A choice, not an eco-catastrophe Science: Power politics and big money intervene as a dogged scientist helps to preserve the bay by urging a clean break with environmental orthodoxy.

On the Bay

November 29, 1996|By Tom Horton | Tom Horton,SUN STAFF

ALMOST CERTAINLY you never heard of Clifford W. Randall, mild- mannered professor of environmental engineering at Virginia Polytechnic Institute in rural Blacksburg.

But Randall, who just received the prestigious Mathias Medal for Chesapeake Bay science, could star in an eco-thriller, a tale of international intrigue and raw sewage; of power politics, vast money and the reduction of nitrogen and phosphorus -- as the fate of a great estuary hangs in the balance.

A plot outline follows. It all really happened.

Begin in 1956, in the sewage plant in Lexington, Ky., where young Cliff Randall is working his way through the University of Kentucky, forming a lifelong interest in treating wastewater.

Up on the Chesapeake Bay, the living is good -- plenty of oysters to slurp and ducks to shoot, a cornucopia of crabs and rockfish, hardheads and trout.

A decade passes. Some people wonder about incipient declines in the Chesapeake, especially where sewage flows are increasing; but they are still easily dismissed as part of the bay's natural ups and downs.

Randall, now an assistant professor at the University of Texas, with his doctorate in sanitary engineering, is fascinated by a mystery in San Antonio, where he's been hired to evaluate several sewage treatment plants.

One of them seems to be working far better than it was designed to do, taking out not only organic matter, but also large quantities of nutrients.

Removing nutrients (phosphorus and nitrogen) from sewage takes water quality to another level, like aircraft going from propellers to jets.

Sewage engineers know how to do it, but only in ways that use lots of chemicals, are horrendously expensive and energy-intensive, and create much more sludge to dispose of.

The oddball Texas plant seems to do it naturally, biologically -- a great breakthrough if anyone could figure out how it is occurring and replicate it.

About the same time, a similar miracle is occurring at Back River, the main plant for Baltimore. It is written up in a paper around 1971, but no one much notices.

People are, however, beginning to notice declines in the Chesapeake during the early 1970s that are less and less explainable as natural cycles.

By then Randall has moved to Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, where he and others are rolling toward understanding biological nutrient removal and revolutionizing sewage treatment.

Rolling toward a brick wall, as it turns out.

An eminent professor at Berkeley publishes an explanation of the San Antonio plant, finding that chemicals were doing the nutrient removal all along. They were present in the region's ground water.

His thesis is widely accepted and utterly wrong, but that won't be apparent for years. Meanwhile, as a result, funding for biological nutrient removal dries up for a decade.

Now, flash to the Patuxent River, where University of Maryland scientists by the mid-1970s are locked in a struggle over nutrients in sewage.

On the outcome rests the fate of the river and ultimately the bay -- also, quite likely, their reputations and their jobs.

The scientists have staked everything on their cutting-edge research that says, in essence, their state government and the federal Environmental Protection Agency are going to kill the bay with proposed plans for sewage treatment. If more nutrients aren't removed from burgeoning sewage flows, the estuary will continue what by now is a widespread and worsening decline; and the scientists have so stated in a lawsuit brought by Southern Maryland counties against Maryland and EPA.

Though resistance is couched in arguments over chemistry, the real issue is money. If the EPA and Maryland agreed to do with sewage what the scientists say is necessary, the costs, using conventional treatment methods, could run into the billions.

Meanwhile, Randall has never lost faith in a biological way to cleanse sewage cheaply and efficiently. In 1982, he attends an international pollution conference in Cape Town, South Africa, and finds, obscured from the world, that small nation has pioneered biological nutrient removal. Call it BNR for short.

The man who launched South Africa's effort, James Barnard, made his breakthrough after studying an obscure paper -- the one published on Baltimore's Back River plant years before.

By 1984, Randall and his colleagues at Virginia Tech are making real headway, proving a Virginia plant can be modified for BNR for just 2.5 percent more than the cost of far inferior standard treatment.

By contrast, another Virginia plant, using standard nutrient removal, had cost 400 percent of conventional treatment.

In 1985, Randall chairs the Chesapeake Bay Restoration Program's scientific and technical committee. He meets the University of Maryland scientists and throws his support behind their argument for increased nutrient removal.

With the prospects now bright for doing it relatively cheaply with BNR, Maryland agrees; and eventually EPA acquiesces.

"Cliff provided the economic and technological key that allowed the scientific truth to be accepted," says Chris D'Elia, one of the University of Maryland scientists who risked their careers in demanding nutrient removal more than a decade ago.

D'Elia, now head of the University's Sea Grant Program, nominated Randall for the Mathias Medal. It was presented at the annual Chesapeake Executive Council meeting, held in Harrisburg, Pa., last month.

"This guy made a major contribution to science, saved the taxpayer a bundle and cleaned up Chesapeake Bay," D'Elia says.

Randall, 60, is working on the triumphant ending to my eco-epic. Maryland and Virginia are increasingly using BNR, and Pennsylvania is considering it. The full potential, he says, has scarcely been realized.

Pub Date: 11/29/96

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