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​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​Useful water, not wastewater

Kim, S​aif and D​​eidre​ (pictured above) are part of the team that’s turning used water into anything but waste – from reclaimed water for industry to heat-producing biogas, and golf course hydration to nutrients for farmer’s fields.​​​

​By Curtis Gi​llespie

​They say that what goes around comes around, usually in reference to something coming back to bite you. But EPCOR looks at it differently, in that its evolving commitment to a circular economy means that what goes around comes back to the benefit of customers and the environment. ​

To many EPCOR employees, this is a journey with various stops and branches along the way. Saif Molla arrived in Canada with his wife in 2006 so that both could pursue a Masters in Environmental Engineering. Molla’s project was related to processes at the Gold Bar Wastewater Treatment Plant and once he finished his graduate work, he moved straight into wor​king with EPCOR; he now manages long-term planning for both Gold Bar and Clover Bar. “And when it comes to those long-term plans,” he says, “the circular economy piece is top of mind.”

Saif and his colleagues with Team EPCOR turn wastewater into valuable things like fertilizer, biogas and reclaimed water for industry. It's one way EPCOR is Leading for the Future.

Terminology matters, which is why Rick Feng believes that ‘waste’ is not even the right word for what happens at Gold Bar and other EPCOR treatment plants. Feng has been a process engineer there for two years and with EPCOR for 12 years overall. “Wastewater is not even really the proper term,” he says. “All water is a resource. Wastewater is not wasted water, it’s used water. And there are so many things that are part of the process that are valuable resources. The goal is to have nothing be a true waste.” 

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Creating a circular economy

The way EPCOR treats wastewater is emblematic of its approach to a circular economy. Not only is a considerable percentage of it reclaimed and returned to the environment, the search for even better methods never stops. Deidre Bartlett’s background is environmental science and she has been with EPCOR since 2017. “Of course, no one ever grows up saying they want to work in biosolids!” she laughs. “There are so many learning opportunities in biosolids. It’s exciting.”

The entire wastewater treatment process is an astonishing display of breaking down constituent parts to find the value in every aspect of what passes into and then out of the plant. “It’s really about trying to prevent things from being wasted,” says Kim Alcorn. She has a chemical engineering background and has been with EPCOR for seven years as the process safety engineer at Gold Bar. “Having a circular economy helps to achieve the environmental goals of trying to keep our planet as pristine as possible.” 

When the wastewater enters the plant, it is essentially separated into three different things — liquid, solid and gas. EPCOR’s Nutri-Gold program is available for any crop-producing farmers within the Edmonton area. On average, EPCOR is able to supply enough treated biosolids to apply them to about 1,200 hectares of agricultural land per year. ​​


Le​​ading fo​​r​ the environment 

EPCOR’s commitment to the en​vironment is foundational to our company’s success and the sustainability of the co​​mmunities we serve. Discover how we are driving innovation to address environmental and climate change challenges.  ​

Our commitments​​​​​

​Phosph​orous is also recovered from the biosolids at a Nutrient Recovery Facility, run in a partnership between EPCOR and the nutrient recovery company Ostara, to produce fertilizer for farm use across Canada.  

In addition to the agricultural land application, biosolids are used at surface mining operations undergoing reclamation, such as the Paintearth mine near Forestburg, Alberta. These biosolids help regenerate natural plant life by returning nutrients and organic matter to the land. 

Water reclamatio​​n in U.S. 

And then there is the water, which also goes full circle, whether it comes out of the North Saskatchewan River or the Salt River aquifer. EPCOR’s Jeff Stuck has worked in the Arizona water industry for decades. He has observed the state’s progressive approach to groundwater management for the better part of 30 years. There might be no better example than how reclaimed water is provided to golf courses, for example, so they don’t have to draw water from a river or an aquifer. “It’s part of the whole balancing of limited water resources in Arizona,” says Stuck.  

EPCOR provides A+ standard quality effluent in Arizona, which is the highest possible quality rating and indicates the water can be reused for any purpose other than human ingestion. It’s considered safe for body contact, which is why there is no health risk from an accidental spraying in the middle of watering a golf course or a park or a public soccer field. It can also be used for dust control at construction sites. EPCOR is working on another project in the valley’s San Tan area to move treated water to agricultural sites for watering non-edible crops. “It’s all about the aquifer,” says Stuck. “It’s just another way to keep aquifer water in the aquifer and to only draw water for potable purposes. Every other water demand we should be able to fill through alternative means.” ​​

​Reclaimed​​ water gets new life

At the Gold Bar plant, back in Edmonton, wastewater is put through a stringent purification process once solids and nutrients have been separated out. Treated water is returned to the North Saskatchewan River. Also worth noting is that EPCOR supplies a portion of the treated water to Suncor for its Edmonton-area operations, which means it does not have to draw water from the North Saskatchewan River. Even before all that happens, however, there are invisible sources of energy and power to be reclaimed. There is the liquid and the solid, but also the gas and the heat. Wastewater is very high in energy, not just because it’s coming from the human body but because it is emanating from controlled climate locations (namely, bathrooms, sinks, showers and drains). Energy is energy and there is no reason not to put it to use. The energy is not yet extracted from the treated water that returns to the river, says Saif Molla. “But when we do it’ll just be another piece in the circular economy puzzle. We are doing a lot but there is still so much potential.”  

What is extracted is the biogas produced during the treatment process. “Biogas is a very useful resource,” says Molla. “There’s a significant methane concentration in it, which is natural gas, essentially.” That methane is used to feed boilers that heat the buildings, the boilers and the digesters at Gold Bar, which means some of the energy contained in wastewater, once separated, is turned right around and used to treat and purify the new wastewater coming in.

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​Environme​ntal leadership be​nefits all 

The value EPCOR brings to the table exists both in its process details and its holistic innovation. For instance, the low levels of water in the Colorado River and Lake Mead have been making headlines around the wor​ld. “But that’s why having the ability to act on good ideas is critical right now,” says Stuck. “We have a big seat at the table to create the water management policies of the future. It’s a very strong position for EPCOR to be in.” ​​

​The benefits of that leadership, illustrated by the commitment to a circular economy, accrue at every level—customers are provided a more efficient service, regulators and shareholders increase their trust, employees are highly motivated and the planet is better off. “Of course, o​ur focus at Gold Bar is wastewater,” says Saif Molla. “But, really, this kind of thinking happens in every part of EPCOR. We’re only talking about wastewater here because it’s obviously the most exciting part!” His workmates laugh on our video call. “Not that we’re biased,” adds Kim Alcorn. 

Given this group of employees, it’s not all that hard to imagine that maybe one day there actually will be kids standing on the playground saying they are hoping to grow up and work in biosolids. Now that would be full circle. ​​​

Read about how else EPCOR is reducing its environmental footprint​​​​

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Our job is to collaboratively manage and protect the North Saskatchewan River for the more than 1 million people in 70 communities who rely on its water. To protect our water supply, we need to protect the environment and take action on climate change.

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Bob Starko, owner of Starko Century Farm​s outside Lamont, Alberta
receives a 
shipment of Nutri-Gold from EPCOR
Biosolids Technologist, Deidre Bartlett


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