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The EPA defines pollution as “the presence of a substance in the environment that, because of its chemical composition or quantity, prevents the functioning of natural processes and produces undesirable environmental and health effects. A. Any material that causes pollution is called a pollutant. Pollution Essentials I. Pollutants are almost by-products of otherwise essential activities and biological functions. Pollution problems become more pressing over the years because both growing populations and expanding per capita use of materials and energy have increased the amounts of by-products that go into the environment. A. Many materials now widely used are nonbiodegradable. They resist breakdown by detritus feeders and decomposers and consequently accumulate in the environment. B. The general strategy for fighting pollution must be: 1. Identify the material or materials that are causing the pollution 2. Identify the sources of the pollutants 3. Clean up the environment already impacted by pollution 4. Develop and implement pollution-control strategies to prevent the pollutants from entering the environment 5. Develop and implement alternative means of meeting the need that do not produce the polluting by-product Water Pollution: Sources, Types, Criteria I. For purposes of regulation, it is customary to distinguish between point sources and nonpoint sources of pollutants. A. Point sources involve the discharge of substances from factories, sewage systems, power plants, coal mines, and oil wells. These sources are relatively easy to identify and therefore are easier to monitor and regulate than nonpoint sources, which are poorly defined and scattered over broad areas. B. Some of the most prominent nonpoint sources of pollution are agricultural runoff, storm-water drainage, and atmospheric deposition. C. Two basic strategies are employed in attempting to bring water pollution under control: 1) reduce or remove the sources and 2) treat the water before it is released so as to remove pollutants or convert them to harmless forms. Water treatment is the best option for point sources. Source reduction can be employed for both kinds of sources and is the best option for nonpoint sources. II. The most serious water pollutants are the infectious agents that cause sickness and death. A. The excrement from humans and other animals infected with certain pathogens contains large numbers of these organisms or their eggs.
Even after symptoms of disease disappear, an infected person or animal may still harbor low populations of the pathogen, thus continuing to act as a carrier of disease. B. If wastes from carriers contaminate drinking water, food, or water used for swimming or bathing, the pathogens can gain access to, and infect, other individuals. Today, public-health measures that prevent this disease cycle have been adopted throughout the developed world. The following measures were important in controlling waterbourne diseases: 1. Purification and disinfection of public water supplies with chlorine or other agents 2. Sanitary collection and treatment of human and animal wastes 3. Maintenance of sanitary standards in all facilities in which food is processed or prepared for public consumption 4. Instruction in personal and domestic hygiene practices III. Good health is primarily a result of the prevention of disease through publichealth measures. A. Largely because of poor sanitation regarding water and sewage, a significant portion of the world’s population is chronically infected with various pathogens. Moreover, populations in areas where there is little or no sewage treatment are extremely vulnerable to deadly epidemics of many diseases spread by way of sewage. IV. Along with pathogens, human and animal wastes contain organic matter that creates serious problems if it enters bodies of water untreated. Other kinds of organic matter can enter bodies of water as a result of runoff and can grow within the water. A. When bacteria and detritus feeders decompose organic matter in water, they consume oxygen gas dissolved in the water. Even a moderate amount of organic matter decomposing in water can deplete the water of its DO. B. Bacteria keep the water depleted in DO as long as there is dead organic matter to support their growth and oxygen replenishment is inadequate. C. Biochemical oxygen demand is a measure of the amount of organic material in water, in terms of how much oxygen will be required to break it down biologically, chemically, or both. The higher the BOD measure, the greater the likelihood that dissolved oxygen will be depleted in the course of breaking it down. D. A high BOD causes so much oxygen depletion that animal life is severely limited or precluded. E. If the system goes anaerobic, only bacteria can survive, using their abilities to switch to fermentation or anaerobic respiration. V. Because water is such an excellent solvent, it is able to hold many chemical substances in solution that have undesirable effects. Water-soluble
