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By David Knopf, News Editor
It wasn’t just the girls covering their noses Tuesday during a tour of Richmond’s south sewer plant.
As the Sunrise Elementary second-graders walked down the hill from their bus, it quickly became obvious that this wasn’t a typical field trip.
The school’s 125 or so second-grade students were visiting the plant as part of an educational program geared to Earth Day. Sponsored by the United States Department of Agriculture’s Rural Development office and the city of Richmond, the tour was an effort to learn more about a process that almost everyone takes for granted.
Dale Shipp, the city’s wastewater superintendent, led the students from the beginning of the waste treatment process to the end. Although Shipp used a few technical words like “oxidation ditch” and “clarifier,” he tried to explain in simple terms how the waste arrives, what’show in simple terms how the waste gets to the plant, what workers find in it and how it’s treated, both naturally and mechanically, so it can be released as clean water.
“Inside that oxidation ditch are a lot of little bitty bugs that eat up all that stuff so it doesn’t go back into our lakes, rivers and ponds,” said Shipp. “That’s what you’re smelling now is all that nasty stuff.”
The “little bitty bugs” Shipp mentioned are natural bacteria that start their work in our digestive tracts and finish it at the treatment plant.
“It’s fundamentally a continuation of the digestive process,” said City Administrator Ron Brohammer, who accompanied the tour.
If there’s a theme that Rural Development’s Debbie Berry hoped to emphasize, it’s that environmentally speaking what goes around comes around.
Shipp helped bring that point home by using three containers of liquid sewage in the various stages of treatment. As wastewater is mechanically moved and aerated and the “little bitty bugs” so their work, the water moves from foggy to clear and pristine.
“That’s how we make the water that comes out of here better for our environment,” said Shipp, showing how ingredients that are heavier than water – motor oil, for example – sink to the bottom. “Some of the water that’s here today is probably the same water that was here with the dinosaurs.”
Shipp and assistant Trent McGaugh showed each student the accumulation of non-human waste that screens filter out of the water.
“You wouldn’t believe the stuff we find in there,” Shipp said, listing things like baby wipes, diapers, even auto parts.
After the students became accustomed to the plant’s odor, they began to uncover their noses and ask questions.
Although some of them had a rough outline of what happens once a toilet’s flushed or a washing machine’s run, few had any idea about the complex steps that lead to the release of clean water.
“I just thought it went somewhere where they clean the water,” second-grader Wyatt Reed said. Asked for his first impression of the plant, Reed described it all as “dirty”.
Chris Hudspeth said he’d learned something during the visit.
“When they told us that they take diapers and wipes out, it was kind of wierd,” he said.
Atom Dial, reluctant at first to ask questions, eventually had lots to say.
“What I learned here today is that everything is kind of nasty,” he said.
Until visiting the plant, Dial said he imagined that household waste was simply “collected behind a wall and came out clean.”
After Tuesday, Dial and his classmates no longer can confuse the process with magic.
USDA Rural Development will follow up on the tour with an Earth Day poster contest. The second-graders are being asked to create pictures of something they took away from their visit to the treatment plant.
Sunrise will be notified of the poster-contest winners on April 17 and the following morning at 9:30 state USDA and city of Richmond officials will attend an awards ceremony at Sunrise.
Posters from the contest will then be displayed at city hall.