Managing director of Hydrotech: In Russia, they apply criteria for the quality of cleaned water so strict as I have never seen anywhere else in Europe
Nobody wants a product we produce but it is a necessity. This is how Dušan Vančo – veteran managing director of Hydrotech describes the product of this company - the wastewater treatment plant.
Under his leadership the company reorientated from small municipal wastewater treatment plants to wastewater treatment plants for industrial producers which are today commonly made, for example, in Russia. How has the area of wastewater treatment changed and what challenges are waiting for it in the future? We talked also about these topics in an interview.
Hydrotech has been in existence in Slovakia since 1991. How has the wastewater treatment developed since then?
Czechoslovakia was a country that had relatively advanced wastewater treatment system, whether it was communal, so-called sewage or industrial wastewater. It also had adequate education for students and future professionals. Nevertheless, national state and environmental priorities were not always in wastewater treatment. This means that many problems, especially in smaller plants and smaller settlements and villages, have been neglected because municipalities simply did not have the means for this.
The great boom of the construction of the treatment plant was in the 1960s to 1970s during the socialist era. As far as 1991 is concerned, the possibilities in construction of treatment plants have improved significantly. The state devoted considerable money to subsidies for wastewater treatment plants of various sizes, from small to large. The vast majority of treatment plants have therefore been implemented since 1990.
Such a wastewater treatment plant is a relatively demanding piece of work that requires a lot of investment. The plant itself accounts for 40% of the total investment and the remaining 60% is the construction of sewerage – in case that the sewer system is not built. If the municipalities had to reserve these finances themselves from their then (but also current) budgets, it would have been very difficult for them to obtain. So the state had to help.
How is it today?
At present, Slovakia is a member of the European Union and has to commit itself to addressing this issue. If I am not mistaken by 2010 all the treatment plants that are larger than for 5000 inhabitants, and then by 2015 also those that are larger than for 2000 inhabitants, should be ready. For this purpose funds have been created to be used for these construction works. And so it did, but not everything was done, because that money was not sufficient and mostly, if I remember correctly, some part of the investment had to be paid from the municipal budget. It was just 5 or 10% but that was a lot for the commune.
The second problem was that quite a few companies had been created who thought they were able to execute wastewater treatment plants because they saw how much money were flowing there. Many political parties have funded their activities from a percentage of these subsidies, so the construction of treatment plants and sewerage for cities and municipalities has begun to be accompanied with some sort of corruption. Hydrotech, who began with these small plants, saw that this is not a way to go as there is not only huge competition but also huge corruption. And it was not pleasant for me to create the budget for the plant room also with a surplus of 20, 30 or more percent that had to be transferred to some bank account or brought in a suitcase.
So what were your next steps?
We have gradually abandoned these small plants and about 10 or 15 years ago we started to devote more or less exclusively to industrial wastewater treatment plants. I've been doing it a long time ago so I went back to it in some way and Hydrotech continued. Now we are focused from 95% on industry segment.
Wastewater Treatment Plant for the Heineken brewery in Hurbanovo (SK), intensified and expanded by Hydrotech.
You mentioned that wastewater treatment plants have been built mostly in the 1960's to 1970's. If the boom came only during this period, what was it like in area of wastewater treatment until then?
There were no wastewater treatment plants. Practically, there were only very few of them. But now the situation has changed because today you no longer get a building permit for the construction of a house, a housing estate or something similar, unless the building has a connection to the city sewage system or does not have its own wastewater treatment plant. Previously, however, the flats were built before the plant. Honestly, the history of wastewater treatment is not my primary area of interest. I'm interested in it though but I don´t know specific details and exact dates.
You certainly know how to compare technological progress.
The wastewater treatment plant consists of machines, equipment, electrical installations, pipes and tanks - concrete or steel. It all comes together in some ways and it should work. Each plant has some technology proposal that talks about how the technology should run, whether there should be mixing, pumping, balancing, and so on. All this was made quite in a complicated manner because the production capacities for pumps, mixers or blowers to be made was limited or the quality was rather poor.
It simply wasn´t one of state´s priorities. After the coup in 1989 the situation began to change. Gradually there were no restrictions and we could use any foreign machine and device that had a better quality at that time. The possibility of using imported machines and equipment was therefore a great asset. This, of course, had an impact on wastewater treatment technology itself. Technologists who suggest a way of treatment were suddenly allowed to use anything and therefore much more than ever before.
How efficiently can current wastewater treatment plants purify wastewater? What is the quality and the subsequent use of the treated wastewater?
