# Activated sludge sewage treatment bioreactors

I ran for water commissioner of Oakland county in 2016, a county with 1.3 million people and eight sewage treatment plants. One of these plants uses the rotating disk contractor, described previously, but the others process sewage by bubbling air through it in a large tank — the so-called, activated sludge process. A description is found here in Wikipedia, but with no math, and thus, far less satisfying than it could be. I thought I might describe this process relevant mathematics, for my understanding and those interested: what happens to your stuff after you flush the toilet or turn on the garbage disposal.

Simplified sewage plant: a bubbling, plug-flow bio-reactor with 90% solids recycle and a settler used to extract floc solids and bio-catalyst material.

In most of the USA, sanitary sewage, the stuff from your toilet, sink, etc. flows separately from storm water to a treatment plant. At the plant, the sewage is first screened (rough filtered) and given a quick settle to remove grit etc. then sent to a bubbling flow, plug-flow bioreactor like the one shown at right. Not all cities use this type of sludge processes, but virtually every plant I’ve seen does, and I’ve come to believe this is the main technology in use today.

The sewage flows by gravity, typically, a choice that provides reliability and saves on operating costs, but necessitates that the sewage plant is located at the lowest point in the town, typically on a river. The liquid effluent of the sewage, after bio-treatment is typically dumped in the river, a flow that is so great more than, during dry season, more than half the flow of several rivers is this liquid effluent of our plants – an interesting factoid. For pollution reasons, it is mandated that the liquid effluent leaves the plant with less than 2 ppm organics; that is, it leaves the plant purer than normal river water. After settling and screening, the incoming flow to the bio-reactor typically contains about 400 ppm of biomaterial (0.04%), half of it soluble, and half as suspended colloidal stuff (turd bits, vegetable matter, toilet paper, etc). Between the activated sludge bio-reactor and the settler following it manage to reduce this concentration to 2 ppm or less. Soluble organics, about 200 ppm, are removed by this cellular oxidation (metabolism), while the colloidal material, the other 200 ppm, is removed by adsorption on the sticky flocular material in the tank (the plug-flow tank is called an oxidation ditch, BTW). The sticky floc is a product of the cells. The rate of oxidation and of absorption processes are proportional to floc concentration, F and to organic concentration, C. Mathematically we can say that

dC/dt = -kFC

where C and F are the concentration of organic material and floc respectively; t is time, and k is a reaction constant. It’s not totally a constant, since it is proportional to oxygen concentration and somewhat temperature dependent, but I’ll consider it constant for now.

As shown in the figure above, the process relies on a high recycle of floc (solids) to increase the concentration of cells, and speed the process. Because of this high recycle, we can consider the floc concentration F to be a constant, independent of position along the reactor length.

The volume of the reactor-ditch, V, is fixed -it’s a concrete ditch — but the flow rate into the ditch, Q, is not fixed. Q is high in the morning when folks take showers, and low at night. It’s also higher — typically about twice as high — during rain storms, the result of leakage and illegal connections. For any flow rate, Q, there is a residence time in the tank, τ where τ = V/Q. We can now solve the above equation assuming an incoming concentration C° = 400 ppm and an outgoing concentration Co of 2 ppm:

ln (C°/Co) = kFτ

Where τ equals the residence time in the tank. Since τ = V/Q,

ln (C°/Co) = kFV/Q.

The required volume of reactor, V, is related to the flow rate, Q, as follows for typical feed and exit concentrations:

V = Q/kF ln( 400/2) = 5.3 Q/kF.

The volume is seen to be dependent on F. In Oakland county, thank volume V is chosen to be one or two times the maximum expected value of Q. To keep the output organic content to less than 2 ppm, F is maintained so that kF≥ 5.3 per day. Thus, in Oakland county, a 2 million gallon per day sewage plant is built with a 2-4 million gallon oxidation ditch. The extra space allows for growth of the populations and for heavy rains, and insures that most of the time, the effluent contains less than 2 ppm organics.

Bob Martin chief engineer the South Lyon, MI, Activated Sludge plant, 2016. His innovation was to control the air bubblers according to measurements of the oxygen content. The O2 sensor is at bottom; the controller is at right. When I was there, some bubblers were acting up.

