Water & Wastewater: Remote Camps
Systems designed for simple sanitation
A six thousand gallon-per-day nanofiltration drinking water system designed to treat surface water with organics (“Tundra Tea”) common in Alaska. It’s in an insulated Conex, designed and built for Cruz Construction Company and being loaded out for the North Slope from the CampWater Industries LLC shop in Big Delta in January. A second plant can be seen in the background to the right and was delivered later in the year.
Photo by Jon Dufendach
The climate and geology of Alaska can make installing water and wastewater treatment systems a challenge for any community. But what happens when the community is only temporary or moves from location to location regularly?
When oil companies need a three-hundred-man camp set up on the North Slope, many contact a handful of engineering firms that specialize in providing remote and temporary water and wastewater treatment systems. A range of other temporary users need safe drinking water and waste management systems as well, including exploration, mining, and construction camps; canneries; and remote lodges.
“Regulatory oversight of those camp facilities tends to be no different than oversight to any community,” says Allan Nakanishi, the lead engineer in the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation’s Division of Water, Wastewater Discharge Authorization Program on mining projects.
Some users require portable treatment systems. In many cases the systems are housed in a trailer, which can be moved from one location to another as needed.
Keep It Simple
“The goal is to try to provide a system utilizing the KISS principle—as simple as possible and as reliable as possible. You try to find that sweet balance so you can try to provide something that’s going to be functional in cold weather and out in the middle of nowhere,” says Jeff Garness, a former water and wastewater treatment plant operator on the North Slope, who is a professional engineer and owner of Garness Engineering Group, Limited.
Garness’ company has been designing water and wastewater systems for remote users since 1990. He says about half the company’s winter work comes from projects in the oilfield, at mining and construction camps, lodges, canneries, and at other facilities that require mobile or temporary water and wastewater treatment systems.
Garness has designed water and wastewater treatment systems used by seismic crews working in the oil field, for example. A seismic crew travels in rolligon vehicles designed to cross the tundra lightly, without harm to the underlying ecosystem.
Garness says some of the mobile camps use toilets that bag up the waste so it can be frozen and later incinerated, or electric toilets that burn human waste. The gray water from showers, sinks, and laundry is treated and discharged onto the tundra.
Treating ‘Tundra Tea’: Making Do with What’s Available
Finding water for the rolligon crew to use can be tricky. In some cases, the crew fills large hoppers with snow, which is melted, filtered, and disinfected before use.
“Some might be treating from surface water. On the slope, it is common to use lake water as a source for the camp’s water supply. Often, the water quality is poor,” Garness says. “We call it ‘tundra tea.’”
Designing a water treatment system to work using either snow or water from a lake thick with organic material can be a challenge, he says.
“In some cases they’ll have gathered water quality information from the source waters beforehand,” he says. “Sometimes we’ll have the water quality info and sometimes we don’t, which makes it more challenging. Then you have to assume the worst case.”
Water removed from surface lakes is typically treated using a number of types of processes, which might include media filters, membrane technology, cartridge filters, or some ion exchange process to remove the organics, dissolved solids, pathogens, and other contaminants such as iron and manganese. The water is then disinfected using a process such as chlorination or ultraviolet light to further kill pathogens and viruses. The finished water, which Garness says is aesthetically pleasing and safe to drink, is then transferred to a storage tank or portable water tank for distribution.
Filters and Membranes
Jon Dufendach, owner of CampWater, a Delta Junction-based company that builds water plants for communities, homes, and businesses around the state, says he’s studied a variety of different water samples from surface lakes on the North Slope and come up with what he believes is the ideal treatment process.
“I use filters for pretreatment, then I’m using membranes,” he says. Membranes come in four different gradations based on the molecular weight of what’s being excluded.
“We’ve studied it to the extent that we’re able to optimize performance of the filtration system to meet the type of organics we find in tundra lakes. There’s a certain commonality among them where we can have success [finding a high-performance filter] and have nice-tasting water,” Dufendach says.
Dufendach is a former trans-Alaska oil pipeline worker who, after retirement, got interested in making sure remote workers and residents in Alaska and around the world have access to good-quality water. While working on the pipeline in remote parts of the state, he says he and his coworkers sometimes wound up with straw-colored water for drinking and other uses. He’s been called on to help fix community water systems around the state and has built water systems for use around the world.
“Water is my mission—I want to make the world a better place to live. When I see little children with worms or guys with giardia and their stomachs are torn up… my heart just aches. My life is wrapped up in making it better for them,” he says.
Dufendach provided water treatment units for three Cruz Construction camps recently. The camps are mobile, so the treatment system is generally housed in an insulated Conex “sea can” or a refrigerated trailer. The water plant site is set up near the oil well drilling site, he says, so a crew looks ahead to determine what water sources might be available and sets up near them. Then a crew builds an ice road to the water source, typically a surface lake, and workers drill through the ice and haul it to the treatment plant, where it’s put in the raw water tank, then processed into the potable water tank and pumped into the man camp.
Storage can be tricky, he says. He generally designs for fifty-five gallons per person, per day. That’s enough water for showers, laundry, drinking, toilet usage, cooking, and anything else, Dufendach says. The tanks have to be large enough to supply the water during peak activities, like shift changes. When people wake and after people end their workday are the two spikes in water use, he says.
“You have to have enough recovery so you don’t run out [at peak times],” he says.
A little extra water is built into the equation to handle unexpected events, like storms.
“One of the things I run into is if they get an arctic blow up there and can’t go anywhere,” he says. “If they get into a blow, they ask people to reduce their showers to under five minutes or to wait.”
