After permits were installed for organic oxygen demand, ammonia, and other criteria compounds, the US EPA introduced effluent toxicity tests. The bioassay test involves both acute and chronic toxicity evaluation using a set dilution factor and aquatic organisms representing conditions near the effluent discharge. Often the fish species tested are the fathead minnow (Pimophales promelas) and water flea (Ceriodaphnia dubia) but more delicate species such as rainbow trout (Oncorhynchus mykiss) can be used. If a facility fails a bioassay test, a toxicity evaluation process is entered with the goal being to identify and correct the problem. Sometimes the source of toxicity is easily identified in cases such as ammonia, phenol, surfactants, or other toxic chemicals. However, in many cases the problem is not obvious.
In one of my cases, an industrial water treatment facility had failed its bioassay using rainbow trout, a very delicate species. The effluent had excellent BOD/COD/TOC numbers, ammonia was less than 0.2 mg/L, and no other criteria pollutants could be found. The biological treatment unit had excellent biomass, high dissolved oxygen (DO) and every other operational parameter in range. After evaluating all data, the only thing that stood out was the bioassay test was conducted in pure fresh water with low chlorides and near neutral pH.
The only thing that stood out was an unexpected nitrite residual. Apparently, something in the ammonia oxidation process was creating conditions where nitrite was present in the effluent. Taking a cue from aquaculture work, nitrite increases in toxicity when pH decreases and chlorides are not present in sufficient quantity to prevent nitrite from crossing the gills and binding with hemoglobin (causing brown blood disease). In this case some change in influent makeup and environmental conditions created a biomass with deficient numbers of nitrite oxidizing bacteria (NOB - often called Nitrobacter). The response was:
Erik Rumbaugh has been involved in biological waste treatment for over 20 years. He has worked with industrial and municipal wastewater facilities to ensure optimal performance of their treatment systems. He is a founder of Aster Bio (www.asterbio.com) specializing in biological waste treatment.
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