Evaluation of Peat Biofilters for Onsite Sewage Management

By White, Kevin D.; Robertson, Samuel C. et al. | Journal of Environmental Health, November 1995 | Go to article overview

Evaluation of Peat Biofilters for Onsite Sewage Management


White, Kevin D., Robertson, Samuel C., O'Driscoll, John Paul, King, Theodore, Journal of Environmental Health


Introduction

Mobile Bay and the coastal waters of Alabama in the Gulf of Mexico receive the discharges of many large river systems that extend into the northern reaches of Mississippi, Alabama, Tennessee, and Georgia. As with other stretches of the Gulf Coast, these coastal waters are impacted by fecal coliform bacteria from inadequately treated septic tank effluent. To protect public health from this and other pollutants, the harvesting of shellfish is frequently restricted in Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, and Texas. More than half of the shellfish-producing areas of the Gulf Coast are permanently or conditionally closed due to fecal coliform contamination resulting from the growing human population in the region (1). Weeks Bay Estuary, situated on the eastern shore of Mobile Bay, and a depository for Fish and Magnolia Rivers, has been temporarily closed to commercial shellfishing for many years due to elevated fecal coliform levels.

Sanitary surveys of the shorelines of Mobile Bay and Weeks Bay Estuary, conducted by the Alabama Department of Public Health (ADPH) in 1991 and 1992, point to the heavy reliance on septic tank systems for onsite wastewater disposal. Almost 65% of Baldwin County's population of 115,000 is served by onsite sewage treatment and disposal systems. More than 1,250 septic tank systems are now being installed annually in Baldwin County.

Soils of the Weeks Bay area exhibit high wet-season watertables. They are physiographically marine terrace, and Azonal (alluvial) and Intrazonal in nature. Parent material in the area is coastal plain sediment. The soils are free-draining during the drier months of the year, providing a deep unsaturated (4-5 feet) zone for percolation of treated wastewater. During the wet season, the high watertable is a major cause of failing onsite sewage systems in the area.

In October 1992, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency through the Gulf of Mexico Program approved funding for a project in sewage management to demonstrate a reduction in fecal coliform bacteria in shellfish-growing waters. ADPH proposed to replace 20 existing but compromised soil absorption systems with an innovative, peat-based onsite sewage disposal system near Weeks Bay Estuary in south Alabama. Pre- and post-installation sampling of Weeks Bay waters and analysis of effluent quality over a 12-month period were proposed to determine fecal coliform levels. Bord na Mona (BNM), the Irish peat corporation and manufacturer of a commercially available peat biofilter, contributed materials and engineering costs to the demonstration project.

The focus of the study, a modular bio-filtration system called Puraflo[TM], is manufactured in Ireland by BNM and distributed in the U.S. through a subsidiary in North Carolina. The Puraflo [TM] system has been used in Ireland since 1988 for onsite wastewater treatment. More than 400 systems are now in operation in Ireland. The peat biofilter has provided effective onsite sewage treatment and disposal where soil and site conditions preclude the use of conventional soil absorption systems. With the Puraflo[TM] system, BNM achieved 96% and 99+% removal of biological oxygen demand ([BOD.sub.5]) and fecal coliform bacteria, respectively, from septic tank effluent under a temperate maritime climate in Ireland, that has [TABULAR DATA FOR TABLE 1 OMITTED] mild winters (mean range: 4.4 [degrees] to 7.2 [degrees] C or 40 [degrees] to 45 [degrees] F) and cool summers (mean range 15 [degrees] to 16.7 [degrees] C or 59 [degrees] to 62 [degrees] F) (2,3,4). Such efficiencies, and the commercial manufacture of a patented and standardized system, prompted ADPH to evaluate Puraflo's ability to reduce fecal coliform contamination in Alabama's coastal waters.

The Puraflo[TM] system was developed in the early 1980s using a fraction of the peat harvested each year for electric power generation, home fuel, and other applications. This fraction of the harvest is made up of moderately decomposed plant roots. …

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