As you may guess, the activated sludge process requires a lot of operator control, far more than the rotating disk contractor we described. There is a need for constant monitoring and tweaking. The operator deals with some of the variations in Q by adjusting the recycle amount, with other problems by adjusting the air flow, or through the use of retention tanks upstream or downstream of the reactor, or by adding components — sticky polymer, FeCl3, etc. Finally, in have rains, the settler-bottom fraction itself is adjusted (increased). Because of all the complexity. sewer treatment engineer is a high-pay, in demand, skilled trade. If you are interested, contact me or the county. You’ll do yourself and the county a service.

I’d mentioned that the effluent water goes to the rivers in Oakland county. In some counties it goes to the fields, a good idea, I think. As for the solids, in Oakland county, the solid floc is concentrated to a goo containing about 5% solids. (The goo is called unconsolidated sludge) It is shipped free to farmer fields, or sometimes concentrated to more than 5% (consolidated sludge), and provided with additional treatment, anaerobic digestion to improve the quality and extract some energy. If you’d like to start a company to do more with our solids, that would be very welcome. In Detroit the solids are burned, a very wasteful, energy-consuming process, IMHO. In Wisconsin, the consolidated sludge is dried, pelletized, and sold as a popular fertilizer, Milorganite.

Dr. Robert Buxbaum, August 1, 2017. A colleague of mine owned (owns?) a company that consulted on sewage-treatment and manufactured a popular belt-filter. The name of his company: Consolidated Sludge. Here are some sewer jokes and my campaign song.

# Nestle pays 1/4,000 what you pay for water

When you turn on your tap or water your lawn, you are billed about 1.5¢ for every gallon of water you use. In south-east Michigan, this is water that comes from the Detroit river, chlorinated to remove bacteria, e.g. from sewage, and delivered to you by pipe. When Nestle’s Absopure division buys water, it pays about 1/4000 as much — \$200/ year for 218 gallons per minute, and they get their water from a purer source, a pure glacial aquifer that has no sewage and needs no chlorine. They get a far better deal than you do, in part because they provide the pipes, but it’s mostly because they have the financial clout to negotiate the deal. They sell the Michigan water at an average price around \$1/gallon, netting roughly \$100,000,000 per year (gross). This allows them to buy politicians — something you and I can not afford.

Absopure advertises that I t will match case-for-case water donations to Flint. That’s awfully white of them.

We in Michigan are among the better customers for the Absopure water. We like the flavor, and that it’s local. Several charities purchase it for the folks of nearby Flint because their water is near undrinkable, and because the Absopure folks have been matching the charitable purchases bottle-for bottle. It’s a good deal for Nestle, even at 50¢/gallon, but not so-much for us, and I think we should renegotiate to do better. Nestle has asked to double their pumping rate, so this might be a good time to ask to increase our payback per gallon. So far, our state legislators have neither said yes or no to the proposal to pump more, but are “researching the matter.” I take this to mean they’re asking Nestle for campaign donations — the time-honored Tammany method. Here’s a Detroit Free Press article.

I strongly suspect we should use this opportunity to raise the price by a factor of 400 to 4000, to 0.15¢ to 1.5¢ per gallon, and I would like to require Absopure to supply a free 1 million gallons per year. We’d raise \$300,000 to \$3,000,000 per year and the folks of Flint would have clean water (some other cities need too). And Nestle’s Absopure would still make \$200,000,000 off of Michigan’s, clean, glacial water.

Robert Buxbaum, May 15, 2017. I ran for water commissioner, 2016, and have occasionally blogged about water, E.g. fluoridationhidden rivers, and how you would drain a swamp, literally.

# Rethinking fluoride in drinking water

Fluoride is a poison, toxic tor a small child in doses of 500 mg, and toxic to an adult in doses of a few thousand mg. It is a commonly used rat poison that kills by robbing the brain of the ability to absorb oxygen. In the form of hydrofluoric acid, it is responsible for the deaths of more famous chemists than any other single compound: Humphrey Davy died trying to isolate fluorine; Paul Louyet and Jerome Nickles, too. Thomas Knox nearly died, and Henri Moissan’s life was shortened. Louis-Joseph Gay Lussac, George Knox, and Louis- Jacques Thenard suffered burns and similar, George Knox was bedridden for three years. Among the symptoms of fluoride poisoning is severe joint pain and that your brain turns blue.

