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Great Lakes Article:

CMU scientists find right bacteria to eat pollutants from U.S. Steel plants

02/07/2002

By Len Boselovic, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

People started calling Christine Schuster names when they heard she was spreading bacteria around the west side of U.S. Steel's Gary (Ind.) Works, North America's largest steel complex.

"I was known as the bug lady around here for a short period of time," said Schuster, whose job is making sure Gary's west side complies with environmental regulations.

There are bad bugs and there are good bugs. With the help of Carnegie Mellon University scientists, Schuster deployed some good bugs to attack a problem with an intimidating name:

Carbonaceous Biological Oxygen Demand, or CBOD. Because of

CBOD, carbon compounds in the 30 million gallons of water Gary's west side discharges daily were consuming oxygen in the waters of the Grand Calumet River, which flows into Lake Michigan. The lack of oxygen threatened fish, which breathe oxygen through their gills. CBOD wasn't a problem until the river water was heated by the summer sun, depriving it of even more oxygen.

In 1998, the Gary Works violated Indiana Department of Environmental Management regulations governing CBOD six times during the months of July, August and September. The violations prompted state officials to order U.S. Steel to take care of the problem.

Schuster put the price tag at $1 million, a lot of money to solve what was essentially an issue only three months of the year.

But working with U.S. Steel employees, an outside contractor and CMU scientists, Schuster came up with a much less expensive solution: germs.

"Bacteria work cheap, but they're slow," said Edwin G. Minkley Jr., director of CMU's Environmental Technology Center.

U.S. Steel was already adding bacteria to its wastewater treatment plant two years ago when CMU got involved at the invitation of the late U.S. Steel President Paul Wilhelm, a CMU trustee. The bacteria fed on carbons, so they attacked the compounds in oils, greases, cleaners and caustic solutions that made it into the wastewater produced at Gary's west end, where sheet steel is coated and finished.

"For all intents and purposes, they're food for bacteria," said Matthew S. Blough, a program manager at the CMU center.

The problem was U.S. Steel wasn't using enough of the right kinds of bacteria and wasn't adding them early enough in the wastewater treatment process for the germs to do their job. Once Minkley and Blough identified the right bacteria for the job and recommended adding them earlier, CBOD violations dropped.

Schuster said the west end exceeded the limits three times in 1999 and once in 2000 before turning in a perfect record last summer.

Minkley hopes to use bacteria to solve other problems for U.S. Steel, including contaminants in the Peters Creek Lagoon at the Clairton Works coke plant. Byproducts from baking coal in Clairton's ovens have made their way to Peters Creek where they are contained in a small area with a high concentration of contaminants and a larger area with a low concentration. After being trapped, the water is treated and released into the stream.

The challenge was finding bacteria that could survive in the water, which has a high alkali content. Minkley and Blough believe that they've found bacteria that are up to the job and want to put them to work in the larger of the two areas. The state Department of Environmental Protection has tentatively approved a pilot project this spring to test the theory, Minkley says.

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