Cleaner, Clearer Water Flows from MVSD

MINERAL RIDGE, Ohio — Over their 30-plus years at the Mahoning Valley Sanitary District, Anthony Vigorito and Keith Rees have heard plenty of misconceptions about the water from Meander Reservoir, everything from the use of chlorine to the levels of fluoride.

But for Vigorito, the district chief engineer, one of the biggest misconceptions came from a group of elementary school students. Before he began their tour, he asked where their water comes from.

“From bottles,” was one answer.

The student, as Vigorito tells it, said the sanitary district emptied plastic bottles of water into the reservoir, which then were piped to residences and businesses.

“So I took them up to the reservoir and told them, ‘This is where your water comes from.’ The overall reaction was, ‘But there are fish in there. That’s disgusting,’ ” he says. “After taking them through the plant and showing them what we do, they were amazed and said the water from the fountain wasn’t as disgusting.”

Mahoning Valley Sanitary District has spent the past year updating the process that makes the 20 million gallons of water sent daily to 220,000 customers in Mahoning and Trumbull counties cleaner, softer and purer, says the plant’s chief of operations, Keith Rees.

The work involved studying new combinations of chemicals, writing permit applications to the Environment Protection Agency and arguing for why the process should be changed.

“It’s a big step when you’ve run a plant for 70 or 80 years one way and then totally change it,” Rees says.

Still, the process remains much as it was in 1932 when the district became operational.

Water is pulled into the processing plant, entering either by gravity or pumps if the lake levels are too low, near the Meander Dam. From there, carbon and potassium permanganate are added to eliminate any odor, make the taste more palatable and remove organic matter, such as leaves or invasive zebra mussels.

Afterward, water flows in a loop around the plant through cisterns beneath – “Any time you’re in a water plant like this,” Vigorito says, “you are always standing on top of water” – and through pipes within the buildings.

Next, water is directed to the back of the pump station where it is screened to filter any fish, sticks, leaves and other large objects. Then it flows to the chemicals building – the tallest building at the plant and originally where all the chemicals used were stored and added – where calcium hydroxide, better known as lime, and soda ash are added to soften the water.

Aluminum chlorohydrate, which acts as a coagulant and forces out particles still present despite earlier screenings or chemicals, is also added here. It’s also one of the chemicals the plant began using last year to increase the effectiveness of its process.

“Our hardness under the old process was in the 80s or 90s milligram per liter, which we have worked down to as low as 60,” Rees says. “That means less calcium is being deposited in toilets and shower heads.”

Next door to the chemicals building are two three-million-gallon solid contamination units. They filter out the clumps of coagulated material – known as floc – that rise to surface.

“The water flows in from underground up through a center column with a large blender, where two chemicals mix together with the water,” Vigorito explains. “That produces the floc, which then settles into sludge.”

Construction of the new clarifiers was completed about two years ago, the chief engineer says, and was the spur that led to the changes in the chemical recipe used at the plant.

“The old clarifiers ran differently. There were a lot more of them and the time it took for settling was different,” Vigorito says. “When we used the new system, we saw the old chemicals weren’t making the system run the way we wanted it to run.”

The sludge is sent to a recycling station and, eventually, one of the sludge lagoons at the site. Then the cleansed water is sent to the filtration building where it runs through 16 rapid sand filters. It’s here where the changes to the process are most noticeable.

“When I started here, you could not see the bottom of the filters,” Rees says as he looks into the filtration pools. “The treatment process worked fairly well under the old system, but not as good as the new one.”

The turbidity – that is, the quantity of particulate in the water – has been cut in half over the past year, the pH levels have dropped as have the levels of calcium and magnesium carbonates, resulting in softer water. That’s good for MVSD customers, Rees relates, and eases the burden on the water district.

“We’ve been able to extend our filter lifespan from maybe 20 hours to now 50 or 60 hours per filter. They aren’t working as hard any more, which saves us money,” he says.

The final step before water is sent to the communities in the Mahoning Valley is the clearwell, a giant underground holding area where chlorine, ammonia and fluoride are added. The three chemicals are kept in a secured building near the dam and pumped into the clear well.

While security isn’t lacking elsewhere at the processing plant, this building is one of the most secure there because of the dangerous properties of the chemicals stored there. The flurosilic acid – fluoride – has left permanent etchings on the interior window.

Two-ton chlorine tanks on the other side of the building are specially designed to melt rather than explode should a fire break out, Rees says. In the event of a leak or spill – the tanks of chlorine are half liquid, half gaseous – the room can be sealed.

“A thimbleful of chlorine can fill the entire room in seconds. The vents can be sealed and the room can handle the release of one tank without contaminating the rest of the plant,” he says.

Use of those chemicals is where one of the biggest misunderstandings of what the water district does comes into play.

“People are concerned about chlorine being in the water, which is absolutely necessary,” he says. “If you look back to the old days [before chlorine was used] there was typhoid, cholera and dysentery. Those are things you definitely don’t want around.”

After the three chemicals are added, the water from Meander Reservoir is ready to be pumped to Youngstown and Niles, which then distribute it to nearby communities as far north as parts of Brookfield Township, south into Canfield, west to Milton Township and east to a small part of Hubbard.

Even after three decades, Vigorito and Rees are still amazed by what the plant can accomplish and how successfully it has provided the Valley with clean water.

“A few years ago, at one of the EPA meetings where they were going over new chemical processes, they were listing some of the new things you could do,” Rees says. “Our guys raised their hands and said, ‘We’ve been doing that for years.’ We had been using one of the EPA’s approved processes before the EPA even knew it was the right way.”

While the plant offers tours, mostly to school groups, and hosts events such as the Youngstown Warren Regional Chamber’s recent “Good Morning, Weathersfield and McDonald,” there’s another aspect beyond water, chemicals, pipes and filters.

“People don’t realize how many processes it takes to do these things. The whole process, from start to finish, is massive,” Rees says. “It’s amazing to me, still, that you can take water that has that many bad things in it and make it clear and drinkable.”

Pictured: Anthony Vigorito and Keith Rees implemented process changes at the Mahoning Valley Sanitary District plant to make water softer, cleaner and clearer.

Copyright 2022 The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.