In low doses, though, fluoride is thought to be safe and beneficial. This is a phenomenon known as hormesis. Many things that are toxic at high doses are beneficial at low. Most drugs fall into this category, and chemotherapy works this way. Diseased cells are usually less-heartythan healthy ones. Fluoride is associated with strong teeth, and few cavities. It is found at ppm levels many well water systems, and has shown no sign of toxicity, either for humans or animals at these ppm levels. Following guidelines set by the AMA, we’ve been putting fluoride in drinking water since the 1960s at concentrations between 0.7 and 1.2 ppm. We have seen no deaths or clear evidence of any injury from this, but there has been controversy. Much of the controversy stems from a Chinese study that links fluoride to diminished brain function, and passivity (Anti-fluoriders falsely attribute this finding to a Harvard researcher, but the Harvard study merely cites the Chinese). The American dental association strongly maintains that worries based on this study are groundless, and that the advantage in lower cavities more than off-sets any other risks. Notwithstanding, I thought I’d take another look. The typical US adult consumes 1-3 mg/day the result of drinking 1-3 liters of fluoridated water (1 ppm = 1 mg/liter). This < 1/1000 the toxic dose,

While there is no evidence that people who drink high-fluoride well water are any less-healthy than those who drink city water, or distilled / filtered water, that does not mean that our city levels are ideal. Two months ago, while running for water commissioner, I was asked about fluoride, and said I would look into it. Things have changed since the 1960s: our nutrition has changed, we have vitamin D milk, and our toothpastes now contain fluoride. My sense is we can reduce the water concentration. One indication that this concentration could be reduced is shown below. Many industrial countries that don’t add fluoride have similar tooth decay rates to the US.

World Health Organization data on tooth decay and fluoridation.

This chart should not be read to suggest that fluoride doesn’t help; all the countries shown use fluoride toothpaste, and some give out fluoride pills, too. And some countries that don’t add fluoride have higher levels of cavities. Norway and Japan, for example, don’t add fluoride and have 50% more cavities than we do. Germany doesn’t add fluoride, and has fewer cavities, but they hand out fluoride pills, To me, the chart suggests that our levels should go down, though not to zero. In 2015, the Department of Health recommend lowering the fluoride level to 0.7 ppm, the lower end of the previous range, but my sense from the experience of Europe is that we should go lower still. If I were to pick, I’d choose 1/2 the original dose: 0.6 to 0.35 ppm. I’d then revisit in another 15 years.

Having picked my target fluoride concentration, I checked to see the levels in use in Oakland county, MI, the county I was running in. I was happy to discover that most of the water the county drinks, that provided by Detroit Water and Sewage, NOCWA and SOCWA already have decreased levels of 0.43-0.55 ppm. These are just in the range I would have picked, Fluoride concentrations are higher in towns that use well water, about  0.65-0.85 ppm. I do not know if this is because the well water comes from the ground with these fluoride concentrations or if the towns add, aiming at the Department of Health target. In either case, I don’t find these levels alarming. If you live none of these town, or outside of Oakland county, check your fluoride levels. If they seem high, write to your water commissioner. You can also try switching from fluoride toothpaste to non-fluoride, or baking soda. In any case, remember to brush. That does make a difference, and it’s completely non-toxic.

Robert Buxbaum, January 9, 2017. I discuss chloride addition a bit in this essay. As a side issue, a main mechanism of sewer pipe decay seems related to tooth decay. That is the roofs of pipe attract acid-producing, cavity causing bacteria that live off of the foul sewer gas. The remedies for pipe erosion include cleaning your pipes regularly, having them checked by a professional once per year, and repairing cavities early. Here too, it seems high fluoride cement resists cavities better.

# How do you drain a swamp, literally

The Trump campaign has been claiming it wants to “drain the swamp,” that is to dispossess Washington’s inbred army of academic consultants, lobbyists, and reporter-spin doctors, but the motto got me to think, how would you drain a swamp literally? First some technical definitions. Technically speaking, a swamp is a type of wetland distinct from a marsh in that it has no significant flow. The water just, sort-of sits there. A swamp is also unlike a fen or a bog in that swamp water contains enough oxygen to support life: frogs, mosquitos, alligators,., while a fen or bog does not. Common speech ignores these distinctions, and so will I.

