Joseph B. Treaster: Water and The World

A Continuing Discussion on Water and People on A Warming Planet

Archive for June, 2009

Jun 25 2009

James Bond And The Water Works; Helsinki Labyrinths

Published by Joseph B. Treaster under

HELSINKI – Ari Nevalainen showed an encoded piece of plastic to an electronic sensor.  In front of his little white car, a gray aluminum door, set into a granite hillside, cracked open and the two halves slid into the rock walls.

Mr. Nevalainen, gaunt and serious, tapped the accelerator and the car rolled forward, taking us into a subterranean world that looked like something out of James Bond: an eerily-lighted tunnel, high and wide enough to accommodate a tractor-trailer. Big stainless steel pipes snaked along the top of the tunnel.

We parked in a big open space, maybe 90-feet beneath the ground, glowing in a wash of pale yellow light.  Something that smelled like sulfur was strong in the air.  We were at the heart of one of Finland’s biggest environmental projects: a sprawling underground factory that turns the city’s sewage into almost drinkable water then pushes it out through a separate tunnel nearly five miles into the Baltic Sea. Out there, in a sea so polluted that the herring are choking, Helsinki does no harm.

“We’re proud of the quality of our waste water,” said Mr. Nevalainen, the chief spokesman for Helsinki Water, the municipal water works. So far, he said, no one from the James Bond movies has tried to rent the underground location. But, he agreed, it would be a perfect place for shoot-em-up chase scenes.

Of course, Mr. Nevalainen and Tommi Fred, another Helsinki Water executive who drove into the underground plant with us, were less interested in movies than water.

The objective of the Helsinki plant is to get rid of the city’s waste without further damaging the Baltic Sea. The people of Helsinki have been struggling against ghastly pollution in the Baltic Sea and the closer Bay of Finland for nearly a century. More than half a dozen countries are still polluting the Baltic though most them have agreed to work together on a clean-up.

Helsinki set up its first sewage treatment plant in 1910 when complaints started coming in that you could not have a decent picnic or go for a swim off a popular beach. The city’s toilets needed emptying somewhere and the beach was suffering.

In those days, most of Europe just dumped its waste and found other places to picnic.  Eighty-four years later, in 1994, Helsinki opened the phantasmagoric Viikinmaki treatment plant that I visited. With their spare sense of style and design, the Finns wanted a place where the waste water could be converted into harmless goop without smelling up the city and without disturbing the landscape – the winter’s snow blanket and the green of summer.

So they put their main sewage treatment plant deep underground. It was not such great shakes for them. They already had tunnels wending under much of Helsinki, for shopping and parking, especially in winter.

Down there below Helsinki, Tommi Fred, the director of waste water treatment for Helsinki Water, showed me how it was done. From all over Helsinki, sewer lines converge on the Viikinimaki plant. The sewage comes in 150 feet below the ground and gets pumped up into huge, rectangular vats that reveal some hint of the contents with their sharp aroma.

The water rushes through metal screens that catch clumps of waste and debris. Then it slows down to let sand and grit settle. The waste water goes into another tank where dark, thick sludge gradually sinks to the bottom.  Next the dirty water – minus the sludge - moves into another set of deep, rectangular tanks.  Dozens of devices that look like shower heads are set into the bottom of the tank, pointing up.  The shower heads spray air into the water and curls of white foam form on the surface.

The sludge gets heated and compressed and eventually trucked off to be sold as a nutrient for lawns and gardens. In the process, the sludge gives off bio gas which is used to heat the plant and which provides 50 percent of its electricity.

In the final step of cleaning, the waste water is run through a concrete vat filled with millions  of tiny white polystyrene balls that draw off the last of the bacteria – a quality-enhancing measure used in only a few other countries. Powerful electric pumps then drive the water though the rock tunnel into the Baltic.

The Helsinki plant, experts say, is one of the most effective in Europe. “We are certainly one of the lowest in operational costs,” Mr. Fred said, “and with excellent quality.”

Professor Riku Vahala, an engineer who specializes in water at the Helsinki University of Technology, said that 15 years after opening, the Viikinimaki plant is no longer the fanciest, most advanced waste treatment plant in Europe.  But, he said, Helsinki still gets more bad stuff out of its sewage than do most others.

“It’s how they fine tune it,” Professor Vahala said. “That’s how they take the best results out of the plant.”

