Engineers work for more fragrant Philly

Andrea Wilson

Driving along Interstate 95 through Southwest Philadelphia can be an unpleasant experience for the nose, since the industrial area around Philadelphia International Airport has long battled the strong odor of sewage sludge. However, an experimental project involving experts from the University’s Department of Environmental and Civil Engineering may improve the city’s smell.

Paired up with Organica Biotech, a company that manufactures environmental products, the department will be studying the effects of a new treatment product designed to reduce gases and stimulate biodegradation.

The project, set to begin this month, will take place at the Southwest Water Pollution Control Plant, which is located near the airport. The plant is adjacent to the Biosolids Recycling plant, which has produced 2,640,000 tons of biosolids products in its decade of operation.

Organica will add what it calls “natural biological enhancers” and, with the help of University engineers, study their effects on the biosolids that cause the unpleasant smells. The digester is supposed to reduce foul gases and pathogens.

The City of Philadelphia Water Department is skeptical, however. Their chief spokesman, Ed Grusheski, told the Daily News, “We don’t have much hope for this … We honestly don’t think it’s going to work.”

A recent press release from Organica referring to the city as “Stinkadelphia” was not popular with the water authority, which is not funding the project in any way. Ben Franklin Technology Partners of Southeastern Pennsylvania, a nonprofit economic development organization, is footing part of the bill.

Philadelphia has three water treatment facilities that serve 2.5 million people. The sewage generated by the city is normally first cleaned up by microorganisms in a process called anaerobic digestion.

When there is an excess of microorganisms at the completion of this process, the resulting materials are called biosolids. Poor digestion creates the noxious compounds that cause the unpleasant odor. Dr. Metin Duran of the Civil and Environmental Engineering department said all cities deal with this problem.

Improving the quality of the digestion is the idea behind the odor-reducing project. Organica has developed a product including naturally-occurring enzymes and plant materials that is designed to enhance the digestion process. The role of the engineers will be to analyze the effects of the product and to report back to the Water Department.

The city wanted a third party to do the analysis, and since it has historically had a good relationship with the University’s Department of Environmental and Civil Engineering, it approached its faculty to get involved. Duran, who specializes in water treatment, is the primary investigator working on the project, and graduate student Nalan Tepe is assisting.

Duran would not comment on his predictions for the project, saying it was not the department’s function. “We do the analysis,” he said. “We are not going to endorse or not endorse anyone’s product.”

When asked about the comments the Water Department’s Gruskeski made to the Daily News last week, Duran said the city is probably cautious about endorsing the product because there are so many products on the market for the same purpose.

“It’s business,” Duran said.