inorganic chemicals constitute an important class of pollutants that include heavy metals, acids from main drainage, and acid precipitation. A. The organic chemicals are another group of substances found in polluted waters. These include petroleum, pesticides, industrial chemicals, and cleaning solvents. B. Many of these pollutants are toxic even at low concentrations. Some may become concentrated by passing up the food chain in a process called biomagnifications. C. At higher concentrations, they can change the properties of bodies of water so as to prevent them from serving any useful purpose except navigation. VI. As landforms weather, a certain amount of sediment enters streams and rivers. However, erosion from farmlands, deforested slopes, overgrazed rangelands, construction sites, mining sites, etc. greatly increase the load of sediment entering waterways. A. Sediments have direct and extreme physical impacts on streams and rivers. B. When erosion is slight, streams and rivers of the watershed run clear and support algae and other aquatic plants. These producers support a complex food web of bacteria, protozoa, worms, and other organisms. C. Sediment entering waterways in large amounts has an array of impacts. Sand, silt, clay, and organic particles are quickly separated by the agitation of flowing water and are carried at different rates. Clay and humus are carried in suspension, making the water muddy and reducing the amount of light penetrating the water and reducing photosynthesis. It also kills animals by clogging their gills. D. Especially destructive is the bed load of sand and silt, which is not readily carried in suspension, but is gradually washed along the bottom. These particles bury the bottom life and fill in the hiding places of fish and crayfish. Aquatic plants and other organisms are prevented from reestablishing themselves because the bottom is a constantly shifting bed of sand. E. Modern storm-water management is designed to reduce the bed load, usually via storm drains that are periodically emptied of their sediment. VII.Some of the inorganic chemicals carried in solution in all bodies of water are classified as nutrients—essential elements required by plants. The two most important nutrients for aquatic plant growth are phosphorous and nitrogen, and they are often in such low supply in water that they are the limiting factors for aquatic plants. A. More nutrients mean more plant growth, so nutrients become water pollutants when they are added from point or nonpoint sources and stimulate undesirable plant growth in bodies of water.
B. The most obvious point sources of excessive nutrients are sewage outfalls. Agricultural runoff is the most notorious nonpoint source of nutrients. Many water pollutants are found in water only because of human activities. Others are always found in natural waters, and they are a problem only under certain conditions. In both cases, the concentration of the pollutant must be of primary concern. A. To provide standards for assessing water pollution, the EPA has established the National Recommended Water Quality Criteria. The EPA has listed 167 chemicals and substances as criteria pollutants. The majority of these are toxic chemicals, but many are also natural chemicals or conditions that describe the state of water. The list identifies the pollutant and then recommends concentrations for fresh water, salt water, and human consumption. Values are given for the critical maximum concentration, the highest single concentration beyond which environmental impacts may be expected, and criterion continuous concentration, the highest sustained concentration beyond which undesirable impacts may be expected. B. For drinking water, the EPA has established the Drinking Water Standards and Health Advisories, a set of tables that are updated periodically. These standards are enforceable under the authority of the Safe Drinking Water Act. They are presented as maximum contaminant levels. C. Two important applications of water quality criteria are the National Pollution Discharge Elimination System and Total Maximum Daily Load programs. The NPDES program addresses point-source pollution and issues permits that regulate discharges from wastewater treatment plants and industrial sources. The TMDL program evaluates all sources of pollutants entering a body of water, especially nonpoint sources, according to the water body’s ability to assimilate the pollutant.
17.2 Wastewater Management and Treatment Development of Wastewater Collection and Treatment Systems I. To alleviate the problem of sewage-polluted waterways, facilities were designed and constructed to treat the outflow before it entered the receiving waterway. A. Gradually, regulations were passed requiring municipalities to install separate systems—storm drains for collecting and draining runoff from precipitation and sanitary sewers to receive all wastewater. II. Much of the developing world still exists in the most primitive stage of sewage treatment. The Pollutants in Raw Wastewater I. The total mixture of water collected from all drains is called raw sewage. It mostly consists of water.