Designing water systems for mining camps is a little different—some mine sites are able to drill a water well. That’s what Donlin Gold did, says Kurt Parkan, Donlin’s external affairs manager. The mine site is shuttered now while the company works to obtain permission to operate the gold mine, an event Parkan hopes will happen in 2018.
Dufendach says in his experience, treating water at mining camps can be a challenge as well. The water often has arsenic, high iron levels, and manganese, he says. It’s usable, but it takes a different treatment method to get those levels low enough to meet state drinking water standards.
Who Says the Water Is Safe?
Water supply isn’t always regulated, says Lee Johnson, the northern region engineering coordinator with the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation drinking water program.
If a crew of workers is flown in and dropped off at a remote camp and they cook for themselves and get water from a nearby river, that’s not something the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation regulates.
But if they have a so-called plush camp with running water and have a kitchen that’s state-certified, then their water system must meet the drinking water regulations as well. If the crew is using equipment that is made for collecting or distributing water from a well or surface water intake for potable uses like drinking, cooking, and showering, then it has to meet state drinking water standards.
Some companies deliver potable water to camps on the North Slope or to oil platforms in Cook Inlet, he says. The water provider and hauler would be regulated, but the company receiving the water has fewer regulatory requirements.
“There are probably some levels of bottled water use also, but we don’t regulate bottled water in the drinking water program,” Johnson says.
Johnson says treatment options have evolved from simple cartridge or bag filter treatment several years ago to membrane filters commonly used today. Bags and cartridges remove particles from the water, he says, but membrane filters can filter it to the ionic level.
Companies like Garness and CampWater engineer the system and make sure it meets state drinking water requirements. They also train operators for their clients to make sure the system is properly maintained, and they provide parts or assistance if something breaks down.
Water treatment equipment and holding tanks in a CampWater Industries nanofiltration plant built for Cruz Construction in 2007. This plant operated at Franklin Bluffs, White Hills, Umiat, and various other locations throughout Alaska and remains operational today with the originally-installed membranes.
Photo by Jon Dufendach
Keeping Wastewater Treatment Simple, Safe, and Sanitary
A few decades ago, wastewater discharge regulations were handled a lot differently, Nakanishi says.
“If you compare our regulations from the 1970s to today, the wastewater discharge regulations would probably be a pamphlet compared to the volumes we have now,” he says.
Since the Clean Water Act was enacted in 1972, regulations have slowly evolved and are much more complex today. So have the treatment options, he says. Some sites near the road system might use porta-potties, with waste hauled away regularly. Road-accessible sites on the North Slope might contract with ICE Services, the company that operates the North Slope Borough’s water and wastewater services. More remote sites might rely on other methods of treatment.
“It depends on the location of the project and the logistical availability,” he says. “It’s either transported or treated prior to disposal.”
Packaged treatment plants like those designed by Garness and Fairbanks-based Lifewater Engineering Company are commonly used in cases where a septic system isn’t feasible.
“They use various forms of treatment, whether it be bioreactors that use the promotion of bacterial growth to help break down the waste,” Nakanishi says. “Some may have a form of filtration, like nano or micro or reverse osmosis. Prior to being able to operate that kind of unit, it goes through an engineered plan review before the discharge is permitted.”
Bob Tsigonis, the president of Lifewater, says his company has built more than two hundred wastewater treatment systems around the state since he started in 1999. Most are residential systems, he says, but the company has been building commercial systems for nearly twelve years.
Typically, he says, wastewater is treated in a multi-compartment tank. It’s screened to remove solids before it goes into the tank, then aerated to allow bacteria to break down the waste and pushed through a membrane filter. After being treated, it’s disinfected using ultraviolet radiation and discharged. Water typically flows through the system in one to two days, he says.
“We discharge onto natural undisturbed vegetation in a way that it can be discharged all year round without making a sheet of ice,” Tsigonis says. “Natural vegetation in Alaska is pretty moist. If you can get into a forest floor or tundra, it works very well.”
Lifewater designed four systems at Point Thomson recently, he says. One was developed in 2008 for a portable camp used when the ice road is built.
“It’s been used all over the slope for ice road construction for a number of years,” he says. “In 2012 and 2013 we built a 200-man and 340-man [system].”
The 340-man camp is a temporary construction camp used on the North Slope, Tsigonis says, while the 200-man camp is permanent. Lifewater built a fourth camp, designed for 116 people, this year.
The 340-man camp is designed to treat up to nineteen thousand gallons of waste every day. It’s designed larger than needed to handle peak flows during shift changes, he says.
Tsigonis says his systems are built in Lifewater’s plastic fabrication shop, where they’re cut on a computer-controlled router and welded with plastic welders. Plastic doesn’t corrode, lasts a long time, and is easy to clean. Since the tanks are housed inside enclosed, heated containers or trailers, breakage isn’t an issue.
“We pretty much build everything offsite and ship it up to the site,” he says. “Then all we have to do is connect the modules, the pipes, the wires, and the controls. We like to do plug-and-play to the extent possible.”
Building it in an enclosed shop allows each section to be tested separately before it’s put together, he says.
A 3D rendering of one of Lifewater Engineering’s larger oilfield systems. The two-story portion is sewage treatment; the single story portion is drinking water treatment and storage. The drinking water system was done in conjunction with CampWater Industries of Delta Junction.
Rendering courtesy of Lifewater Engineering Company
Designing for Remote Areas
Both Tsigonis and Garness say simplicity is the key when designing systems made to operate in remote areas—the systems are easier to teach operators to use and more durable in extreme conditions.
Rindi White is a freelance journalist living in Palmer.
This article first appeared in the November 2015 print edition of Alaska Business Monthly.