annually. With 1,000 new onsite systems permitted yearly, the agency estimated land application rates of 9 to 13 million gallons annually.

In 2004, a new state law granted local governments the authority to ban land application and dictate where to dispose of septage. The mandate also required haulers within 25 miles of wastewater treatment facilities to use them, and banned winter application on frozen ground. Some haulers were close to losing their sites due to development or change of ownership. For many, a septage receiving station would eliminate a 40- to 50-mile round-trip to the nearest treatment facility.

Because the 65- by 71-foot-long station would contain a lift station and be near a freeway exit, engineering firm Williams and Works and architects Lindhout and Associates designed it to resemble a firehouse. Extensive landscaping and two interior unloading bays further camouflaged the facility, placating business owners and residents.

Conveniences for haulers included proximity card access and prepaid, debit-based billing. The fully automated station came in at $3.1 million. “Fortunately, I had the support of the county board,” says Jonckheere. “Their concern was how much pumpouts would cost if we didn’t build it. We knew it would be substantial.”

Since the station opened in May 2007, septage volume has risen from 3.7 million metered gallons to 18 million in 2013. Part of its success is because haulers helped design it and Jonckheere knows how to treat them right.

Pumper: What is a drain commission?

Jonckheere: The position is unique to Michigan. We’re involved in every aspect of water resources, including constructing stormwater and sanitary sewers under the Department of Public Works. I’m its director.

Pumper: What was the most important element in planning the station?

Jonckheere: We needed a waste stream large enough to dilute septage. Since we were constructing a conveyance system to send Livingston County sewage to the 22 mgd [design] Genesee County District 3 Wastewater Plant in Linden, we began working with their officials.

Politics made it impossible to locate the station at the plant where it made the most sense. That left pump stations near Class A all-weather roads, and Hartland Township had one. Frost laws prohibit haulers from transporting more than 1,500 to 2,000 gallons on many roads in spring. We built a Class A road from the freeway interchange to the station, enabling haulers to transport full loads year-round.

Pumper: What kind of political backing did you need and how much opposition was there?

Jonckheere: This is the most fascinating part of the story. The DEQ stated that most proposed receiving stations fail due to local resistance, and some of ours was vehement. The stiffest opposition came from Hartland Township residents, who believed their property values would diminish. While septage receiving stations are all over the state, most are outdoors, dirty and smelly.

The DEQ septage staff supported our efforts. However, some staffers involved with treatment plant oversight resisted because septage could possibly upset treatment at the facilities. That’s when Genesee County ran interference, providing septage calculations, helping with engineering and championing our cause. Getting everyone on the same page took three years of enormous effort. Today, we have the only enclosed municipal septage receiving station in the state.

Pumper: What role did haulers play in designing the station?

Jonckheere: They were involved from the beginning. As soon as I had a partially completed set of plans, I held a meeting. About 20 haulers arrived – everyone from our county and a few from surrounding counties. One hauler noticed that all the equipment was on the same elevation as the truck bays, forcing him to pressurize the tank to off-load instead of using gravity. Without his comment, retrofitting the station for gravity feed would have cost $500,000 to $750,000. Instead, we lowered the screening room floor and the hose connection in each bay. We also put a 6-inch depression in the bay floors that tips the trucks backward to empty the tanks fully.

Pumper: How did you pay for the facility?

Jonckheere: I asked the county board to sell a $3.1 million bond that we would pay for with revenues. They did. Then we passed an ordinance banning land application to bring most septage to the station.

Initially, some haulers could pump in Livingston County, then off-load at Detroit for 0.01 cent a gallon. Our tipping fee was 0.0725 cents per gallon. Once Detroit raised its rates in 2009, our station really took off, even with our fee at 0.0775 cents per gallon. Receiving treatment plants in our area charge 0.06 to 0.12 cents per gallon, and most are at the low end. Our goal has always been to lower the price. If we have enough volume this year, we’ll probably do it.

Pumper: What volume was necessary to operate in the black?

Jonckheere: Just to pay the bills, I needed 9.5 million gallons per year. That didn’t happen until 2010. We also pay a 0.01 cent per gallon hosting fee to Hartland Township. In 2012 and 2013, the station received 16.3 million gallons and 18 million gallons, enabling us to begin saving for maintenance. We also bought a second Huber fine screen for redundancy. We want a dependable facility haulers can count on every day without exception. They should never be forced to go somewhere else.

Pumper: How does the station operate?

Jonckheere: Each heated, 45-foot-long drive-through bay has a 6-inch flexible hose discharging to a rock trap [Huber Technology], then a ROTAMAT [Huber] fine screen removes, compacts and bags debris larger than 1/4-inch diameter. Septage is stored and aerated in sloped equalization tanks that keep grit at the lower end for easier removal. Overnight, we can pump up to 67,000 gallons of septage at 40 to 50 gpm into the lift station’s 43,000-gallon wet well. Then three 1,440 gpm pumps send it to the Genesee County District 3 Wastewater Treatment Plant. Hydraulically, we could easily double our daily limit, but the plant may not be able to handle it.

Because some rocks were reaching the fine screen, we lowered the 3-foot-tall trap 6 inches and installed a larger valve for easier cleaning.

Pumper: How does the station help haulers become efficient and remain profitable?

Jonckheere: With one swipe of a card, drivers are in and out in 20 minutes because PortALogic (EleMech Services) access stations control everything. They spit out multiple adhesive-backed receipts with the volume, truck number, time and pH. Haulers slap them on the sample bottle, their manifest and the manifest copy. A video surveillance system enables them to see if trucks are waiting outside. Using the touch-screen computer, they can check the weather, look up health department records for the size and location of tanks at new sites, plot their course using Google maps and print the page.

We’re always thinking about how to make the experience better, and that includes creature comforts. Besides a clean bathroom, a hospitality counter has free coffee, tea, and chilled or frozen Gatorade in summer. During hot weather, haulers arrive covered in perspiration, so last year we handed out Chilly Pads from Frogg Toggs. The hyper-evaporative material retains water, which remains dry to the touch and begins cooling in seconds. The drivers love them. Our safety equipment includes eye wash, safety shower, sinks and carbon monoxide monitors.

In 2012, we rewarded the 24 haulers who supported us that year by giving them a Christmas bonus of 100,000 gallons at 0.07 a gallon through April 2013 plus 4,000 gallons more for each month they used the facility. They saved $4,000 to $5,000.

Pumper: What advice would you give haulers who want their county to build a septage receiving station?

Jonckheere: The key is having a treatment plant large enough to handle septage. Second, find a person who transcends local barriers and boundaries and will champion the cause. Third, the county must have good working relationships with townships. Fourth, they need a supportive township board.

Locating receiving stations at wastewater treatment plants makes the process easier and less controversial. Locating them in residential or commercial areas makes the process dicey.


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