If you want to drain a large swamp, such as The Great Dismal Swamp that covered the south-east US, or the smaller, but still large, Hubbard Swamp that covered south-eastern Oakland county, MI, the classic way is to dig a system of open channel ditches that serve as artificial rivers. These ditches are called drains, and I suppose the phrase, “drain the swamp comes” from them. As late as the 1956 drain code, the width of these ditch-drains was specified in units of rods. A rod is 16.5 feet, or 1/4 of a chain, that is 1/4 the length of the 66′ surveyor’s chains used in the 1700’s to 1800’s. Go here for the why these odd engineering units exist and persist. Typically, 1/4 rod wide ditches are still used for roadside drainage, but to drain a swamp, the still-used, 1956 code calls for a minimum of a 1 rod width at the top and a minimum of 1/4 rod, 4 feet, at the bottom. The sides are to slope no more than 1:1. This geometry is needed. experience shows, to slow the flow, avoid soil erosion and help keep the sides from caving in. It is not unusual to add one or more weirs to control and slow the flow. These weirs also help you measure the flow.

The main drain for Royal Oak and Warren townships, about 50 square miles, is the Red Run drain. For its underground length, it is 66 foot wide, a full chain, and 25 feet deep (1.5 rods). When it emerges from under ground at Dequindre rd, it expands to a 2 chain wide, open ditch. The Red Run ditch has no weirs resulting in regular erosion and a regular need for dredging; I suspect the walls are too steep too. Our county needs more and more drainage as more and more housing and asphalt is put in. Asphalt reduces rain absorption and makes for flash floods following any rain of more than 1″. The red run should be improved, and more drains are needed, or Oakland county will become a flood-prone, asphalt swamp.

Small ditch drain, Bloomfield, MI. The ditches connect to others and to the rivers via the culvert pipes in the left and center of the picture. A cheap solution to flooding.

Ditch drains are among the cheapest ways to drain a swamp. Standard sizes cost only about \$10/lineal foot, but they are pretty ugly in my opinion, they fill up with garbage, and they tend to be unsafe. Jaguars running back Denard Robinson was lucky to have survived running into one in his car (above) earlier this year. Ditches can become mosquito breeding grounds, too and many communities have opted for a more expensive option: buried, concrete or metal culverts. These are safer for the motorist, but reduce ground absorption and flow. In many places, we’ve buried whole rivers. We’ve no obvious swamps but instead we get regular basement and road flooding, as the culverts still have combined storm and sanitary (toilet) sewage, and as more and more storm water is sent through the same old culverts.

Given my choice I would separate the sewers, add weirs to some of our ditch drains, weirs, daylight some of the hidden rivers, and put in French drains and bioswales, where appropriate. These are safer and better looking than ditches but they tend to cost about \$100 per lineal foot, about 10x more than ditch drains. This is still 70x cheaper than the \$7000/ft, combined sewage tunnel cisterns that our current Oakland water commissioner has been putting in. His tunnel cisterns cost about \$13/gallon of water retention, and continue to cause traffic blockage.

Bald cypress in a bog-swamp with tree knees in foreground.

Another solution is trees, perhaps the cheapest solution to drain a small swamp or retention pond, A full-grown tree will transpire hundreds of gallons per day into the air, and they require no conduit connecting the groundwater to a river. Trees look nice and can complement French drains and bioswales where there is drainage to river. You want a species that is water tolerant, low maintenance, and has exceptional transpiration. Options include the river birch, the red maple, and my favorite, the bald cypress (picture). Bald cypress trees can live over 1000 years and can grow over 150 feet tall — generally straight up. When grown in low-oxygen, bog water, they develop knees — bits of root-wood that extend above the water. These aid oxygen absorption and improve tree-stability. Cypress trees were used extensively to drain the swamps of Israel, and hollowed-out cypress logs were the first pipes used to carry Detroit drinking water. Some of these pipes remain; they are remarkably rot-resistant.

Robert E Buxbaum, December 2, 2016. I ran for water commissioner of Oakland county, MI 2016, and lost. I’m an engineer. While teaching at Michigan State, I got an appreciation for what you could do with trees, grasses, and drains.

# The straight flush

I’m not the wildest libertarian, but I’d like to see states rights extended to Michigan’s toilets and showers. Some twenty years ago, the federal government mandated that the maximum toilet flush volume could be only 1.6 gallons, the same as Canada. They also mandated a maximum shower-flow law, memorialized in this Seinfeld episode. Like the characters in those shows, I think this is government over-reach of states rights covered by the 10th amendment. As I understand it, the only powers of the federal government over states are in areas specifically in the constitution, in areas of civil rights (the 13th Amendment), or in areas of restraint of trade (the 14th Amendment). None of that applies here, IMHO. It seems to me that the states should be able to determine their own flush and shower volumes.