A. The pollutants in raw sewage are usually divided into four categories which correspond to the techniques used to remove them: 1. Debris and grit: bags, course sand, gravel, other objects 2. Particulate organic material: fecal matter, food wastes, toilet paper 3. Colloidal and dissolved organic material: very fine particles of particulate organic material, bacteria, urine, soap, detergent 4. Dissolved inorganic material: nitrogen, phosphorous, nutrients Removing Pollutants from Wastewater I. Removing debris and grit is called preliminary treatment. Usually, preliminary treatment involves two steps: the screening out of debris and the settling of grit. A. Debris is removed by letting raw sewage flow through a bar screen. After passing through the screen, the water flows through a grit chamber in which its velocity is slowed just enough to permit the grit to settle. II. After preliminary treatment, the water moves onto primary treatment, where it flows very slowly through large tanks called primary clarifiers. Because its flow is slow, the water is nearly motionless for several hours. The particulate organic material settles to the bottom, where it can be removed. A. At the same time, fatty or oily material floats to the top, where it is skimmed from the surface. B. All the material that is removed is combined into raw sludge, which is treated separately. III. Secondary treatment uses natural decomposers and detritus feeders. An environment is created that enables these organisms to feed on the colloidal and dissolved organic material and break it down to carbon dioxide, mineral nutrients, and water. A. The wastewater from primary treatment is a food- and water-rich medium for the decomposers and detritus feeders. The only thing that needs to be added to the water is oxygen to enhance the organisms’ respiration and growth. B. Either of two systems may be used to add oxygen to the water: a trickling-filter system or an activated-sludge system. In a tricklingfilter system, the water exiting from primary treatment is sprinkled onto, and allowed to percolate through, a bed of fist-sized rocks. The spaces between the rocks provide good aeration. The organic material in the water is absorbed and digested by decomposers and detritus feeders as it trickles by. C. The activated-sludge system is the most common secondarytreatment system. Water from primary treatment enters a large tank that is equipped with an air-bubbling system or rapidly churning system of paddles. A mixture of detritus-feeding organisms, activated sludge, is added to the water as it enters the
tank, and the water is vigorously aerated as it moves through the tank. Organisms in this well-aerated environment reduce the biomass of organic material as they feed. D. As the organisms feed on each other, they tend to form into clumps, called floc, that settle readily when the water is stilled. Thus, from the aeration tank, the water is passed into a secondary clarifier tank where the organisms settle out and the water moves on. The settled organisms are then pumped back into the aeration tank. Surplus amounts of activated sludge are removed and added to the raw sludge. II. Today, secondary activated-sludge systems have been added and are being modified and operated in a manner that both removes nutrients and oxidizes detritus, in a process known as biological nutrient removal. A. In the natural nitrogen cycle, various bacteria convert nutrient forms of nitrogen back to nonnutritive nitrogen gas in the atmosphere through denitrification. For the biological removal of nitrogen, then, the activated-sludge system is partitioned into zones, and the environment in each zone is controlled in a manner that promotes the denitrifying process. B. Phosphate is removed as excess organisms are removed from the system. These organisms, together with the phosphate they contain, are added to, and treated with, the raw sludge, ultimately producing a more nutrient-rich treated-sludge product. Various chemical treatments are often used as an alternative to BNR. One such process is to pass the effluent from standard secondary treatment through a filter of lime, which causes the phosphate to precipitate out as insoluble calcium phosphate. Another is to treat the effluent with ferric chloride, which produces insoluble ferric phosphate. III. The wastewater is subjected to a final clarification and disinfection. The most widely used disinfectant is chlorine gas. But this treatment introduces chlorine into natural waterways, and even minute levels of chlorine can harm aquatic animals. A. One alternative disinfecting agent is ozone gas, which kills microorganisms and breaks down to oxygen gas, improving water quality in the process. Another disinfection technique is to pass the effluent through an array of ultraviolent lights mounted in the water. B. After these treatment steps, the wastewater has a lower organic and nutrient content than many bodies of water into which it is being discharged. Thus, discharging the wastewater may actually contribute toward improving water quality in the receiving body. Treatment of Sludge I. The particulate organic matter that settles out or floats to the surface of sewage water in primary treatment forms the bulk of raw sludge, although
