Standing in the fresh air outside the facility’s administrative building, one would never know these were the grounds of a sewage treatment plant — were it not for about an acre of winding, 3-foot-diameter pipes on the other side of the parking lot.
"That's our goal, that the air traveling from here to the community is odor-free," said Kailash Gupta, director of the Norman Cole Jr. Wastewater Treatment Plant in Lorton. He explained that the massive tangle of pipes, which resembles an inviting water park on this hot July day, is the plant’s odor control facility.
He also noted that the plant produces water so clean one could almost drink it, which is why the facility was granted its fifth Platinum Award by the National Association of Clean Water Agencies (NACWA) early this month.
The award is given to plants that meet all federal standards for pollution prevention every day for five consecutive years, and this is the fifth such award the Norman Cole plant, the only sewage treatment plant owned by Fairfax County, has received. Because it signifies a nine-year perfect record, Norman Cole’s award is referred to as a Platinum 9.
This was also the 21st consecutive year that the plant was recognized, one way or another, for the purity of the water it releases into Pohick Creek, which ultimately washes into the Chesapeake Bay.
"We do much better than what they require us to treat, voluntarily," said Gupta. He noted, for example, that while the federal limit for nitrogen is 8 milligrams per liter, the Norman Cole plant limits its nitrogen output to between 5 and 6 milligrams per liter.
"Platinum 9 is significant. They’ve done a really good job of making sure they're up to par with the permit limits, and that's not easy to do," said Susan Bruninga, NACWA’s director of public affairs. She noted that 191 plants had been granted gold awards this year — signifying one year's total compliance — and 91 had received platinum awards.
There are approximately 16,500 wastewater treatment plants in the nation, although only about 300 have elected to become NACWA members.
Bruninga noted that it is especially important for plants in the Chesapeake Bay watershed to be conscientious, because the Bay "is one of our national treasures."
THE LARGEST wastewater treatment plant in the state, Norman Cole treats an average of about 45 million gallons per day — approximately half the sewage generated in Fairfax County. All of that wastewater is subjected to a long series of physical, chemical and biological processes before it goes into the creek, said Gupta. The county’s Wastewater Planning and Monitoring Division also constantly monitors the plant.
The plant has managed to live up to regulations while it has nearly doubled in size, and standards have grown more stringent. Gupta noted that when he arrived at the plant 21 years ago it was designed to accommodate a flow of 36 million gallons of sewage per day. It was then expanded to handle 54 million gallons per day, and by 2005, it was able to treat up to 67 million gallons per day. "So we have enough capacity for the next 10 or 20 years or more," said Gupta, noting that, unlike the transportation grid, treatment plants are required to be prepared for future growth.
Meanwhile, as standards have become tighter, the plant has pushed its equipment almost to the limit of technology, he said. The new technology has also allowed the plant to cut its staff back from the 230 or so workers employed there when Gupta arrived to about 150 employees today.
Although the facility is publicly owned, he said, he tries to run it competitively, as though it were a private business.
Tom Griffin, the Virginia pollution prevention coordinator for Business for the Bay, noted that the plant saves money by tweaking it systems; for example, allowing the bacteria used in the biological cleansing process to more fully digest nutrients in the wastewater so that fewer chemicals need to be used at the end of the process.
Business for the Bay is a voluntary team of businesses, industries, government facilities and other organizations in the Chesapeake Bay watershed, and has regularly recognized the Norman Cole plant for going beyond what the law requires.
Griffin noted that adjustments the plant had made allowed it to remove over 67 percent more phosphorus than required by law and brought the concentration of ammonia in its discharge water to 97 percent below the permit limit. "So that means they really are a well-run ship, in that they're setting voluntary limits," said Griffin. "The permit doesn't even drive the program anymore, because they're so far beyond it."
He added that the plant had made other efforts at environmental friendliness including the installation of some solar-powered equipment, the use of nontoxic herbicides in landscaping and other "green" adjustments.
Gupta gave credit for the plant’s success to its employees. "The people who work here are the ones, whether it's hot or humid, rain or shine, they are there," he said.