U.S. Air Force Airman 1st Class Derrick Statts, 354th Civil Engineer Squadron water treatment plant operator, releases waste material from a measuring pole to measure the sludge at the bottom June 1, 2012, Eielson Air Force Base, Alaska. The lagoons house bugs that feed on suspended solids aiding in the phase of water treatment.
U.S. Air Force Senior Airman Joseph Lagrow, 354th Civil Engineer Squadron waste water treatment plant operator, lowers a boat into a waste water lagoon June 1, 2012, Eielson Air Force Base, Alaska. During the summer, operators go by boat into the lagoon to perform semi-annual checks on equipment. (U.S. Air Force photo/Senior Airman Janine Thibault)
by Senior Airmen Janine Thibault
354th Fighter Wing Public Affairs
6/28/2012 - EIELSON AIR FORCE BASE, Alaska -- Editor's Note: Icemen Get Dirty is a series that takes an inside look at what it takes to be employed in various work environments.
With the discovery of waterborne diseases in the 1850s, the responsibility to shoulder the burden of public sanitation has expanded to become the streamlined process carried out by Airmen of the 354th Civil Engineer Squadron today.
"Without the proper treatment for wastewater, you'd get a lot of diseases," said Senior Airman Joseph Lagrow, 354th CES waste water treatment plant operator. "We definitely prevent that from happening."
People used to dispose of their waste by any means; up to and including dumping waste-filled wash pots outside their windows and dumping waste into the ocean.
"It's very real, that's the crazy part," said Lagrow. "People didn't know back then about contaminating their water tables and how it could get a lot of people sick."
The treatment plant receives materials discharged by on-base residential or government facilities through the influent, carrying materials like hygiene products, rags, toilet tissues, sticks, rocks and even money. The Airmen and civilians at the Waste Water Treatment Plant work 24/7 to ensure the base's waste water is clean enough to be released into the environment safely.
"We find general trash that you would not think people would flush down the toilet, but they do," said Lagrow.
There are times workers get up-close and personal with the waste water before it has been cycled through the full cleaning process.
"You don't know anything until you're chest deep or over your head in raw [waste] water," said Zach Harrison, 354th CES waste water treatment plant operator.
He went on to describe a time in his career when him and a friend had to go out on a facultative lagoon to work on a clogged aerator, an airline in a waste water lagoon.
"Johnny climbed down in [the boat] and as soon as I climbed in I lost my balance and 'PLOOP'," Harrison exclaimed gesturing with a falling motion. "When I stood up I was chest deep in this water, and all I could do was get back to the plant, take a shower and wear coveralls until someone washed my clothes so I'd have something to go home in. That's the nastiest thing I've experienced in a sewage plant."
Harrison has worked at military and municipal WWTPs since 1982 and said items found at the Eielson plant are not as varied as the city plants he has worked at.
According to Harrison, one man who worked in a municipal plant found a large gold chain. After getting it cleaned and appraised, he found out it was worth $2,000.
Waste water enters the facility through the influent and goes through a bar screen, where larger items like sticks are removed and taken to the dump in Fairbanks, AK. The rest of the water goes into clarifiers where suspended solids settle on the bottom and are pulled by pumps to the digester.
The digester is heated to provide a comfortable environment for insects that then feed on the materials and excrete methane which is burned through the flare. The rest of the water that still has some dissolved solids is moved into six, one to 1.5 million gallon facultative lagoons where the bugs are housed and allowed to feed, breaking down any other particles.
After treating the water in a mixed oxygen solution, it is mixed in a chlorine contact chamber where the chlorine dissipates over time.
Lastly, nature takes hold of the process after the water is moved to a percolation pond where the cycle allows for evaporation and percolation.
According to Harrison, this is not a typical plant. Eielson is set on an old riverbed which assists in the process helping filter the water as it percolates.
"We do not drink this water. It goes out through the percolation pond and naturally makes its way down to the water table," said Harrison.
Harrison and Lagrow have experienced some dirty situations during their time working in WWTPs. For instance, although this task is rarely done, every so often someone must go into the digester itself to clean the built-up materials.
"Probably one of the dirtiest jobs would be if one of the pumps got stopped up with rags and hair and you have to clean it out by hand," said Harrison. "There're so many jobs where you can get really nasty."
The Airmen and civilians that work to maintain Eielson's WWTP perform a service many people do not see or think about. Even without recognition they continue to ensure the wastewater produced on base is treated safely so the base populace stays healthy, no matter how dirty their job gets.