When the City of Selkirk embarked on its journey to reduce its environmental footprint, it was with the understanding that its efforts would be comprehensive and all city service areas would be scrutinized.
The city’s new wastewater treatment plant, which began operating late last year, is a state-of-the-art facility. It makes use of the best technology there is to turn wastewater from a pollutant responsible for deteriorating the water quality and plant life of the Red River and Lake Winnipeg into water that is not only potentially suitable for consumption but can be reused for several practical purposes. The success of this plant means the city can turn this former waste product back into a valuable commodity.
Repurposing “sludge” and lime into reusable product
The second waste component from any wastewater treatment process, is the “sludge” that’s left over. Sludge, which is the biological solids removed from the wastewater, is very difficult and expensive to dispose.
The city applied for, and received, a $10,000 Strategic Transformation and Applied Research (STAR) grant from Red River College Polytech, to work with three environmental engineering students from the college to study ways to turn sludge removed from raw sewage into a reusable product as well. Civil engineering department instructor Farah Laj Chowdhury, partnered with the city in applying for the grant.
Chowdhury said the partnership with the city is distinct and will provide benefits for the students, the environment, the city itself and other municipalities.
For the students, they get hands on experience they can’t get in the classroom, Chowdhury said, and the exposure to what environmental technologists would do in a real occupation has the students excited.
“The students get training in class, they get a theoretical background about wastewater treatment, water treatment and proper sludge, but now when they go out into the field and do the sampling themselves and analyze samples in the lab…they actually find themselves applying knowledge gained through course work,” Chowdhury said.
“This is unique. We do not see a lot of partnerships with colleges and municipalities and the partnership is one of the highlights of the environmental engineering technologist program.”
Raven Sharma, the city’s Utilities Manager, says the new plant is a centre of excellence and as such the city is committed to availing it to partners who can participate in helping the city achieve the financial and environmental successes the plant is destined for.
“I reached out to different professors from the University of Manitoba and Red River Polytech, before the new plant was even commissioned, to let them know that we have a centre of excellence and that we were looking for partners to work with,” Sharma said.
“Instructor Chowdhury and I met virtually and discussed some research ideas, one of them being that Manitoba has an issue with sludge, with biosolids. It just sits there. We also have a problem with the lime that comes from the water treatment plant, both currently go to the landfill. Finding another use for these waste products fits with the city’s efforts to be better environmental stewards and helps the city move towards zero waste.”
CAO Duane Nicol said using the wastewater treatment plant as a research centre is another example of Selkirk’s commitment to be better environmental stewards and to municipal innovation.
“When we created the design for this innovative plant, we dedicated space and installed special connections to the flow of wastewater through the plant. This allows for researchers both from academia and the private sector to come here and do leading research and pilot new technologies. Not only will this generate some revenues which helps to offset costs of running the utility, but it exposes our staff to leading research and new technology which in the long run gives us a leg up. It gives us access to some of the best minds in this field which again, just helps us do our work better and achieve even better results,” Nicol said.
Sharma said with the students, they will characterize the biosolid sludge from the wastewater treatment plant and lime from the water treatment plant to determine if they can combine the two and use it as a valuable commodity instead of a waste product. “There’s a potential that we can use it as biochar and it can be used in the soil when we plant trees, it would be a renewable resource,” Sharma said.
Unique partnership provides hands on experience for students
The students – all in their final year of study – have already started work at the plant and collected samples that will be studied and a research paper written. The study length is one year and when it’s complete a second, larger grant will be applied for that will fund equipment needed to turn the sludge into biochar.
“We want to do this right. We’ve made a great partnership with Red River Polytech right now and that’s going to benefit the future of Manitoba water and wastewater operators. The students that are working here are being exposed to real life situations and they’re learning so much,” Sharma said.
“They had a tour of our plant and I showed them the backwash and the filter and they said ‘we read this in a textbook but we don’t get to see it live’, so it’s cool. There’s a shortage of operators right now and these students are excited about what they’re learning.” Sharma said she hopes this will lead to funding and pilot projects being awarded to the city for more research out of the wastewater centre of excellence.
“I come from an academia background and I love doing research and experiments, and this was the perfect opportunity to start the center of excellence. We needed to reach out to post-secondary institutions to be able to partner with them and students,” she said.
“And now it’s started multiple conversations with different people around research and so this is the gateway for Selkirk to now access other pilot projects, other grants, other people to come in and participate in this type of research.”
Nicol says this is the first of what will be many examples of exciting work to be done in and around the new facility. “We have a real opportunity here in Selkirk to show how an urban centre can thrive and prosper while, and even as a result of, reducing it’s environmental footprint. We are looking for opportunities to build a more circular economy. We want to reduce waste, reduce greenhouse gas emissions, protect our water, and promote biodiversity, for the benefit of citizens today and for generations into the future.”