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Poop: The incredible journey. It starts with a flush and ends with a fuel

$775 million later — how and where our sewage flows. Total time from your toilet to the treatment plant, if you live near the University of Victoria, for example, is just under three hours.

The core-area Wastewater Treatment Project — an eight-year, $775-million effort that has been the most ­expensive and complicated engineering and ­construction feat ever undertaken in the Capital Regional District — is complete and operating.

The region’s sewage, everything that gets flushed and poured down our drains and runs off our streets, used to be piped into the ocean after screening.

Now, all of that effluent runs through a treatment process that removes ­harmful substances from the liquids and aims to turn the solids to a usable fuel.

Here’s how it works:

THE JOURNEY BEGINS

It’s 7 a.m.

Across Greater Victoria, folks are pulling themselves from a night of ­slumber and making their way to the bathroom — putting the ­McLoughlin Point Wastewater ­Treatment Plant into high gear.

By 7:30, after the brushing of teeth, showers and the first flushes, down it all goes into the pipes on your property, under your sidewalk and into the grid of municipal sewer lines — joining the waste of your neighbours and many ­others as it tumbles, in most cases by the pull of gravity.

Solids, liquids and whatever else people manage to flush or put down the drain in Victoria, Esquimalt, ­Saanich, Oak Bay, View Royal, Langford and ­Colwood, and the Esquimalt and ­Songhees Nations cascades down the lines, joining larger municipal pipes and regional interceptor stations to keep the flow moving.

At one point, this nose-pinching brew will spill into a much bigger ­Capital Regional District trunk line — two to five feet in diameter — and end up at one of three major pump stations.

If you’re in Saanich, your waste will arrive at Clover Point, where that pump station will pack a pipeline with ­pressurized force to push it across the Dallas Road waterfront, under James Bay along Niagara Street, under the ­harbour and, finally, into the freshly minted McLoughlin Point Wastewater Treatment Plant.

Total time from your toilet to the plant, if you live near the University of Victoria, for example, is just under three hours, says Dennis Jasinsky, ­general manager of the McLoughlin Point ­facility.

The plant, surrounded by a tsunami wall and built to severe earthquake standards, is a maze of tanks, pipes and wiring. Small trap doors into each of the treatment tanks can be opened.

On a bank of large screens, Jasinsky can track the flows in real time and pinpoint peak uses of the conveyance system and what’s sloshing its way into the plant from two sides. The ­Macaulay Forcemain — a 1.3-metre-diameter pipe — is pushing through ­sewage from the Saanich Peninsula and West Shore at the same time as its ­Clover Point counterpart.

That morning peak period, between 7 and 9 a.m., is followed by another one in the early evening, says Jasinsky, when people arrive home, prepare dinner, turn on dishwashers and showers, and do their personal business.

“It never ends … it’s a 24/7 operation.”

McLoughlin Point is designed to treat 108 million litres of sewage a day based on average dry-weather flow — the equivalent of 43 Olympic-sized ­swimming pools.

Ted Robbins, general manager of the CRD’s Integrated Water Services Division, says the current average dry-weather flow into the plant is 73 million litres. The plant also has the ability to provide tertiary or final-stage treatment for wet-weather flows up to 216 million litres, and a combination of primary, secondary and tertiary treatment for peak wet-weather flows up to 432 million litres.

During a heavy rain event on Nov. 15, the plant hit 388 million litres at 3 a.m., most of it from overwhelmed street drains while most people were asleep.

Before the sewage reaches the plant, screening to six millimetres removes a lot of the plastics, small stones, paper, cloth and other debris.

Centrifugal force in the mains settles grit and keeps organic materials suspended in the ­pipeline system.

SPLASHDOWN

The voyage of your sewage is far from over once it hits the plant.

In a series of deep vertical tanks rising four storeys above the rock at McLoughlin Point and three ­storeys below sea level, the waste goes through three ­cleaning stages. (The tall plant is the result of the relatively small size of the site, about four acres.)

It starts with separating the solids, the primary stage. Two large tanks, each 10 metres deep, take in the flows from the pumping stations. The heavier ­solids sink to the bottom with the help of angled plates, while the light stuff floats to the top.

The secondary stage is a ­biological process or, as ­Jasinsky calls it, where “the bugs do their work.”

“It’s like putting a cheeseburger in there and ­everything gets consumed,” he says.

After the primary ­effluent is screened down to two ­millimetres, sewage flows into massive tank reactors, where ­micro-organisms are delivered in plastic pellets that consume organic compounds in the waste quickly, and reproduce to form cells that turn into residual ­biological solids.

An extra layer of ­screening comes in the form of ­massive sand bags, four and a half metres deep, that act as a filter. Air is pumped through to help the living organisms survive and do their work.

From there, the effluent makes its way into tertiary treatment tanks, a ­process that is a step beyond provincial and ­federal requirements for sewage ­discharge.

