Elkins Water Plant Hosts EPA Workshop

Regulators from across the country gathered to learn about membrane treatment plants

What makes for safe drinking water? Those in the water-treatment field know that the answer to this question can be something of a moving target.

As scientific knowledge and treatment technologies advance, what the field considers to be safe levels of certain contaminants today may come to be seen as dangerously high down the road. Even before such developments result in formal rule changes, an EPA program called AWOP (Area-Wide Optimization Program) encourages local water utilities to exceed current regulations by optimizing performance of existing facilities without costly capital improvements.

AWOP officials and water regulators from three of the six nationwide AWOP regions recently traveled to Elkins. The purpose of the gathering was to hold the region’s first workshop about applying the AWOP approach in plants that use membrane treatment (such as the Elkins Water Treatment Plant). Attendees included representatives from seven state drinking water programs, three regional EPA offices, the EPA Technical Services Center in Cincinnati, the director of the Association of State Drinking Water Administrators, and Process Application, Inc. (an EPA contractor).

When the request came in for Elkins to host this workshop, Wes Lambert, the chief operator of the Elkins water system, jumped at the chance.

“This workshop is for regulators who don’t get very many chances to actually go hands-on at a membrane treatment plant,” he says. “Membrane technology is still new in the United States and especially here in West Virginia, and regulators are still figuring out what the goal posts should look like. It was really encouraging for me and my team that they would pick our plant to come to as part of the process of shaping regulations for the whole nation.”

By design, the drinking water produced by membrane plants, also called effluent, already exceeds EPA standards, but there can nonetheless be room for improvement in other aspects of plant operations, maintenance, and data management. This workshop focused on membrane data integrity, or the extent to which data collected by automated sensors matches the results of traditional manual sampling.

Using the Elkins Water Treatment Plant as a case study, workshop attendees divided into groups to try their hands at seven different data-related special studies looking at various aspects of the plant’s data management, including examining and understanding the functioning of a vital plant system called SCADA (Supervisory Access and Data Acquisition).

“One reason this workshop needed to take place in a working membrane plant is because these regulators want to get a firm understanding of how accurate this kind of system really is,” says Lambert. “They don’t want to base their regulations on the manufacturers’ claims because these systems may perform differently out here in the field.”

According to Lambert, the attendees seemed impressed by the Elkins plant’s record-keeping and transparency.

“We hear that a lot of systems aren’t always welcoming to outside eyes, because they might be afraid deficiencies could be discovered,” he says. “Personally, I welcome visits from people of this caliber to help evaluate what we do, because it’s a great learning opportunity for all.”

Lambert said the training was a big success for hosts and attendees alike.

“This really was time well spent,” says Lambert. “This is a field where if you aren’t constantly learning, you are going to fall behind. Everyone learned a lot at this event, including me.”

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