RIGHT: Treated wastewater is released
into a
tributary of the Rocky Fork
Creek in Boone County.



[Sewer upgrades continued ]

Columbia’s Wastewater Treatment Plant on Gillespie Bridge Road discharges its treated effluent through city-constructed wetlands. Microorganisms in the wetlands remove even more of the pathogens before it flows into the Eagle Bluffs Conservation Area. Because of this process, the plant is already meeting fecal coliform limits and the city does not need to add additional disinfection. But the city will be required to limit ammonia.

To meet the limit, the city would spend $14.4 million to install a third mechanical treatment “train” — a series of tanks —to remove ammonia.

Another train — expected to cost $18.7 million — is needed for plant reliability and would treat for ammonia as well, officials said.

The spending plan for the remaining money — $43.9 million — in the city bond issue includes updating aging equipment that dates to the plant’s opening in 1983; updating the grit handling system and sludge removal that would increase plant efficiency and save costs in the long term; adding an odor control system; and making improvements to the collection system.

Aside from the ammonia treatment, the proposed improvements are not state mandated for stream quality, but Steve Hunt, the city’s environmental services manager, said the updates are just as necessary. They would not add a significant amount of capacity, but rather make sure the plant can keep running as is.

“For this particular bond issue, in my opinion, all of the treatment facility funds are for current needs,” Hunt said. “The driving factor is current needs.”

More challenges ahead
While extra regulations resulted from the 2005 shift in classifying water bodies, they stop short of eliminating everything that pollutes streams.

Next on the docket could be limits on nutrients, such as phosphorus and nitrogen, which can cause algae growth and limit oxygen in water, killing aquatic life.

Galbraith said the EPA has encouraged states to develop standards on nutrients, but has yet to mandate limits. The state’s water protection staff will soon propose standards for nutrient limits in Missouri lakes to the Clean Water Commission.

Then could come studies on nutrients in streams, but Galbraith said developing across-the-board limits is difficult and sometimes unnecessary because nutrients affect ecosystems differently.

After nutrients, the big new class of chemicals to be studied could be pharmaceuticals: chemicals from medications including mood stabilizers and birth control, and products such as antibacterial soaps, for example, that end up in wastewater and, consequently, waterways and drinking water supplies.

A recent investigation by The Associated Press found trace amounts of pharmaceuticals, including antibiotics, anti-convulsants, mood stabilizers and sex hormones in the drinking supplies of 41 million Americans. The amounts are tiny, but the AP investigation points out that the presence of so many drugs is raising fears among scientists of the long-term consequences to human health.

“Pharmaceuticals are exactly what we’re overlooking,” said Scott Hamilton, who heads up the Hinkson Creek Watershed Restoration Project.

“There are numerous different hormones in our bodily fluids, and they’re not treated at all by wastewater treatment.”

No one knows what effects these chemicals and hormones have on wildlife, the food chain or humans if they end up back in drinking water or waters in which people swim.

One thing is certain, Hamilton said: “All of this stuff under the big heading of pharmaceuticals is really impacting our aquatic life.”

But with heavy financial burdens weighing on municipalities as they try to keep up with current regulations, they cannot really aim to get ahead of the regulations game before government issues new mandates.

“You do what you can to anticipate future regulation, but we can’t comply with laws or regulations that haven’t been made yet,” Ratermann said. “You try to get the authority to borrow the money that you need to comply with existing regulations, and when the law and the regulations change, we’ll probably have to go back to the voters again and ask for more bonding authority.”

The EPA — and then states — need solid data on how pharmaceuticals affect the environment and then need to study how to remove them, Galbraith said. And that takes time.

Pharmaceuticals “are the next wave,” Galbraith said. “Ten years from now another reporter might be asking, ‘Why now, just now, are we regulating this?’ But it takes time to get the data. It’s a big ship, and it doesn’t turn easily.”