One Eye on the Tyne -the Other on the Time!

By Leona Skelton

Having researched the development of drainage and sewage disposal systems (1500 to the present), for the last decade of my life, I felt enormously privileged to have been invited by Northumbrian Water to be shown around the facilities at their extensive Waste Water Treatment Works at Howdon, Newcastle on Tyne. The day I had been dreaming of (literally) since I can remember had arrived: Thursday 5th June 2014. By the time Team Power and the Water had assembled at our hotel’s reception for my stamp test, to confirm that everyone was wearing steel toe capped boots, I could hardly contain myself! Over the past few months, project members had dutifully visited various building trade stores around the country and, as I was relieved to see, they were all wearing appropriate – if amazingly diverse – footwear.

Disaster struck as we travelled to the site in the form of a big tunnel. Despite all of our combined academic degrees, we took the wrong turn down the ‘Tyne Tunnel Only’ road to South Tyneside! A snip at £3.20 return, per vehicle, and all very worthwhile for the team to see the Tyne Tunnel in all its glory first hand, but more to the point, it cost us fifteen precious minutes. My dream had been cut short and I was not happy. Speeding to the works as swiftly as we could, we discovered a fellow historian, who was joining us for the visit, looking very confused, stranded on a roundabout. Where is this place? Is it a national secret? Peter Coates duly rescued him and we arrived at reception to meet Andrew Moore, Northumbrian Water’s Director of Research, some twenty-five minutes late.

We were delighted to meet our tour guides, Tony and John, who gave us a fascinating presentation, explaining the history of the interceptor sewer, the catchment area which Howdon treatment works serves and an overview of the processes and systems carried out at the site. Hard hats and high visibility jackets were added to our steel toe capped boots and off we went, in two groups, to discover the wonders of Howdon.

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Breaking in the Boots on the Site Tour. Photo: M. Dudley

First stop was the initial screening machines, which de-rag the waste and remove the grit washed down off the roads along with the rainwater, known as preliminary treatment. I looked through the windows at the complex arsenal of machinery designed to perform what many might be forgiven for assuming is a relatively simple function of physical separation. The waste from this process is sent directly to landfill while the residual waste is sent for primary treatment in large, covered settling tanks. The stress of being sucked down the Tyne Tunnel could not have been further from my mind. This is where the magic began…

The site was much larger than I had expected and I was mightily impressed by the complexity of the whole operation. It looks impressive above ground, let alone underground.

Underground waterworks

Team Power and the Water going Deeper Underground (not for the first time that morning!) Photo: M. Dudley

After the de-ragged waste has been allowed to settle, the sludge is removed from the liquid waste and, along with similar sludge brought by tankers from other treatment works, some of it is made into useful agricultural fertiliser while the rest is used to generate energy. The new anaerobic digestion technology, which came online in 2012, is really exciting. It allows Northumbrian Water to convert organic waste into biogas that can then be converted into electricity. Their AD (Anaerobic Digestion) technology is going a long way towards helping Northumbrian Water to achieve their goal of reducing their greenhouse gas emissions of 2008 by 35% by 2020. Walking up 23 feet of stairs to the top of one of the AD tanks rewarded us not only with a spectacle of the amazingly complex AD plant, but also with a very welcome bonus view of the Tyne, which lay immediately to the south, allowing project members to appreciate the scale of Tyneside’s mighty river.

Back to the liquid waste which, due to primary treatment, consequently possesses far less capacity to reduce dissolved oxygen in the river. The liquid undergoes secondary treatment in large, open, concrete tanks, where the bacteria feeds on the sewage in the presence of oxygen until the liquid’s demand for oxygen is minimal, thus rendering it significantly less harmful to the river. Minimal, remaining bacteria is then removed from the water using ultra violet light before the water is ready to be released into the River Tyne.

Radiant Blogger

The Radiant Blogger Underground at the Treatment Works. Photo: M. Dudley

We were given a fantastic insight into all stages of treatment and everyone was thrilled to have been given such an absorbing tour of Northumbrian Water’s essential work at a site whose vital function most people take for granted. We then had lunch and asked questions about the site, discussing potential areas of collaboration between our team and theirs. We all learnt a lot and what we saw gave us much to think about. Later, over dinner, Peter Coates sulked for a few minutes because he wasn’t allowed to feel the not so pungent ‘material’ that comes out of the plant between his fingers. But if that’s the only complaint, I think the trip can safely be termed a success.

Further developing of our relationship with project partner Northumbrian Water is integral to the aims of the Tyne element of the ‘Power and Water’ project and will also help advance the overall project’s wider aspirations in terms of impact and engagement. I’m delighted to have been invited to meet Northumbrian Water’s Customer Engagement Manager, Lucy Denham, on 26th June in Newcastle. I’m really looking forward to embracing the challenge of finding exciting and useful ways of deploying my research to inform, and hopefully to enhance, this increasingly important area of Northumbrian Water’s work.

is integral to the aims of the Tyne element of the ‘Power and Water’ project and will also help advance the overall project’s wider aspirations in terms of impact and engagement. I’m delighted to have been invited to meet Northumbrian Water’s Customer Engagement Manager, Lucy Denham, on 26th June in Newcastle. I’m really looking forward to embracing the challenge of finding exciting and useful ways of deploying my research to inform, and hopefully to enhance, this increasingly important area of Northumbrian Water’s work.