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Jun 16 2009

Hurricanes: You Can’t Win A Battle with the Wind

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MIAMI – When Hurricane Katrina walloped New Orleans and the Mississippi Gulf Coast four years ago, the evacuation got started late and many people decided to ride out the storm. Bad decision.

A lot of people had harrowing experiences. About 1,800 others died, most because of flooding.

Hurricane specialists spend much of their time preaching that early planning can save lives.  It’s a nearly full time job for forecasters at the National Hurricane Center in the off-season.  They speak at schools, churches, town halls.

The 2009 Hurricane Season started on June 1 and forecasters are predicting half a dozen hurricanes, including two or three major ones. At a recent conference of disaster experts and journalists here in Miami, some examples of the right way and the wrong way to prepare for a storm came forth.

Shortly after Hurricane Katrina, in 2005, Hurricane Wilma hammered Cancun, the glitzy Mexican resort of spring break fame. Wilma hovered over the city’s high rise hotels and outlying residential areas for 40 hours. Six hundred thousand people huddled under high winds and drenching rain. Yet not one person was reported killed, according to Hugh Gladwin, a hurricane specialist at Florida International University in Miami.

“The government did a really wonderful job,” Professor Gladwin said at the conference, organized by his university. When the hurricane warnings came, people knew exactly what to do, where to go.  “Every household, at the beginning of the hurricane season, was given tickets with instructions on where to go for shelter,” he said. The hotels had also been briefed.

When four storms hit Haiti last year toward the end of summer, it was rather different. At least 800 people died. Help was slow in arriving. Most people were on their own.

Jacqueline Charles reported on the disaster for the Miami Herald.  Haiti seems perennially on the brink. It is one of the poorest countries in the world and it has not been blessed with good leadership.  Just as the hurricane season was beginning this year the Minister of the Interior of Haiti, Antoine Bien-Aime, told the Herald, “I can’t say we’re ready.”  He added: “But we are better prepared than last year.”

In the months before the storms in 2008, there were several changes of government in Haiti. Food and gasoline prices were going through the roof. People had taken to the streets.

“Haiti was so paralyzed when the first of the storms hit, that the country was off guard and unprepared,” Ms.  Charles said.

The deaths kept rising and editors at the Miami Herald asked Ms. Charles what was going wrong.  Why hadn’t people been moved out of places that had flooded previously?

“I asked people why they had not evacuated,” Ms. Charles said. “And they kept saying, ‘We didn’t have anywhere to go.’”

In one of the worst disaster zones, a river rushed over its bank at three in the morning.  “The river just started coming,” Ms. Charles said. “You had mothers taking children and running, just running.”

Some of the same storms that tormented Haiti also raked across Cuba. Cuba did far better. Whatever else you might say about Cuba, the country is organized, block by block.

When the weather becomes dicey, the member of the Committee to Defend the Revolution on your block – the block captain - gives the order to evacuate. And that is exactly what people do.

In Florida and Texas and Louisiana and elsewhere along the hurricane coasts in the United States, police officers sometimes go out knocking on doors as storms approach. They tell people there is a mandatory order to evacuate and urge them to pack up. In the United States, however, mandatory evacuation does not mean mandatory. The police cannot make people move. Often they won’t leave their homes even when the police ask for Social Security numbers in case they need to later identify the bodies.

In Cuba, mandatory is mandatory. And an actual mandatory evacuation in the face of a hurricane does wonders for keeping casualties down. You can’t win a battle with the wind. #


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Jun 11 2009

Finland’s Fabulous Drinking Water, And How It Got That Way

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HELSINKI – Finland is a good place to get a drink of water. But it wasn’t always so.

More than 30 years ago the pulp paper factories here were booming and polluting the rivers and lakes. The drinking water smelled of chlorine and sometimes looked faintly like dirty dish water. The Finns called it “Ugly Water.”

Then came a big scare. Researchers found that the water was loaded with potential cancer-causing substances. The government clamped down on the paper mills and started pouring money into improving the drinking water.

Now, the water in Finland, especially here in the capital, ranks among the best in the world, according to the United Nations. The Finns entertain themselves with blind water tasting contests, like wine-tastings in America. They pit their tap water against tap water from other countries and the biggest names in bottled water.

