CAMDEN, NJ — The clank of the metal lever followed by the rush of whooshing water culminating in silence.
You may not think it artful, but the fact toilets have been able to flush uninterrupted across Camden during a global pandemic has been music to Scott Schreiber’s ears.
“I just told employees during a meeting that one thing I’ve been proud of during this outbreak across the county, and some may laugh, but it’s been that people are still taking flushing the toilet as an automatic,” Schreiber, executive director of the Camden County Municipal Utility Authority (CCMUA) told TAPinto Camden.
For Schreiber, who took over for Andy Kricun after more than 30 years in the post this past February, leading the CCMUA so far has been a trial by fire.
“We’re an essential operation, having to change 40 years of operations in a week,” Schreiber said. “For the most part, it’s meant putting minimal staffing in place.”
Two entities control water for Camden city residents: the CCMUA (which treats nearly 60 million gallons of sewage per day at its plant) and American Water (contracted out by the city to maintain and treat drinking water and a host of other services).
Both have had to adjust during COVID-19 mandates put in place nationwide by Gov. Phil Murphy.
Three operators and a senior operator man four stations at the CCMUA plant whereas normally up to seven would be working in-house, concerned with treatment, repairs and maintenance — following social distancing rules and working in shifts to minimize interactions.
The majority of the 130-person staff, Schreiber said, has worked remotely — while those needing to attend to any one of the city's 27 pumping stations take measures in the field.
When officials began asking residents to be wary of what they flushed in April — seeing an abrupt influx of gloves, rags, and masks — it was to lessen how often workers would need to “exorcise” the pumps of the collected waste clogging up.
“There isn’t a lot of redundancy among our positions,” Schreiber said, upon reflecting over how the plant has gone largely unscathed during the pandemic as far as workers reporting sick. “God forbid someone did become infected. Let’s say one or two people could not fulfill their position, it may mean half of our repair force and paralyze our ability to run smoothly. So we put in a robust mitigation and containment plan so we know who is working at all times, mitigate spread at every corner and keep track of movement in the event we have to trace something back.”
The same could be said for American Water trucks and its employees. If you’ve seen any throughout the city, you likely saw a few other things as well.
“We have applied social distancing magnets to our work vehicles and have worksite signage that emphasizes keeping at least six feet between our employees and the general public,” Joseph Szafran, External Affairs Manager, said in an interview. “Also, American Water’s walk-up payment window located at PNC Bank, 110 North Broadway, Camden, [has been] suspended indefinitely to reduce the risk of exposure for both our employees and customers.”
Szafran explained that much of the initial work for the company, which suspended all billing-related service shutoffs as the outbreak worsened, was to restore water service to customer accounts that were previously discontinued because of nonpayment.
American Water employees have partaken in virtual safety meetings, staggered their shift start times, limited passengers in vehicles to one, have had limited access to treatment plant control rooms, and have been required to report personal domestic and international travel.
Although the company has owned the water system in the Cramer Hill and East Camden neighborhoods since the 1800s under the Stockton Water Company brand, American Water didn’t take over most of the remainder of the water system until 2016.
That includes the potable water supply, treatment and distribution systems, and the wastewater and stormwater collection and conveyance systems.
Today, in addition to monitoring the safety of drinking water it oversees other city functions like street sweeping.
Despite dealing with the adjustments to staffing, both American Water and the CCMUA say plenty of environmentally-friendly and sustainable initiatives have had continued implementation at their facilities.
One need look no further than the CCMUA’s sludge digester.
In development since 2013, the “Water Pollution Control Facility Anaerobic Sludge Digester and Combined Heat and Power Facilities” cost an excess of $50 million to implement, according to the company.
“Anaerobic digestion” is defined as a biological process that breaks down the amount of organic solids in sludge — which originates from the CCMUA’s industrial and refining process — as well as produces methane gas used as boiler fuel for plant heating.
In the end, both the volume of sludge is reduced as is the cost for disposing it. The digesters, four large round concrete tanks, are currently under construction.
When finished, Schreiber said the process will allow for the plant to produce 50 to 70 percent of its electricity through sludge alone.
The CCMUA is involved with several other green infrastructure projects as well.
Among them, a partnership with Camden S.M.A.R.T. (Stormwater Management and Resource Training) and the Trust for Public Land, to reduce flooding in the city at several sites. This will comprise, amid other projects, rain gardens at two schools in North Camden in efforts to reduce overflow during downpours.
“We also have a long term control plan in place to bring approximately 145 green acres to the city of Camden in the next five to ten years,” said Schreiber.
An American Water spokesman said the company, "thinks of Environmental Leadership, Social Responsibility and Governance (ESG) as more than just environmentally focused."
“American Water’s dedication to sustainability and being an environmental leader in the water industry includes having already reduced its greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) by 31% through 2018 and reducing 40% by 2025," said Szafran.
He also said the company has been able to lower its water usage by 3.3 billion gallons through conservation, and recycled over one billion gallons of water each year.
“[We plan to] invest more than $8.5 billion over the next five years to address aging infrastructure, reduce or eliminate leaks, improve cyber and physical security, and increase resiliency of critical assets against the impacts of climate variability,” Szafran added.
How do residents fit into the equation?
Company leaders at both the CCMUA and American Water said the best way is by helping organizations already working to make the city a more sustainable and healthy place, like the Camden Collaborative Initiative, Camden SMART and the Camden Water Equity Task Force.
This story was produced in collaboration with CivicStory and the New Jersey Sustainability Reporting project. It was originally reported by Steven Rodas for TAPinto Camden, and may be re-distributed through the Creative Commons License, with attribution.