the sewage also contains excesses from activated sludge and BNR systems. A. Pathogens are certain to be present in raw sludge because it includes material directly from toilets. However, as nutrient-rich material, it has the capacity to be used as organic fertilizer if it is suitably treated. B. The commonly used methods for treating sludge and converting it into organic fertilizer are anaerobic digestion, composting, and pasteurization. None of these methods is capable of removing toxic substances such as heavy metals and non-biodegradable synthetic organic compounds. II. Anaerobic digestion is a process of allowing bacteria to feed on the detritus in the absence of oxygen. The raw sludge is put into large airtight tanks called sludge digesters. In the absence of oxygen, a consortium of anaerobic bacteria breaks down the organic matter. A. The end products of this decomposition are carbon dioxide, methane, and water. Thus, a major by-product of anaerobic processes is biogas, a gaseous mixture that is about 2/3 methane. B. Because of its methane content, biogas is flammable and can be burned for fuel. C. After 4-6 weeks, anaerobic digestion is more or less complete, and what remains is called treated sludge, consisting of the remaining organic matter, which is now a relatively stable, nutrient-rich, humuslike material suspended in water. Pathogens have been virtually eliminated. Such treated sludge can make excellent fertilizer. Sludge can also be dewatered, leaving a sludge cake. III. Another process sometimes used to treat sewage is composting. Raw sludge is mixed with wood chips to reduce the water content. It is then placed in windrows—long, narrow piles that allow air to circulate conveniently through the material and that can be turned with machinery. A. Bacteria and other decomposers break down the organic material to rich humus-like material that makes an excellent treatment for poor soil. IV. After the raw sludge is dewatered, the resulting sludge cake may be put through ovens that operate like oversized laundry dryers. In the dryers, the sludge is pasteurized. A. The product is dry, odorless organic pellets. Alternative Treatment Systems I. Many homes in rural and suburban areas lie outside the reach of a municipal system. For these homes, on-site treatment systems are required. The most common on-site system is the septic tank and leaching field. A. Wastewater flows into the tank, where particulate organic matter settles to the bottom. The tank acts like a primary clarifier in a municipal system. Water containing colloidal and dissolved organic material, as well as dissolved nutrients, flows into the leaching field
and gradually percolates into the soil. Organic matter that settles in the tank is digested by bacteria, but accumulations still must be pumped out regularly. B. Soil bacteria decompose the colloidal and dissolved organic material that comes through the leaching field. II. The nutrient-rich water coming from the standard secondary-treatment process is beneficial for growing plants. It can be used for irrigation. However, it is important to ensure that it has been properly treated. III. In treating wastewater, it is also possible to make use of the nutrientabsorbing capacity of wetlands in suitable areas and under suitable climatic conditions. The project may be part of a wet-lands recovery program, or artificial wetlands may be constructed. A. Wetland systems can be designed for small as well as large areas and are becoming an increasingly popular alternative for small communities. The key to success for such systems is to ensure that they are kept in balance and not loaded beyond their ability to handle inputs. B. Many aquatic systems are simply not able to act like wetlands and absorb extra nutrients without a major change in ecosystem function. This response is called eutrophication. 17.3 Eutrophication I. Although eutrophication can be an entirely natural process, the introduction of pollutants into bodies of water has greatly increased the scope and speed of eutrophication. Different Kinds of Aquatic Plants I. Benthic plants are aquatic plants that grow attached to, or are rooted in, the bottom of a body of water. All common aquarium plants are sea grasses are benthic plants. A. Benthic plants may be categorized as submerged aquatic vegetation, which generally grows totally under water, or emergent vegetation, which grows with the lower parts in water but the upper parts emerging from the water. B. To thrive, submerged aquatic vegetation (SAV) requires water that is clear enough to allow sufficient light to penetrate to allow photosynthesis. As water becomes more turbid, light is diminished, and thus decreases the depth at which SAV can grow. C. Another important feature of SAV is that it absorbs its required mineral nutrients from the bottom sediments through its roots. SAV is not limited by water that is low in nutrients. II. Phytoplankton consists of numerous species of photosynthetic algae, protists, and chlorophyll-containing bacteria that grow as microscopic single cells or in small groups of cells. Phytoplankton live suspended in the water and are found wherever light and nutrients are available.