“You can take a bottle of Evian and our tap water and our water comes out better,” Janne Virkkunen, the senior editor-in-chief of Helsingin Sanomat, Finland’s biggest and most influential daily newspaper, told me.

In most developed countries, the water is safe to drink and available at the turn of a tap. Flush toilets are standard. But it’s not like that in a large part of the world where people are mainly poor and governments often provide little public service. Around the world nearly 1 billion people do not have clean drinking water readily at hand. Women often spend hours every day walking to fetch water.

In some cities, where you might expect better, the water is surprisingly bad. For example, just a few hundred miles east of here, in St. Petersburg, the capital of czarist Russia, the city pumps water from the heavily polluted Neva River through treatment plants and into homes and offices. The process doesn’t work as well as it might. The tap water is often gray, according to Finnish water experts, and people routinely boil the tap water to kill bugs that can rather significantly upset the stomach. Some European cities along the polluted Danube River also get along with drinking water that is not so great.

In some places, bottled water becomes the solution. Italy, Germany and Spain are the heaviest users of bottled water in Europe, Finland the lowest. Sometimes bottled water suggests a touch of class, even though the water is no better than what comes out of the tap, and even though the bottles create an environmental mess. Just the other night at a formal dinner near Helsinki at the headquarters for Nokia, the big cell phone maker, they were serving fine French wines and bottled water.

For decades, Helsinki had taken its drinking water from the Vantaa River. But in the 1970s officials decided on a radical plan to radically improve their drinking water. They staked out a big lake 72 miles north of Helsinki as their reservoir.  The lake, Lake Paijanne, had suffered from the paper mills. But it was being cleaned up and, today, Jukka Piekkari, the managing director of Helsinki Water, the municipal water company, tells me that he often scoops up a drink of untreated or raw water for himself when he walks along the lake.

To get the water to Helsinki, the Finns decided to carve a tunnel through solid granite. They made the tunnel big enough to drive a bus through. It is one of the longest in the world. Building the tunnel took eight years and, in today’s currency, cost nearly $270 million or about 190 million Euros. It was a huge investment for a fairly small country – now 5 million people – with a fairly small economy.  The tunnel was closed for repairs for eight months last year.

The water flows through the tunnel mainly by gravity from the lake into a red brick treatment plant in Helsinki. It is cool when it comes in – 45 to 50 degrees Fahrenheit – and cool when it goes out. “When it’s fresh and cool, it’s very nice,” Mr. Piekkari said.

In the first step in treating the water, sediment and clumps of unwanted materials are removed.  Then the water flows through layers of sand and is flushed with ozone, or electronically activated oxygen, and filtered through carbon. Finally, it is further disinfected with ultra violet light and a mild blend of chlorine and other chemicals.

“Most European cities use quite sophisticated treatment processes,” said Prof. Riku Vahala, a water specialist at the Helsinki University of Technology. “We have a combination of high-quality raw water and a high-quality treatment process.”

At a dinner at Helsinki’s ornate 19th century City Hall to salute visiting members of the International Press Institute in Vienna, the Finns at my table bragged about their water and laughed about the bad old days.  Eero Waronen, the chief spokesman for Mayor Jussi Pajunen, said the pollution totally destroyed one small lake. “It was so evident that something had to be done,” he said.

The Finns seem to know precisely what they prize in a good drink of water.  At the South Harbor one morning, Mattila Outi, a university student, was handing out brochures for a canal and harbor cruise. The sun had broken through the clouds, but a light rain was still falling and many people were wearing windbreakers. In the cobblestone square in front of her, ranks of white canvas tents rose as shelters for fruit and vegetable sellers, coffee shops and artisans offering jewelry, carved wood, wool sweaters and scarves.

“It’s very good,” Ms. Outi said of the water.

What does it taste like?

“Like nothing,” she said. “Not anything special.”

How do you know if you have bad water?

“It’s bad,” she said, “if it has some taste. If there is no special taste, you know it’s clear, it’s good for your health.”

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Jun 03 2009

How to Get Ready for A Hurricane, A Lesson That Doesn’t Stick

Published by Joseph B. Treaster under

ORLANDO – Most Americans have never lived through a hurricane. And that’s to the good.

But every year thousands of Americans move into the Hurricane Zone along the southern coasts of the United States. They don’t have hurricane experience. And that is not so good.