If your toilet clogs often, you might want to use more flush water, or at least a different brand of toilet paper.

There is a good reason for allowing larger flushes, too in a state with lots of water. People whose toilets have long, older pipe runs find that there is insufficient flow to carry their stuff to the city mains. Their older pipes were designed to work with 3.5 gallon flushes. When you flush with only 1.6 gallons, the waste only goes part way down and eventually you get a clog. It’s an issue known to every plumber – one that goes away with more flush volume.

Given my choice, I’d like to change the flush law through the legislature, perhaps following a test case in the Supreme court. Similar legislation is in progress with marijuana decriminalization, but perhaps it’s too much to ask folks to risk imprisonment for a better shower or flush. Unless one of my readers feels like violating the federal law to become the test case, I can suggest some things you can do immediately. When it comes to your shower, you’ll find you can modify the flow by buying a model with a flow restrictor and “ahem” accidentally losing the restrictor. When it comes to your toilet, I don’t recommend buying an older, larger tank. Those old tanks look old. A simpler method is to find a new flush cistern with a larger drain hole and flapper. The drain hole and flapper in most toilet tanks is only 2″ in diameter, but some have a full 3″ hole and valve. Bigger hole, more flush power. Perfectly legal. And then there’s the poor-man solution: keep a bucket or washing cup nearby. If the flush looks problematic, pour the extra water in to help the stuff go down. It works.

A washing cup. An extra liter for those difficult flushes.

Aside from these suggestions, if you have clog trouble, you should make sure to use only toilet paper, and not facial tissues or flushable wipes. If you do use these alternatives, only use one sheet at a flush, and the rest TP, and make sure your brand of wipe is really flushable. Given my choice, I would like see folks in Michigan have freedom of the flush. Let them install a larger tank if they like: 2 gallons, or 2.5; and I’d like to see them able to use Newman’s Serbian shower heads too, if it suits them. What do you folks think?

Dr. Robert E. Buxbaum, November 3, 2016. I’m running for Oakland county MI water resources commissioner. I’m for protecting our water supply, for better sewage treatment, and small wetlands for flood control. Among my less-normative views, I’ve also suggested changing the state bird to the turkey, and ending daylight savings time.

# Weir dams to slow the flow and save our lakes

As part of explaining why I want to add weir dams to the Red Run drain, and some other of our Oakland county drains, I posed the following math/ engineering problem: if a weir dam is used to double the depth of water in a drain, show that this increases the residence time by a factor of 2.8 and reduces the flow speed by 1/2.8. Here is my solution.

A series of weir dams on Blackman Stream, Maine. Mine would be about as tall, but wider and further apart. The dams provide oxygenation and hold back sludge.

Let’s assume the shape of the bottom of the drain is a parabola, e.g. y = x, and that the dams are spaced far enough apart that their volume is small compared to the volume of water. We now use integral calculus to calculate how the volume of water per mile, V is affected by water height:  V =2XY- ∫ y dx = 2XY- 2/3 X3 =  4/3 Y√Y. Here, capital Y is the height of water in the drain, and capital X is the horizontal distance of the water edge from the drain centerline. For a parabolic-bottomed drain, if you double the height Y, you increase the volume of water per mile by 2√2. That’s 2.83, or about 2.8 once you assume some volume to the dams.

To find how this affects residence time and velocity, note that the dam does not affect the volumetric flow rate, Q (gallons per hour). If we measure V in gallons per mile of drain, we find that the residence time per mile of drain (hours) is V/Q and that the speed (miles per hour) is Q/V. Increasing V by 2.8 increases the residence time by 2.8 and decreases the speed to 1/2.8 of its former value.

Why is this important? Decreasing the flow speed by even a little decreases the soil erosion by a lot. The hydrodynamic lift pressure on rocks or soil is proportional to flow speed-squared. Also, the more residence time and the more oxygen in the water, the more bio-remediation takes place in the drain. The dams slow the flow and promote oxygenation by the splashing over the weirs. Cells, bugs and fish do the rest; e.g. -HCOH- + O2 –> CO2 + H2O. Without oxygen, the fish die of suffocation, and this is a problem we’re already seeing in Lake St. Clair. Adding a dam saves the fish and turns the run into a living waterway instead of a smelly sewer. Of course, more is needed to take care of really major flood-rains. If all we provide is a weir, the water will rise far over the top, and the run will erode no better (or worse) than it did before. To reduce the speed during those major flood events, I would like to add a low bicycle path and some flood-zone picnic areas: just what you’d see on Michigan State’s campus, by the river.

