February 5, 1994

Keeping it clean

Keene manufacturers find ways

to separate waste from water

 

By Peter Fabris

Sentinel Staff

 

Maybe it's easier being green. For a number of Keene's major manufacturing firms, complying with environmental standards to reduce metals and chemicals in waste water, at least, is easier. At J.A. Wright & Co., a Keene manufacturer of metal polishes, it didn't used to be that way.

 

The company, under orders to reduce levels of contaminants discharged into the sewer system, considered all its options and came up with the obvious: Evaporate the waste water and then clean up the residue. But that turned out to be impractical and too expensive, said John B. Wright, company president. The process took an enormous amount of energy and time. So the company constructed a small building to separate out solids and suspended particles, mostly clay used in its polishes. The remaining liquid is discharged into the sewers.

 

Wright said the construction of the building, which he jokingly refers to as “the outhouse,” was a significant investment. He declined to give an actual dollar figure, but added that the company is lucky it doesn't use heavy metals or solvents in its processes. If it did, it would have needed to spend much more. “Had the company not acted the city would have shut us down,” Wright said.

 

There were only three instances in 1993 where Keene firms failed to comply with the city's standards for environmentally harmful substances in waste water, half as many, violations as the year before. Donna Trask, coordinator of the city's industrial pre-treatment program - in which companies reduce the levels of harmful substances at their plants - says that's because a number Keene firms have made adjustments in their manufacturing processes.

 

Some firms have been able to reduce the amount of environmentally harmful substances used in manufacturing; other have invested in equipment to filter out such compounds before releasing waste water into the city sewer system. Some have contemplated recycling all of their waste water, thereby halting their discharge into Keene’s sewer system.

 

Keene, like all other municipalities, must meet environmental standards set by the federal Clean Water Act. The Environmental Protection Agency determines the allowable levels of metals and compounds, such as sulfates and sulfites that the treatment plant can discharge into the Ashuelot River.

 

The city then determines how best to meet those standards. One of the elements of Keene’s plan is the industrial pre-treatment program. Ten of Keene’s largest industrial users are required to monitor their waste water every quarter. The city conducts annual unannounced spot checks to ensure the monitoring is done correctly. Enforcement measures for violations that range from listing the violator in newspaper ads to $10,000-a-day fines. The latter penalty would come after repeated violations and a lengthy court battle.

 

Keene has “never had to come anywhere close to that,” Trask said. As for the newspaper ads, one of which appeared in The Sentinel recently, they’re not the city’s idea. “The EPA requires them,” Trask said. “They feel (the ads) are deterrents. Companies don’t want to be known as polluters.”

 

The most recent ad listed Kingsbury Machine Tool Corp. and Markem Corp. as being in “significant violation of EPA standards or local discharge limits” from April 1993 to September 1993. In both cases, the violations were not considered serious, Trask said, and both companies have corrected them. Markem, for its part, is working to recycle all water used in manufacturing. “Our goal is to not put anything in the sewer,” said Richard C. Berry, Markem’s director of environmental health and safety.

 

For the past six months, Markem, which makes ink jet printing systems for product coding, studied its manufacturing processes with an eye towards reducing waste water. “We’ve mapped out every process which discharges water into the sewer,” said Thomas Lewis, chemical engineer. The company has already stopping dumping a solution containing silver, used in a photographic process, into the sewers.

 

Markem reuses the water from the process and separates out a sludge containing silver that is treated so that the metal can be recycled. That process cost the company about $40,000 but reduces its water and sewer bill by about $8,000 a year, Lewis said.

 

Companies have had to devote more resources to environmental matters in recent years. “The amount of regulation in the environmental area has increased dramatically in the last five years,” Berry said. Markem has a staff of five primarily dedicated to environmental matters. That kind of commitment was unheard of 20 years ago; it’s now the norm for many businesses.

 

Although companies sometimes grouse about higher costs and burdensome rules, they’ve gotten used to considering the environmental impact of anything they do. Likewise, when greener manufacturing options are considered, their impact on the overall business must be weighed.

 

For instance, when Markem considers new pollution control measures, it must also consider what effect they will have on product quality and cost, and even on worker training, Berry said. “There are no straightforward, simple problems from an engineering point of view,” he said.