Flow of history: Experience with the international process

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“Flow of history: Experience with the international process” is the fifth article in a series outlining the history of wastewater treatment in Madison from the mid-1800s through 1914. Earlier articles are available in the History section of our blog, beginning the series with Flow of history: Early concerns prompted community action.

By Paul Nehm

The smaller and supposedly more efficient and less-costly treatment plant proposed by John MacDougall in 1897 was very similar to the precipitation/filtration plant that had been designed by the city. Instead of rectangular sedimentation tanks, the MacDougall plant used automatically cleaned circular tanks. The patented chemical ferozone was used as a precipitant, instead of lime or alum as had been expected to be used in the city design. Instead of four acres of sand filters as required in the city design, the MacDougall plant used the chemical polarite in one-eighth of an acre filters.

Because of the guaranteed low cost of $37,200 to build the plant and the expected greater capacity of the plant, the city engineers recommended MacDougall’s process to the City Council. The Council agreed with the recommendation but added two requirements to the proposal. MacDougall’s company had to post a $15,000 bond that would be payable to the city if the process did not perform as specified. Secondly, the effluent had to “be as pure as Lake Mendota water in 1888.” There was still some thought that Lake Mendota would need to be used as the source of drinking water for the city in the future.

However, before construction could begin, two additional legal issues were filed. The first, a lawsuit claiming that the plant would increase Lake Monona pollution, was settled by increasing the amount of the bond to $25,000 and agreeing to the formation of a group of experts to analyze the effluent to determine if it met the Lake Mendota purity comparison. The second, an injunction by Daniel K. Tenney, again brought up his idea of piping the raw wastewater to a deep section of the lakes. Although Mr. Tenney appealed his case to the State Supreme Court, he eventually dropped his suit.

Construction of the International Process plant finally began in the late fall of 1898 and was placed in operation on May 12, 1899. The plant was built close to the District’s current Pumping Station 1 near the corner of First Street and East Washington Avenue. Unfortunately, the Wisconsin State Journal reported that on May 23, 1899, “the west wall of the filter beds was thrown 40 feet by the pressure of the water.” The wall was rebuilt and the plant resumed operation in June of that year.

Initially, the plant seemed to operate as was guaranteed. In fact, it was reported that Canadian visitors and city engineer Dodge drank the effluent with no ill effects. However, during the time that the plant was being operated by MacDougall’s personnel, problems began. Odors and sludge production increased significantly while operating costs were two to three times higher than anticipated.

Because of these problems, the city would not take over operation of the plant after the free three-month trial. MacDougall’s employees continued to operate the plant for three additional months but abandoned the plant in January 1900. Under the direction of James Mackin, a future pioneer in wastewater treatment, the city attempted to operate the plant for another year but eventually abandoned the plant in January 1901. Untreated wastewater then ran into the Yahara River through the plant’s outfall until a new treatment plant was put on line in July 1901. Through legal efforts in court the city was able to recover $42,000 from Mr. MacDougall and his bonding company.

Much of the information for the article series was found in “Madison – A History of the Formative Years” by David V. Mollenhoff and in articles written by early leaders from Madison’s public works sector. The article was originally published in the Winter 2020 edition of the District’s newsletter, The Clarifier.