A. Phytoplankton reach high densities only in nutrient-rich water because, not being connected to the bottom, they must absorb nutrients from the water. A low level of nutrients in the water limits the growth of phytoplankton. B. Considering the different requirements of phytoplankton and SAV, the balance between them is altered when nutrient levels in the water are changed. As long as water remains low in nutrients, populations of phytoplankton are suppressed, the water is clear, and light may penetrate to support the growth of SAV. As nutrient levels increase, phytoplankton can grow more prolifically, making the water turbid. The Impacts of Nutrient Enrichment I. A lake in which light penetrates deeply is oligotrophic (low in nutrients). Such a lake is fed by a watershed that holds its nutrients well. The low nutrient levels limit the growth of phytoplankton and allow enough light to penetrate to support the growth of SAV, which draws its nutrients from bottom sediments. A. In turn, the benthic plants support the rest of a diverse aquatic ecosystem by provided food, habitats, and dissolved oxygen. II. As the water of an oligotrophic body becomes enriched with nutrients, numerous changes are set in motion. First, the nutrient enrichment allows the rapid growth and multiplication of phytoplankton, increasing the turbidity of the water. The increasing turbidity shades out the SAV that live in the water. With the die-off of SAV, there is a loss of food, habitats, and dissolved oxygen from their photosynthesis. A. Phytoplankton soon reach a maximum population density, and continuing growth and reproduction are balanced by die-off. Dead plankton settle out, resulting in heavy deposits of detritus on the lake or river bottom. In turn, the abundance of detritus supports an abundance of decomposers, mainly bacteria. The growth of bacteria, consuming oxygen, creates an additional demand for dissolved oxygen. The result is the depletion of dissolved oxygen, creating hypoxic conditions. III. Eutrophication refers to the whole sequence of events, starting with nutrient enrichment, and proceeding to the growth and die-off of phytoplankton, the accumulation of detritus, the growth of bacteria, and the depletion of dissolved oxygen and the suffocation of higher organisms. IV. In lakes and ponds whose water depth is 6 feet or less, eutrophication takes a somewhat different course. There, SAV may grow to a height of a meter or more, reaching the surface. Thus, with nutrient enrichement, the SAV is not shaded out, but grows abundantly, often covering the entire water surface. A. As the mats of vegetation die and sink to the bottom, they create a BOD that often depletes the water of dissolved oxygen, causing the death of aquatic organisms.
V. In nature, apart from human impacts, eutrophication is part of the process of natural succession. Thus, natural eutrophication is a normal process. A. The accelerated eutrophication caused by humans is called cultural eutrophication. Combating Eutrophication I. Attacking the symptoms is appropriate in certain situations in which immediate remediation is the goal and costs are not prohibitive. Methods of attacking the symptoms of eutrophicaton include 1) chemical treatments, 2) aeration, 3) harvesting aquatic weeds, and 4) drawing water down. A. Herbicides are often applied to ponds and lakes to control the growth of plants. To control phytoplankton growth, copper sulfate and diquat are frequently used. However, many of these compounds are toxic to fish and aquatic animals, sometimes at concentrations required to keep the vegetation under control. Also, fish are often killed after herbicide is applied because the rotting vegetation depletes the water of dissolved oxygen. B. The depletion of dissolved oxygen by decomposers and the consequent suffocation of other aquatic life is the final and most destructive stage of eutrophication. Artificial aeration of the water can avert this stage. 1. An aeration technique currently gaining in popularity is to lay a network of plastic tubes with microscopic pores on the bottom of the waterway to be treated. High-pressure air pumps force microbubbles from the pores, and the bubbles dissolve directly into the water. C. In shallow lakes or ponds, where the problem is bottom-rooted vegetation reaching and sprawling over the surface, harvesting the aquatic weeds may be an expedient way to improve the water’s recreational potential and aesthetics. However, the vegetation usually quickly grows back. D. Another option for shallow-water weed control is to draw the lake down for a period each year. This process kills most of the rooted aquatic plants along the shore, although they grow back in time. II. Controlling eutrophication requires long-term strategies for correcting the problem, which ultimately means reducing the inputs and sediments. The first step is to identify the major point and nonpoint sources of nutrients and sediments. Then it is a matter of developing and implementing strategies for correction. A. In freshwater systems, phosphorus is the most common limiting factor. In marine systems, the limiting factor is most often nitrogen. III. In heavily populated areas, discharges from sewage-treatment plants have been major sources of nutrients entering waterways.
A. In regions where eutrophication has been identified as a problem, a key step toward prevention was to ban the sale of phosphate-based laundry detergents. IV. Reducing or eliminating pollution from nonpoint sources will involve different strategies for different sources. All the practices that may be used to minimize such erosion, runoff, and leaching are lumped under a single term, best management practices. A. Once control measures have been put in place, the polluted body of water must be monitored to determine whether water quality standards are being attained. Public Policy I. The foundation for public policy must be the laws passed by Congress. II. The landmark legislation is the Clean Water Act of 1972, which gave the EPA jurisdiction over, and for the first time required permits for, all pointsource discharges of pollutants. A. The Clean Water State Revolving Fund program provides money to build treatment plants and provide loans to local governments. It may also be used to control nonpoint source pollution. B. Reauthorization of the Clean Water Act is long overdue. III. The EPA has identified nonpoint-source pollution as the nation’s number-one water pollution problem, with the construction of new wastewater facilities not far behind.
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