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A tub used in anodizing aluminum parts fills with metal-heavy water.

An average of 38 million gallons of wastewater flow into Colorado Springs Utilities wastewater treatment plants every single day, but that doesn’t mean anything can be flushed down the drain.

Of the 144,000 customers sending liquid waste into those systems, Colorado Springs Utilities identifies 27 as “significant industrial users” (SIUs), many of which handle toxic metals in their day-to-day operations. Depending on their location, waste from SIUs can be sent to one of two processing plants in Colorado Springs: the J.D. Phillips Water Resource Recovery Facility or the Las Vegas Street Water Resource Recovery Facility. 

In 2020, two SIUs, local metal finishing companies Qualtek Manufacturing Inc.  and Best Finishes, were cited for flushing excessive amounts of metals into the city’s Las Vegas Street plant.

“The wastewater discharged by both companies during the period in which they were in violation went into our collection system and was treated at our Las Vegas Water Resource Recovery Facility,” said CSU Public Affairs Specialist Jennifer Kemp, responding to questions from the Business Journal in late February. “We did not incur any effluent violations at our facility during this time.”

Wastewater monitoring systems the city requires SIUs to maintain at their manufacturing sites detected the high metal contents in both cases, but not before the wastewater was flushed through the city’s system. Kemp said, however, that CSU’s standard treatment process “was sufficient to eliminate or reduce those parameters” before the treated water was either reused as non-potable water or returned to land or water bodies.

“Because of the turnaround time required for a laboratory to analyze a sample, by the time a violation is detected, the wastewater has likely already been discharged into our system and has gone through the standard wastewater treatment process,” she said. “This is why we follow up with enforcement and corrective actions steps.”

Legal notices published in The Gazette in February noted that Best Finishes had discharged effluent (liquid waste) with excessive levels of chromium, nickel and zinc on June 26 of last year, while Qualtek was cited for sending nickel into the system above acceptable limits on May 12, 2020.

Both companies acknowledged violations when speaking with the Business Journal this month and described how they responded to prevent future pollution of the system.

“Last year, yes, we were cited for sending too much down the drain, but that was due to operator error,” said James Berry, who owns Best Finishes with Deborah Baisley.

Their company performs anodizing on aluminum parts, an electrochemical process by which metals are hardened and made scratch- and corrosion-resistant. The process requires the use of the elements nickel and chromium in large vats, Berry said. Those metals are supposed to be separated from the liquids that can be neutralized through a process known as pH adjusting before they are then flushed into the city’s wastewater system.

“What happened with us was a simple thing, and it hasn’t happened again since, one of my nickel acetate seals leaked,” Berry said. “It leaked inside the containment and it didn’t go anywhere. The operator sucked it up off the floor with a shop vac. Instead of putting it in a barrel and segregating it by itself, he pulled it off into the waste treatment tanks.”

Berry said the employee responsible for the mix-up is no longer working with the company.

At Qualtek, company president Chris Fagnant described a nearly identical situation, wherein an employee working in the aluminum anodizing process mixed up liquid from a container holding nickel with a container that would have normally contained wastewater meeting the standards of the city’s treatment plants.

“What happened was one of our operators quite literally left the water running on the tank when they were filling it up, and it overflowed into the main wastewater treatment,” Fagnant said. “The main wastewater treatment was there basically to keep the water from spilling on the floor, so it was collecting and then going through our water treatment system. But the system isn’t meant to handle that high of nickel concentrate, so it spiked the nickel levels in the tank where we were treating water before it goes back to the city.”

Fagnant opted for retraining the employee who made the error, rather than taking other forms of disciplinary action. Human errors, he said, can happen in their field, partly because of the vast quantities of metal parts they produce each year. He said the parts they stamp and form often wind up on Boeing jets or in medical ventilators, which became a production emphasis at the company last year during the initial wave of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Fagnant also implemented a new automated system at his facility that sends an electronic notification to management if a tank overflows. That’s in addition to the monitoring already required by the city.

“Wastewater flow, compliance history, and characterization of the wastewater all impact whether an industry may self-monitor on a quarterly basis or on a monthly basis,” said Kemp. “Some have continuous monitors for things like pH, for example. Sampling is done differently if they conduct grab samples versus if they have larger volumes of discharge, or the wastewater composition varies. We conduct ongoing monitoring at the headworks of our wastewater treatment facilities to evaluate the wastewater feeding into our plant. We also conduct monitoring of our SIUs at a minimum annually …”

The city maintains 1,757 miles of wastewater mains, and of the millions of gallons of wastewater they collect and treat each year, roughly 10 percent goes back into the city’s non-potable water system. The remaining 90 percent flows directly into Fountain Creek and into the Arkansas River, passing through roughly 200 communities on its way to the Gulf of Mexico. 

Although the CSU wastewater plants are also equipped with a monitoring system that tests water coming into the facility, Kemp said there is currently no way to analyze a water sample quickly enough to divert overly toxic water into a separate treatment system.

Berry said that human error will always be a factor at industrial plants that aren’t completely automated, so he wanted to urge any newcomers to be prepared to properly handle wastewater and establish the best possible training protocols before beginning production.

“Here’s the thing: If people are going to be dealing with the chemistry that we are dealing with, they have to have the right system in place before they start,” he said.

For now, it appears the toxicity of the city’s dirtiest water remains subject to customers heeding his advice.

 

A graduate of the University of Denver, John Miller worked for six years as a reporter and editor in New Mexico before returning to Colorado in 2020. He has covered domestic terrorism, economic development and the opioid epidemic, among other subjects.