Dr. Robert E. Buxbaum, May 12, 2016. I’d also like to daylight some rivers, and separate our storm and toilet sewage, but those are longer-term projects. Elect me water commissioner.

# A run runs through it

The word ‘run’ appears to be a Michigan dialect for small river. Perhaps Michigan’s most famous run is the Willow run, where the airport is. Currently, almost all of our runs are unrecognizable, they are either trapped in pipes underground, or so dredged out and poisoned that they are more properly called sewers. If I’m elected Oakland county water resources commissioner (drain commissioner) I’d like to free some of these runs, and detoxify them.

These branches of the red run flow beneath the surface of Royal Oak with the main section beneath Vinsetta Blvd.

Consider this historical map of Royal Oak. It shows two  river branches, currently under ground. Back in the day, these were known as the north and south branch of the Red run. The south branch is fed by the Washington creek and the small run, now under ground, with the main branch of the run crossing Woodward ave at Catalpa st. These runs only appear above ground in Warren, MI, miles away, as a polluted sewer. But in Royal Oak they should still be clean. If they were partially freed. That is if the channel were exposed to air again to provide small wetlands along the original path — along Vinsetta Blvd, for example. Vinsetta Blvd. already has concrete bridges to show where the run originally ran. The small wetlands would provide habitat for birds and butterflies, and would provide storm relief and some bioremediation as well. After a heavy rain, most of the water would be absorbed into the ground, while the existing pipes carry away the rest.

Robert E. Buxbaum, March 21, 2016

# Follow the feces; how to stop the poisoning

In Oakland county, we regularly poison our basements and our lake St Clair beaches with feces — and potentially our water supply too. We have a combined storm and sanitary sewer system that mixes feces-laden sanitary sewage with rainwater, and our pipes are too old and small to handle the amount of storm water from our larger rains. A group called “Save Lake St. Clair” is up in arms but the current commissioner claims the fault is not his. It’s global warming, he says, and the rains are bigger now. Maybe, or maybe the fault is wealth: more and more of the county is covered by asphalt, so less rain water can soak in the ground. Whatever the cause, the Commissioner should deal with it (I’m running for water commissioner, BTW). As the chart of toxic outfalls shows, we’ve had regular toxic sewage discharges into the Red Run basically every other week, with no exceptional rainfalls: only 0.9″ to 1.42″.

Toxic outfalls into lake St Clair, Feb 20 to Mar 20, 2016. There were also two outfalls into the Rouge in this period. These are too many to claim they are once in hundred-year events.

Because we have a combined system, the liquid level rises in our sewers whenever it rains. When the level is above the level of a basement floor drain, mixed sewage comes up into the basement. A mix of storm water comes up mixed with poop and anything else you and your neighbors flush down. Mixed sewage can come up even if the sewers were separate, but far less often. Currently most of the dry outfall from our old, combined sewers is sent to Detroit’s Waste Water Treatment plant near Zug Island. When there is a heavy rain, the pipe to Zug is overwhelmed. We avoid flooding your basement every other week by diverting as much as we can of the mixed storm water and septic sewage to lake St. Clair. This is poop, barely treated, and the fishermen and environmentalists hate it.

The beaches along Lake St Clair are closed every other week: whenever the pipes to Detroit start getting overwhelmed, whenever there is about 1″ or rain. Worse yet, the sewage is enters the lake just upstream of the water intake on Belle Isle, see map below. Overflow sewage follows the red lines entering the Clinton River through the GW Kuhn — Red Run Drain or through the North Branch off the River. From there it flows out into Lake St. Clair near Selfridge ANG, generally hugging the Michigan shore of the lake, following the light blue line to poison the metro beaches. it enters the water intake for the majority of Oakland County at the Belle Island water intakes, lower left.

The storm water plus septic sewage mix is not dumped raw into lake St. Clair, but it’s nearly raw. The only treatment is to be spritzed with bleach in the Red Run Drain. The result is mats of black gunk with floating turds, toilet paper and tampons. This water is filtered before we drink it, and it’s sprayed with more chlorine, but that’s not OK. We can do much better than this. We don’t have to regularly dump poop into the river just upstream of our water intake. I favor a two-prong solution.