Once families and singles and retirees arrive in the Carolinas or Georgia, or Florida and the other states along the Gulf of Mexico -  Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana and Texas - they need a few tips on the do’s and don’ts of living in the Zone, dealing with the wind and the water.

Emergency Management officials run advertisements warning that Hurricane Season runs from June 1 to Nov. 30. This year forecasters are predicting half a dozen hurricanes, including two or three major ones.

The hurricane specialists, including those at the National Hurricane Center near Miami, tell people to lay in supplies of bottled water, canned goods, flashlights, portable radios and lots of batteries. Keep the gas tank in your car topped up. And, most of all draw up a plan for your family so that well before it gets windy you know where you are going and how much time you need to get there. Staying home can be fatal, especially for those on the waterfront.

But the advice does not seem to get through. Every time there is a big blow, there is a run on the grocery stores, the lumber yards and the gas stations. The lumber yards are busy selling plywood to people who forgot they would need shutters. Most people have no evacuation plan. Some hunker down, others jam the roads, not sure where they’re headed, just some place less scary.

Here in Orlando, the people at Disney World decided they wanted to help with the problem of what the experts call hurricane preparedness. So they created an exhibition in a small theater in the Epcot theme park that gives you about as close a sensation of being in a hurricane as you can get without risking your life. You even get puffs of wind and rain in your face. The crack of lightening is so vivid you want to throw your hands over your ears.

In the hurricane theater the storm thrashes on a big screen. You see a house breaking apart, sections of the roof flying off, garage doors caving in and being ripped away.  Facing each seat in the theater is a small video screen and a set of big buttons. After you’ve survived the storm, you’re asked questions about hurricane safety. My eight-year-old niece, Savannah Manser, who lives in Port Orange, Fla., near Daytona Beach, said the whole exhibit “was cool,” but that she especially liked “that little test.”

In the Q & A you learn that tarpaper shingles cling to roofs better than tile that outward opening doors are safer than ones that the wind can push in, that a weak garage door can lead to the loss of an entire house. Before every storm, people rush to crisscross masking tape over their windows. In one of the quiz answers you’re told not to bother, the tape doesn’t help at all.

The exhibit was inspired by a real-life experience during Hurricane Charley in 2004. Just as everyone expected the storm to tear into Tampa, it veered right and ripped through the small town of Punta Gorda.  Leslie Chapman-Henderson, the president of the Federal Alliance for Safe Homes, also known as FLASH, discovered two nearly identical cement-block houses in the wreckage of Punta Gorda.  One house had come apart, the other had stood tall. The one that did so well had been built with all the right stuff.

She took the story to Disney. They were already thinking about a hurricane exhibit and soon the Disney designers got started on what Disney calls “StormStruck: A Tale of Two Homes.”

State Farm, the biggest home insurer in the country, Simpson-Strong Tie, a company that makes steel parts to reinforce houses and Renaissance Re, one of the biggest companies that sells disaster insurance to companies like State Farm, are the sponsors. Insurance companies want people to get through storms without harm to themselves and their homes. It is good business and good public policy.

I went through the hurricane exhibit with my niece Savannah and two grown up friends from New York. There were only a few others in the theater late on a Friday afternoon.  But the Federal Alliance for Safe Homes says StormStruck has been popular and Disney says there are frequently lines to see it.  Jaime Hernandez, the spokesman for the Miami-Dade County Office of Emergency Management said the theater was packed when he was there last fall. “It was very realistic,” said Mr. Hernandez, who has been through four hurricanes, including Hurricane Wilma in 2005.

The weekend before the start of the hurricane season this year, the American Red Cross and the Miami-Dade County Office of Emergency Management held “StormPrep Expo 2009” at the Miami Beach Convention Center. The turn out was disappointing.

Because of the poor economy, there may not be money to present “StormPrep Expo” next year, the organizers said. But Nick Kallergis, who was in charge of “StormPrep Expo” for the Red Cross, said that doesn’t mean it is not needed – especially in Miami.

“This is a transient community,” he said. “A lot of people moving in and moving out.” The newcomers are unfamiliar with hurricanes, he said, and, he suspects that after several years without a big storm, many people who have been living in Miami for years have lost whatever focus they might have had. They need a refresher. “Every year,” Mr. Kallergis said, “people are less prepared than the year before.”

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