Each wastewater treatment plant has some rules. It has given how much treated water can be drained, what quality it should be of and what will happen to it as next. The purified water is usually drained into a so-called recipient mostly into the river. There are legal rules that set its parameters and the fulfillment of these parameters is checked. Samples of purified wastewater are taken, analyzed, and compared. When results arising from an analysis are better than allowed it's okay, when it's worse warnings may come, subsequently fines, and even termination of the operation.
For nearly 40 years Hydrotech has more than 700 wastewater treatment plants installations in 19 countries around the world.
There was a study on the internet that said treated wastewater discharged into rivers contained some chemicals like hormones from contraceptive pills. Is it true that sewage treatment plants do not purify water from the substances mentioned above?
In principle water, howsoever polluted, can be cleaned up to any degree of quality that anyone could possibly demand. It is technically possible but the question is whether it is also economical.
When you realize that the Bratislava wastewater treatment plant treats two, three, four cubic meters of wastewater per second, one cubic meter per second being a thousand liters per second, it is enough. That's 86 million liters per day, which are considerable quantities. Removal of pollution consists of several parts. First, basic cleaning takes place when the solids are preceeded, then the water goes to biological purification and then discharges into the river. This biological treatment removes 99% of pollution and partly also hormones and enzymes and other mentioned substances that occur in very low concentrations. But because of today´s highly developed analytics, they can also find water in one billionth or one millionth of these substances. The pollution removal system is not aimed at removing this pollution. It is aimed primarily at removing many kilograms of pollution. That is why the pollution is partly passing through. If it was to be removed completely, the cleaning process would be more expensive in excess of several tens of percent.
How important are the numbers and to what extent the ecology? Are your customers willing to take an extra step - not just what they have to do but also what is better for nature?
Everyone, when talking about industrial enterprises, is glad to have the water cleaned up to the level he was ordered.
Of course, there are companies that treat wastewater better or more, but the difference between prescribed cleaning and the better one may not be significant. When someone prescribes a certain parameter, for example, to remove organics from 95% which is relatively easy, it is done right away. And when the plant is operated properly it can reach even 97% or 98%. But when they tell to remove the hormones, the remains of contraception or drugs, this could cost twice as much. Why would owners of the wastewater treatment do that? The state can not order Bratislava´s plant to clean up all residues of drugs to prevent it not beeing led into the Danube as it would simply not be economically viable. In that case households would, for one cubic meter of water discharged into the sewers, be paying not one euro, but two euros at least. And that would not be accepted. It means that it is important but not realistic to do so under these economic conditions.
It is said that drinking water will be the most valuable commodity by 2050. What do you think?
That may be true. It's a pity I will not be alive in that time. As I deal with the treatment plant and I know wastewater could be treated to much higher level and better, I'd like to see the city, and now I will exaggerate quite a bit, where dead people lie on the street who have been killed by insufficiently treated water. Because if water had been cleaned better then these people would not have been lying there dead. Deseases spreading by polluted water, however, are not so serious in our latitudes, and where they are serious, we don´t build wastewater treatment plants. Although I wish to, it is not possible.
We as a company sell something that no one wants. Everyone wants sausages, Coca-Cola, cigarettes, chocolate, cars, but a treatment plant? The plant is an investment to be made, I never gain anything having it operating, it only costs money - I still have to worry about running, authorities are still taking samples of water and checking if I'm doing it well enough. And when I operate it badly, I get a fine.
"We do what nobody wants, but it is a necessity."
It means that when only after a disaster caused by polluted water people will realize the importance of this area?
In essence, yes. Now we are at some level of coarse ecological treatment. In the sense that water needs to be cleaned. Operation of a factory or production will not be allowed without showing how the wastewater will be treated. However, our client Volkswagen Bratislava takes wastewater treatment both ecologically and socially.
Behind their treatment plant, which we have refurbished and expanded several times there are, for example, a crayfish reservoir. These crayfish are indicators that the water is well-cleaned. It certainly contains the remains of some dyes, but at such minimal concentrations that it can not be seen on the crayfish. And if the water was cleaned badly, they would have gone from there or died. This is one example of ecological thinking.
Talking about examples, could you point our any country that is a model for us in terms of wastewater treatment?
Definitely yes. In Europe there are many countries that care about wastewater treatment and which are highly developed. For example Austria, Germany, the Netherlands, Denmark or Sweden.
In which area are these countries better?
They are very developed, they have a good technical and technological basis and a certain waste management culture. In these countries all children have been guided to respect nature. That if I throw a piece of waste into the bushes or drain polluted water into the stream it will some day show up in my country. But wastewater treatment plants they build and those built in our country are roughly the same. The difference is therefore in the approach. Well, of course, the economic basis of the people or businesses is different from the basis in our country.