The first, quick solution is to have better pumps to send the sewage to Detroit. This is surprisingly expensive since we still have to treat the rain water. Also it doesn’t take care of the biggest rains; there is a limit to what our pipes will handle, but it stops some basement flooding, and it avoids some poisoning of our beaches and drinking water.

A combined sewer system showing a tunnel cistern. Outflow goes into the Red Run. We can do better.

A second, longer term solution is to disentangle the septic from the storm sewers. My approach would be to do this in small steps, beginning by diverting some storm runoff into small wetlands or French drain retention. Separating the sewers this way is cheaper and more environmentally sound than trying to treat the mixed flow in Detroit, and the wetlands and drains would provide pleasant park spaces, but the project will take decades to complete. If done right, this would save quite a lot over sending so much liquid to Detroit, and it’s the real solution to worries about your floor drains back-flowing toxic sludge into your basement.

The incumbent, I fear, has little clue about drainage or bio-treatment. His solution is to build a \$40MM tunnel cistern along Middlebelt road. This cistern only holds 3 MM gallons, less than 1/100 of the volume needed for even a moderate rain. Besides, at \$13/gallon of storage, it is very costly solution compared to my preference — a French drain (costs about 25¢/gallon of storage). The incumbents cistern has closed off traffic for months between 12 and 13 mile, and is expected to continue for a year, until January, 2017. It doesn’t provide any bio-cleaning, unlike a French drain, and the cistern leaks. Currently groundwater is leaking in. This has caused the lowering of the water table and the closure of private wells. If the leak isn’t fixed , the cistern will leak septic sewage into the groundwater, potentially infecting people for miles around with typhus, cholera, and all sorts of 3rd world plagues.

There is also an explosion hazard to the incumbent’s approach. A tunnel cistern like this blew up near my undergraduate college sending manhole covers flying. This version has much bigger manhole covers: 15′ cement, not 2′ steel. If someone pours gasoline down the drain during a rainstorm and if a match went in later, the result could be deadly. The people building these projects are the same ones who fund the incumbent’s campaign, and I suspect they influenced him for this mis-chosen approach. They are the folks I fear he goes to for engineering advice. If you’d like to see a change for the better. Elect me, Elect an engineer.

Dr. Robert E. Buxbaum, March 26, 2016. Go here to volunteer or contribute.

# Michigan, an emerging economy

Between 2009 and 2014, Michigan’s per-capita GDP grew at 14% per year, an amazing growth rate similar to that of an emerging, tiger economies. According tot the Bureau of Economic analysis, the only US states that grew faster were Texas and North Dakota, and these oil states were hit badly in the current year 2015-16.

Unfortunately, Michigan remains relatively poor despite it’s growth. Its per-capita GDP, \$20,263 (2016), lags behind even perennial backwaters like Vermont, Oklahoma, and Missouri. The wealth gap in Michigan is growing, as in an emerging economy, and the cities, e.g. Detroit and Flint, are known for high murder rates, and a large-scale bankruptcy.

Michigan population change, Detroit Free Press

Then there’s pollution and flooding. Our beaches close for e-coli after every major rain, and we recently found that the drinking water in Flint was contaminated with lead; it seems other MI cities have lead problems too. Add to this, that we’ve  had major floods, a result of mismanagement, cronyism, and rampant growth, and Michigan keeps looking more and more like Vietnam, China, and India.

Everything here isn’t third world, though. We replaced our hapless, ex-governor Granholm with a relatively competent (in my opinion) nerd, Rick Snyder. We’ve jailed the of worst crooks, e.g. Detroit’s walking-crime-wave mayor, Kwame Kilpatrick, and his father, “Pay-for-play”, and the corrupt city manager, Bobby Ferguson. Under the previous administration, the state population shrank. It is now growing slowly.

Flood of 2014; the view at 696 and Mound rd. It’s part incompetence and part growth.

We passed a needed roads bill. Taxes are high, but not as bad as Illinois, and even Detroit is beginning to look good, at least in the center city. Industry is coming back, and so is Michigan real-estate. Here are some of my ideas going forward: pay our teachers well, and don’t imprison for so long. Some ideas to keep us on the upswing.

Robert Buxbaum, February 23, 2016. I’m running to be the Oakland county water commissioner, by the way.

