The renegotiation of the North American Free Trade Agreement is underway. Canadian corporate executives are, with good reason, concerned that a new wave of protectionism could wash across the continent. Donald Trump, who campaigned on promises to force U.S. governments to Buy American threatened to cancel the agreement just as negotiations began.
Let’s hope cooler heads prevail, and that level-headed negotiators recognize the benefits of the free trade system that is allowing organizations across the continent to work together to solve the biggest, most pressing problems afflicting this economy.
The benefits that flow from the integrated continental economy that have emerged in the two decades since NAFTA are many. A particularly good example is that of Vancouver, B.C.-based Ostara Nutrient Recovery Technologies, which just opened the world’s largest phosphorus reclamation plant in the United States. The project is a reminder of how an integrated North American economy can facilitate important projects like this, which is countering the conditions that now lead to the emergence of dead zones in the Gulf of Mexico each summer.
The Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago, Ill. (MWRD) is a massive organization that manages the watershed around Chicago and 128 surrounding suburban communities. It does this through half-a-dozen treatment plants and 22 pumping stations. The major concern at the agency these days is what to do about the city’s wastewater that contributes to hypoxia in the Gulf of Mexico. The MWRD was created in 1889 with a goal to manage the increasing volumes of Chicago wastewater being dumped into Lake Huron.
To save the city’s waterfront, the agency reversed the flow of the Chicago and Calumet River Systems and diverted the waste water into the Des Plaines River. Today that wastewater feeds into the Illinois River, then it’s on to the Mississippi, and eventually into the Gulf where phosphorus-rich agricultural run-off from the mid-west creates huge algal blooms that deprive fish of oxygen leading to wide-spread hypoxia and dead zones. Obviously, reducing phosphorus at the source has become an important goal at the MWRD.
The organization voluntarily reduced the allowable levels of phosphorus in wastewater, even before regulations had to be enacted. “We want to be able to send water to the Gulf of Mexico without contributing to the dead zone. It’s the biggest issue in the midwest now. It’s an issue here, in Lake Erie, and across the continent,” said David St. Pierre, executive director of the MRWD.
To manage phosphorus levels the agency hit on Ostara’s so-called Pearl technology. Wastewater flows through three reactors filled with catalysts that pull the phosphorus from the water. The extracted mineral collects into tiny, nutrient-rich pearls. The by-product is an eco-friendly, slow-release fertilizer branded under the name Crystal Green. All in, the process creates a virtuous cycle: The water is cleaned, the plant recovers a mineral that is finite on earth, and a new revenue source is generated in a product that sends phosphorous back to the land. It’s just the kind of forward-thinking, sustainable economic activity that’s needed.
Decades of intensive economic activity have created huge pollution issues. Managing the effects of this industrial activity in an attempt to create resilient, stable economic systems is vital to future prosperity—it’s more than just an economic trend. That these Canadian and U.S. organizations could easily come together and finish the project while remaining free of border hassles or regulations on procurement is one of the important outcomes of the two decades of NAFTA-based trade. “We cannot accomplish [the goal of reducing phosphorus] without embracing innovation and establishing partnerships that extend beyond borders,” said a MWRD staffer. “We are extremely appreciative of the support and working relationships we have with Canadian companies.”
“We cannot accomplish [the goal of reducing phosphorus] without embracing innovation and establishing partnerships that extend beyond borders,” said a MWRD staffer. “We are extremely appreciative of the support and working relationships we have with Canadian companies.”
St. Pierre said he searches high and low across the continent for new technologies. “We are always open to new innovations in the wastewater industry that provide efficiency and practical solutions to wastewater treatment and resource recovery. I’m always looking for solutions,” said St. Pierre. On occasion, he will tour the Toronto water conference scene in search of new solution. He added that he is currently considering a Canadian supplier for a de-watering press that the agency is soon to acquire. “I am absolutely looking at the Canadian product. I have to. I run a utility. There are a lot of challenges in the water sector. I have to know what’s out there,” he said.
As for the Chicago phosphorus reclamation plant, it’s been up and running since late May. “The new Ostara project has just been completed and it’s functioning well,” said St. Pierre. Earlier estimates had been that there would be a 30 per cent reduction in phosphorus levels. But according to St. Pierre some early tweaks to the installation are paying off. “Now that it’s running a little more smoothly we’re possibly looking at a 45 per cent reduction in phosphorus,” he said.
Over time the process is expected to yield 10,000 tonnes per year of reclaimed material, allowing sales of Crystal Green that should provide a net operating benefit of about $1 million per year. Even better, the low original capital outlay of $35 million is a fraction of the $750 million the organization would have spent on a conventional system to reduce phosphorus levels to below 0.3 miligrams per litre. “There was a huge saving with this system,” said St. Pierre, “an important consideration at a taxpayer funded organization.”
No wonder then Ostara is enjoying a bit of a boom in brand recognition around the continent. The company has just completed a pilot project of the Ostara process in Atlanta that seems likely to lead to a permanent plant there. “They are considered the leader in this area,” said Kishia Powell, Commissioner of the Department of Watershed Management at the City of Atlanta. “We built the pilot project, and that has provided the proof. [But] this is how we approach our work: We make sure we are sourcing the best technology at the best price, whether it’s from Canada or the U.S. We owe it to customers.”
Let’s hope the deep benefits of a highly integrated North American economy that allows the seamless and free flow of goods and services across the continent doesn’t get sent down the river in the chaos of the Trump White House.
Jeff Sanford is a Toronto-based freelance journalist focused on business and trade.
From September 30–October 4, 2017, over 100 Canadian companies will participate in The Water Environment Federation’s Annual Technical Exhibition and Conference (WEFTEC) and the [email protected] program in Chicago, Ill.
October 3, 2017:
8:30 a.m.- 12:30 p.m.: B2B Meeting program on-site at WEFTEC
1:00 p.m. – 2:00 p.m. Canadian CEO Roundtable Panel, “Closing the Loop” Proven Water Reuse Solutions for Cities and Industry
5:30 – 7:30 p.m. Ontario/Quebec Water Networking Reception @WEFTEC
October 4, 2017:
7:30 am -8:30 a.m. Americas Best Practices Workshop—Do’s and Don’ts