During this final stage, wastewater is strained through large disc filters that look like big plush vehicle-seat covers. These filter wastewater to a five-micron level, so tiny that it’s invisible to the human eye. One micron is 1/1,000th of a millimetre, or 1/25,000th of an inch. It’s a measurement standard used to describe airborne particles. The human eye can see debris and dust that are about 25 microns.

The tertiary process filters out many of the pharmaceuticals, hormones and microplastics that are flushed down the drains, but doesn’t eliminate them all.

You wouldn’t be able to drink the water after this stage. That would require another treatment level ­similar to what Greater Victoria’s drinking water goes through after it’s collected from the Sooke Lake reservoir system, including ultraviolet disinfection and chlorination.

From tertiary treatment, the water is discharged through an outfall that stretches 1.6 kilometres off ­McLoughlin Point, dog-legging right at the ­one-­kilometre mark and continuing the rest of the way with diffusers.

Through all the stages of treatment, the sludge from each level is being pushed downward into a large holding tank.

Odours are collected and ­contained at each stage, and pumped by fans into ­biological and carbon ­scrubbers with ­filters before being released as “clean air.”

The treatment plant is still ­experiencing some odour problems in the area, although officials say those are being remedied with fine-tuning of the filtering systems.

SOLIDS HEAD NORTH

About nine hours after that morning flush, the treated liquids are on their way into the Strait of Juan de Fuca and the biosolids are being processed in another stage.

The pipeline screenings and sludge from each stage of treatment at McLoughlin are collected in tanks, and the solids — still partially liquefied for pipeline travel — start the 18-kilometre journey to the Residuals Treatment ­Facility at Hartland landfill.

Upon arrival at the facility, in a compound close to the landfill, solids are pushed into three large airtight ­digestion chambers, where micro-­organisms eat away at the biodegradable materials and create biogas.

The biogas powers the next stage of the solids process — a massive dryer that heats up to 220 C and removes whatever liquids are remaining.

The end product after final screenings is considered dried class-A biosolids, which are granular and look a lot like coffee grounds.

FROM HOT MESS TO HOT FUEL

The end product of Greater Victoria’s sewage treatment process is being trucked to Richmond to help fuel Lafarge Canada’s cement manufacturing operations.

The biosolids burn hot and, mixed with other fuels like woodwaste and coal, power kilns used in the Lafarge plant.

Cement manufacturing is a two-stage process, where materials such as limestone that contain calcium oxide are mixed with sand, shale or clay. The materials are dried and ground, and the mixture is heated in a rotary kiln to form clinker.

Kilns operate at extremely high temperatures and are usually powered by electricity, coal or petroleum coke — some even burn tires or hazardous ­liquids to hit peak temperatures.

In 2020, Lafarge signed a five-year contract with the CRD to “provide a ­reliable, steady and safe supply of ­biosolids to use as fuel.”

The CRD isn’t making any money on the biosolids; in fact the CRD is paying Lafarge $16 a tonne to have the company incinerate them.

The CRD said the fee, offset by the energy value of biosolids, helps fund ongoing maintenance requirements for both the custom storage silo and ­conveyance infrastructure necessary for incineration of this material at the Lafarge site.

This will be ongoing until the CRD can find other beneficial uses, such as ­turning the biosolids into synthetic gas.

The CRD is also paying to have the biosolids trucked to the Lafarge plant.

The regional district said a full ­semi-truck and trailer load of biosolids leaves Hartland for Richmond every day or two.

A newly formed First Nations company signed a five-year deal in November to truck the biosolids as well as a number of other smaller wastewater trucking requirements, while the CRD sorts out longer-term plans for the ­material. The trucking company is a partnership created by the W̱SÁNEĆ Leadership Council, made up of the Tsartlip, Tseycum and Tsawout First Nations.

The CRD says that during cement-plant shutdown periods — four to six weeks every year — biosolids are being used at Hartland landfill under a special provincial permit as a “bio-cover” to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions and improve tree growth in reforested areas of the landfill.

Neighbouring ­residents have expressed concerns about odours.

The CRD board is wary of using ­biosolids as a land fertilizer, even though the province approves it, citing potential public health risks. The board has started developing a long-term management plan for biosolids that will include public consultation on health, water resources, agriculture, legal liabilities and other environmental considerations.

The biosolids plant has a capacity to treat just over 14,000 dry tonnes of residuals a year and was designed, built and now operated by a consortium of ­private companies — Bird ­Construction Inc., Maple Reinders PPP Ltd., and Synargo Capital — under the Hartland Resource Management Group. The residuals treatment plant contract is ­performance-based, with payment tied to the quantity of residual solids treated. The contract covers both operational costs and payback for the capital investment over 20 years.

The capital cost of the plant was $126.8 million and funded by P3 Canada, the province and the CRD.

Meanwhile, the CRD is exploring plans to make the McLoughlin Point Wastewater Treatment Plant more accessible for the public, including tours for schools and other interested groups.

A large observation deck is being ­outfitted with information boards on how the plant works. It’s close to a laboratory and the control room where workers monitor flows in the plant and pipeline system and analysts study the sewage treatment process.

dkloster@timescolonist.com