# How to help Flint and avoid lead here.

As most folks know, Flint has a lead-poisoning problem that seems to have begun in April, 2014 when the city switched its water supply from Detroit-supplied, Lake Huron water to their own plant pulling water from the Flint River. Here are some thoughts on how to help the affected population, and how to avoid a repeat in Oakland county, where I’m running for water commissioner. First observation, it is not enough to make sure that source water does not contain lead. The people who decided on the switch had found that the Flint river water had no significant lead or other obvious toxins. A key problem, it seems: the river water did not contain anticorrosion phosphates, and none, it seems, were added by the Flint water folks. After the switch, citizens started seeing disgusting, brown water come from their taps, and citizens with lead pipes or solder were poisoned with ppb-levels of lead.

Flint water after 5 hours of flushing, Sept 2015, before switching back to Lake Huron.

The city switched back to Detroit-supplied, Lake Huron water in October, 2015, and they started adding triple doses of phosphates to the water in December. As a result, Flint tap-water is now back within EPA standards, but it’s still likely unsafe, see here for more details.

There has been a fair amount of finger-pointing. At Detroit for raising the price of water so Flint had to switch, at workers for ignoring the early signs of lead, at other employees for not adding the additive, and at “the system” for not caring, or providing Flint with decent infrastructure. I suspect that a lot of the problem is ignorance in the water commission. We elect our water commissioners, and folks seem to pick them the same way we pick presidents: for a nice smile, a great handshake, and an ability to remember names. That, anyway, seems to be the way that Oakland got its current water commissioner. When you pick your commissioner that way, it’s no surprise that he (or she) isn’t particularly sensitive to corrosion, an invisible chemical phenomenon that few people understand.

Flint river water contains corrosive chloride. Contributing to the corrosion problem, I’m going to guess that Flint River water also contains an industrial chelating chemical used in plating, EDTA in 10s of ppb concentrations. EDTA isn’t poisonous at these concentrations, but it’s the most commonly used antidote for lead poisoning and commonly used in industry. At these concentrations, EDTA extracts lead and other metals from people and I’m going to guess that this same chemical, or something very similar, contributed to the process that extracted lead and iron oxide from the pipes. With EDTA in the water, no amount of phosphate would avoid or solve the lead poisoning problem.

Detroit ex-mayor Kwame Kilpatrick has claimed that both Flint water and Detroit water were known to be poisoned even a decade before the switch. I find these claims believable given the high levels of lead in kids blood even before the switch. Also, I note that there are areas of Detroit where the blood-lead levels are higher than Flint. Flint did not test at the taps in a scientifically acceptable way during the first days of the poisoning, and neither, I suspect, do many of our MI cities today. My first suggestion therefore is to test correctly, both at the pipes and at the taps; lead pipes are most-often found in the last few feet before the tap. In particular, we should test at all schools and other places where the state has direct authorization to fix the problem. A MI senate bill has been proposed to this effect, but I’m not sure where it stands in the MI house. It seems there are movements to add lots of ‘riders’ and that’s usually a bad sign.

Another thought is that citizens should be encouraged to test their private taps and helped to fix them. The state can’t come in and test or rip out your private pipes, even if they suspect lead, but the private owner has that authorization. The state could condemn a private property where they believe the water is bad, but I doubt they could evict the residents. It’s a democratic republic, as I understand; you have the right to be deadly stupid. But I’ll take my own suggestion to encourage you: If you think your water has lead, take a sample and call (517) 335-8184. Do it.

Another suggestion, perhaps the easiest and most important, is to provide an antidote. The main antidotes for lead are chelating compounds, and we’re already providing bottles of imported water. Why not provide some of the water with compounds that help extract lead from people. And here I have an interesting thought. Assuming I am right that Flint River water had enough EDTA to cause/ worsen the problem, the cheapest/ best antidote might be Flint River water. You’d want to draw the water with plastic pipes and chlorinate it to rid it of bugs, but if there is EDTA it will help the poisoned. EDTA is a known lead-poisoning antidote. Another antidote is Succinct acid, something sold by REB Research, my company. There are other antidotes too, but wouldn’t it be cool if Flint river water worked?

Robert E. Buxbaum, January 19-31, 2016. I hope this helps. We’d have to check Flint River water for levels of EDTA, but I suspect we’d find it at 50 ppb, or so, a biologically significant concentration. If you think Oakland should have an engineer in charge of the water, elect Buxbaum for water commissioner.