Will Slovakia ever reach the level of these states?
It is getting there step by step. It just costs a lot of money and not everyone is prepared to invest 5 or 10% from their pocket to make the water cleaner. On the other hand, near Bratislava we have a source of very good drinking water, I think 22,000 liters per second which not everyone has to be so close. And while citizens pay 2 Euros for water, about one euro for potable water and another for treatment of wastewater, it is still quite little compared to other countries. In the Czech Republic there are areas where 3 or 4 Euros are paid and for example in Germany much more. We basically take drinking water as a matter of course.
How long will this approach be routine and sustainable?
We do, especially in the western part of Slovakia. In Slovakia this approach will unfortunataly sustain for a long time.
Oh, yes, because the sources are here and they can hardly be destroyed. They are large and the water treatment that comes from the underground is minimal because it is of high quality. At least in western and central Slovakia. In eastern Slovakia it's a little bit more complicated because water needs slightly more treatment. But it's still great. Moreover, now the environment ministry and other institutions are taking care to ensure that there is at least some minimal protection of water. Therefore I think there is no threat from the lack of drinking water in Slovakia until something extraordinary happens.
Hydrotech carried out projects in other, eastern countries such as Cyprus or Egypt. Why is it?
Hydrotech's parent company is cypriot Hydrotech which in 1978 began to make wastewater treatment plants mainly for hotels in Cyprus as there was no sewerage at all. These hotels, however, had to treat its wastewater and were not allowed to let it flow unpurified into the sea. Now the situation is that they can not drain any water because they lack of water of any quality. This means that all the water that flows from the lavatories, from laundry and from businesses must be cleaned so that it can be used again, mostly for irrigation of lawns. This, however, ended sometime in the 1980s and 1990s as they built a sewer system in Cyprus to which hotels could be connected. Wastewater treatment in one central treatment plant is much more advantageous than in many small treatment plants.
Managing director of cypriot Hydrotech, with whom I met at school during our studies, was therefore looking for new area for business, so we got together and we started in Czechoslovakia. And since he was familiar with and had references to the hotel's plants, he started doing the same thing in Egypt, where the development of the tourism industry was booming in the 1990s.
Water was commonly reused for irrigation in those hotels. For what other purposes can be cleaned wastewater used for example in industrial facilities?
The industry can use a part of the water for cooling, washing or hydraulic transport (in the sugar factory it is common that water is used to transport beets from one place to another). When it comes to food industry, the use of cleaned waste water is not that simple. Not that it is not polluted - it can be cleansed, but it is against some rules and people would not even like to find out that 30% of their soda comes from treated wastewater.
If there was an extreme case and the water really needed to be used to produce some fine products such as food, it can be disinfected to such an extent that it can be used. But mostly they just use fresh water taken from the water pipe or from the well what is cheaper than this undergoing this whole treatment process.
In Cyprus it's the opposite. There, for example, do not have water because it is not raining that often. And what they are trying to do is try to retain rainwater into about five dams, which they can fill in once in 10 years. The water they lack and they need for tourists, industry and agriculture, they produce by desalinating of the sea water. And that is a fairly expensive process.
Can the state of wastewater treatment be a in a condition of using purified water for food production and in countries that do not have enough drinking water seawater will be largely desalinated?
It is possible, but again it is a matter of energy and prices. Desalination itself is not very complex process, but it is a process that is energetically demanding. This is about evaporation or some membrane processes where the water is pushed though membranes under pressure. Salts go to one side, clean water to the other side. Of course, a lot of treated wastewater is used to produce food, because it is irrigated to be grown. And irrigation with treated wastewater, unless it is a salad but, for example, maize or grain is perfectly normal.
Whether it is food or chemical industry, everything is subject to strict regulations. Which country is the most strict of those in which you operate?
Now, for example, we are doing 80 or 90% of work in Russia from Hydrotech Slovakia. There are as strict regulations on the quality of cleaned water which I have never seen enywhere else in Europe. Much more strict than in Slovakia, Germany or in the Netherlands.
Could it be said that the stricter the rules, the better for Hydrotech?
No, I can´t say that because we know that when a parameter is required that is very, very strict, it is disadvantage because it is expensive. For example, when we would want to do our job that seriously, I would have to tell the customer that the tank in the wastewater treatment plant can´t have a volume of 100 cubic meters but 800 cubic meters instead.
I was in Russia many times, maybe 100 times, and asked their experts to show me one wastewater treatment plant that meets all the parameters set by Russian law. They said they did not have such yet. And this conversation took place in 1985.
Do you think they have such a plant today?
No, they do not have such. (laughs) But we have recently done one that is very, very close.
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