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COVID-19: What It Means for Wastewater Lagoon Operators

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Patrick Hill

Co-Founder | Triplepoint Environmental

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Wastewater lagoon operators are exposed to all sorts of nasty pathogens and parasites—is the new coronavirus, COVID-19, anything to worry about? This article will compile the latest relevant research about COVID-19 and ways to mitigate any potential risk.

About the coronavirus, COVID-19

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COVID-19 is a new strain of coronavirus (so named for its spiky crown-like appearance) that emerged in late 2019. It’s a respiratory illness that causes fever, cough, and shortness of breath; and rarely, pneumonia and death. Because it’s a new virus, there is no immunity and no vaccine.

According to the CDC, COVID-19 is spread from person to person, through close contact (within six feet) or from an infected person’s coughs or sneezes. It is also communicable through surfaces, from touching a surface that has the virus on it and then one’s mouth, nose, or eyes. Due to a growing number of cases with an unknown point of contact, the CDC believes that COVID-19 is highly contagious and will spread easily and continually throughout communities.

One potential method of transmission is though fecal matter. Two separate studies have found viable virus in stool samples.

COVID-19 in wastewater

A study of coronaviruses by researchers at the University of Arizona found their transmission limited in water and wastewater. “Coronaviruses die off very rapidly in wastewater, with a 99.9% reduction in 2–3 days…the transmission of coronaviruses would be less than enteroviruses in the aqueous environment die to the fact that coronoviruses are more rapidly inactivated in water and wastewater at ambient temperatures.”

OSHA’s guidance for wastewater workers asserts COVID-19 is susceptible to the same disinfection processes as other viruses, so normal disinfection (hypochlorite, paracetic acid, or UV radiation) is sufficient. As stated by the National Rural Water Association: “At this time, existing safe management techniques in both drinking water and sanitation apply to COVID-19. Extra measures are not needed.”

Pathogen removal in wastewater lagoons

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A previous article, Wastewater Pathogens: Do Lagoons Do It Better?, discusses the mechanisms for lagoon pathogen removal. Because pathogen removal is dependent on sunlight exposure, settling, dissolved oxygen and longer retention times, lagoons can perform better than other wastewater treatment technologies.  As stated in a United Nations Environment Program document, “…because of the longer residence time of wastewater in the lagoon (days), removal of pathogenic bacteria and viruses by natural die-off is greater than in an activated sludge treatment plant.”

The most likely challenge for lagoon operators: absenteeism

A widespread outbreak can keep people from work, either due to their own illness or the illness of a family member who requires care. The EPA’s Pandemic Influenza Fact Sheet spells it out: “This absenteeism can affect drinking water and wastewater system operators and their capability to operate and maintain their systems adequately, thereby increasing the risks to public health.” It’s important to have a plan in place to ensure that these critical services continue.

How lagoon operators can prepare

Water and wastewater operators are an essential part of a community’s health infrastructure, so it’s vital that facilities remain operational. The American Water Works Association has compiled an advisory to assist water and wastewater operators in preparing for coronavirus. Homeland Security has drafted a more detailed pandemic preparedness document. Some tips:

  • Detail and document the operator’s most critical functions so someone can fulfill them if the operator is unavailable
  • Keep sufficient stock of treatment chemicals and materials in case of supply disruption
  • Insist on the use of personal protective equipment
  • Maintain communication with your local emergency management agency

It’s also a good time to review OSHA’s recommendations for wastewater worker protection.

Although COVID-19 is not transmitted through wastewater, a pandemic illness can still negatively affect a wastewater lagoon. The most likely challenge is absenteeism. Make sure you have a plan in place to keep your facility running no matter what happens.

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