You can just go ahead and call me Portland's Luckiest Lady: For the second week in a row, as part of the League of Young Voters' Portland 101 program, I got to visit a smelly and treacherous location, all in the name of getting (and sharing with you, reader!) a behind-the-scenes glimpse of our city's inner-workings.
The Portland Water District's East End Wastewater Treatment Facility, Maine's largest such operation, is a frothing plant that processes and detoxifies everything we flush down our toilets, pour down our sinks, and send into our sewers. On a typical day, Portland produces 18 million gallons of wastewater; that effluent is filtered, aerated, sanitized, and then released into Casco Bay.
You've probably smelled it or seen it on a run or bike ride along the East End Trail. Those open tanks that you see bubbling and churning? Those are aeration tanks — "that's where our 'critters' reside," explained Steve Sloan, head of the East End facility. The "critters" are the microorganisms that multiply and consume organic material (inorganics, such as personal hygiene items, have already been strained and settled out). After aeration, 90 percent of the organic material has been removed from the wastewater. The resulting biosolids byproduct — which settles to the bottom of a Cerebro-like dome during the "secondary clarification" phase — is shipped either to farms to be used as fertilizer, or to the landfill.
The final disinfection is achieved by adding a small amount of chlorine to the water. Once it's done its work, that chlorine is removed. Then, the clean wastewater travels by pipe into Casco Bay, where it is released into deep water off East End Beach (don't worry — officials closely monitor this location for lingering toxins and bad bacteria).
It's not all crap, however. The other side of the Portland Water District is, of course, our potable water. The PWD serves more than 55,000 customers, delivering drinkable water from Sebago Lake. The water from Sebago is so clean, in fact, that Portland is one of few US municipalities to be granted a filtration waiver — the water is treated (disinfected with ozone, then supplemented with fluoride), but not filtered.
"We have an effective watershed program," PWD general manager Ronald Miller told us, with security to enforce: no bodily contact within two miles of the area of the lake from where our drinking water is extracted, no trespassing within half a mile, and no development in the surrounding acres.
This water travels through close to 1000 miles of Portland Water District piping; we use about 25 million gallons of it per day (sometimes as much as 60 million, during midsummer heat).
Naturally, it takes a lot of people, money, and infrastructure to maintain these sprawling systems. Miller listed "unfunded mandates" (regarding testing and treatment), an aging workforce ("nowadays we find it difficult to attract people like you to work in wastewater," he told the young crowd wryly), and aging infrastructure (replacing pipes and pumps costs about $1 million per mile) as the PWD's biggest challenges.
It's not surprising, then, that the agency is run by professional staff as well as an elected board. These aren't simple logistics to work out — it's a big job ensuring that what comes in, and what goes out, is clean.