Recently, I had the opportunity to tour a unique and innovative facility, the Bureau of Lab Services (BLS), the “water quality heartbeat of the Philadelphia Water Department” (PWD), as described by BLS director Gary Burlingame. I came away from the experience extremely proud for having such a dedicated, important, and influential operation running out of my city. (In case you haven’t heard, Philadelphians are a prideful bunch.) And maybe I was predisposed to my impression — destined to write this column — but I think all would agree, upon hearing about BLS, that the praise is well-deserved, and their approach — even if beyond the resources of smaller utilities — might inspire fellow water and wastewater professionals in any number of ways.
While BLS has advantages of scale not enjoyed by others, its philosophy is certainly transferable. Burlingame noted, “The pursuit of quality required the understanding of process and people. [It] is a rocky road and requires patience, but also commitment and foresight to see that where you end up is more valuable than where you start.”
Formed in 1981 and consolidated from three distinct sites to a single site in 1992, BLS is one of the largest water utility laboratories in the U.S., serving the nation’s fifth-largest city with water quality testing for all of the city’s water. Accredited by the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection, BLS is audited annually to ensure standards consistent with meeting regulatory requirements — but BLS goes well beyond what’s standard.
The approximately 120 employees at BLS are divided (although intimately connected) into groups including: Scientific and Regulatory Affairs, Inorganics, Organics, Aquatic Biology, Watershed Sciences, Materials Analysis, Materials Engineering, Quality Assurance, IT, and Administration. A member from each unit is part of BLS’s Safety Committee, and BLS also oversees laboratories at PWD’s three water pollution control plants.
To hear the history of BLS and PWD is to hear the history and progression of water treatment in the U.S., in keeping with Philly’s designation as the “City of Firsts.” Fairmount Water Works was the nation’s largest and “most impressive” (according to BLS staff) water system in the country back in 1815; and in 1912, Philadelphia opened the largest single filtration plant in the world (one of five commissioned that year) and the largest pump station in the world, both in operation today.
Closer to the present, PWD continued its pioneering ways with its online water quality monitoring (OWQM) network, which began over 20 years ago. From three pilot sites, commencing when online monitoring was in its infancy, OWQM has grown into an optimized, citywide system of 38 dedicated monitoring sites and eight rapid deployment modules (RDMs). For each parameter measured across all the sites, data is generated every two minutes, equating to 200,000 data points daily. All that data is fed into a supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA) system, which informs decision-making, houses long-term data, and controls remote sampling functionality. Select OWQM sites also incorporate an event detection system (EDS), which sends automated alarms when data falls outside correlation cluster thresholds.
EDS is part of a larger effort to help secure the country against malicious attacks, as Philadelphia was one of five cities selected to pilot a contamination warning system (CWS) in the wake of the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001. CWS/ OWQM data shows up on a dashboard that is a central home for alarms, grab sample data, and events, as well as customer complaints and work orders. Redundant, off-site SCADA servers back up all the data, and multiple cellular service providers ensure real-time data transfer even when service interruptions occur. The OWQM team also researches novel applications and new sensors to stay at the forefront of emerging technologies, while at the same time assessing their real-world practicality for the water industry.
For in-service sensors, quality assurance is verified with weekly performance checks of online instruments, checking them against field samples that are analyzed on-site. They also undergo monthly performance checks and quarterly calibrations.
Back at the central facility, another novel and impressive (from my perspective) BLS function is the work of the Materials Engineering Lab (MEL). Here, chemists and engineers test the physical and chemical properties of items purchased by the city — including infrastructure materials (e.g., pipe, concrete, manhole covers, hydrants, and soil) and water treatment chemicals (chlorine, fluoride, powdered activated carbon, etc.), but also fuels, textiles, cleaning products, and manufactured items. With origins dating back to 1892, in the basement of City Hall, the MEL verifies that products are safe and meet specifications, saving the city thousands of dollars per year.
And this account of what I saw and learned doesn’t even do justice to the benefit BLS brings to the city and its position as a national leader — past, present, and future — for all things water quality. As Burlingame noted, referring to the founding of BLS, “The need for water quality came out of a time when … a city’s pride asked for something to be proud about, when leadership decided that continuous improvement is a good thing.”
This native son, who has reported on his share of water programs, is proud indeed. Positive prejudice, perhaps, but hard to deny.