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Electrocute the sewage with Dan Hendrickson

“The Colorado River is running out of water. This system gives fresh water back.”

A big ask: Hendrickson’s plans would need a diversion pond in San Ysidro
A big ask: Hendrickson’s plans would need a diversion pond in San Ysidro

Dan Hendrickson wants to save IB, and TJ. If they’ll let him.

He’s talking about the ages-old problem of Mexican sewage overwhelming treatment plants on both sides of the border. Politicians have been throwing money at it for decades, and yet nothing has really changed. Since the biggest spill, in February 2017, sewage has shuttered San Diego beaches for 500 days over three years.

He admits, with two burgeoning cities growing cheek by jowl, our binational sewage problems do sound impossibly huge. Which makes a recent federal government pledge to throw $300 million at this seems especially timely.

The question is how to clean up the polluted water, once and for all?

The answer? Simple, says Hendrickson. Just zap it. Electrocute the sewage so you kill all the pathogens.

Dan Hendrickson, bringing back Electro-Coagulation

The technology is called “Electro-Coagulation,” he says. And guess what? It’s been around for 130 years. It was back in 1889, in London, that engineers actually started applying EC to treat sewage. And avoid expensive and slow chemical reagents.

“What takes 6-8 days to treat biologically, can be treated in 10-20 seconds of electrical charge,” says Hendrickson. “It’s like giving the electric chair to billions of bugs.”

And the beauty is the contaminants are not only zapped clean, the electrical charge also makes them sticky, “coagulates” them into cakes of material that can be used as fertilizer. And the water can be cleaned all the way up to potable.

Did it catch on? Uh, no. Not really.

Of course in a polluted TJ river situation, we can be talking huge amounts of material needing decontamination.

“During the big event of 2017, our estimates came out to average about 4.7 million gallons a day. It is [contaminated at a rate of] 4400 parts per million, and it has to be brought down to 175 parts per million, which is a reduction of around 97 percent.”

Talk to Dan for half an hour and your head starts spinning. He has stats and formulas coming out his ears. He also has a life story that makes most of our lives look like, well, gray water. He is an ex-Navy SEAL captain, helped start Iron Man, and he genuinely believes electro-coagulation is desperately needed.

“Fifty years ago, I commanded a SEAL team. We would take the teams down to the Tijuana River sloughs for training.”

The sloughs were especially useful training for Vietnam, where crawling along rice paddy canals was how you got to work. That would be impossible today. The sloughs are too polluted.

After he retired from the Navy 30 years ago, he became a mechanical engineer, and launched himself into projects like this one that look so, well, quixotic. “But apart from the regular pollution issue, EC answers a problem both we and Mexico see coming down the tracks,” he says. “The Colorado River is running out of water. This system gives fresh water back.”

The only question is: why so-o long? It’s 50 years since the Clean Water Act. Dan Hendrickson smiles the smile of a man who has fought this battle before. “The problem,” he says, “is that there are entities involved who are — how should I say? — invested in the status quo.”

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A big ask: Hendrickson’s plans would need a diversion pond in San Ysidro
A big ask: Hendrickson’s plans would need a diversion pond in San Ysidro

Dan Hendrickson wants to save IB, and TJ. If they’ll let him.

He’s talking about the ages-old problem of Mexican sewage overwhelming treatment plants on both sides of the border. Politicians have been throwing money at it for decades, and yet nothing has really changed. Since the biggest spill, in February 2017, sewage has shuttered San Diego beaches for 500 days over three years.

He admits, with two burgeoning cities growing cheek by jowl, our binational sewage problems do sound impossibly huge. Which makes a recent federal government pledge to throw $300 million at this seems especially timely.

The question is how to clean up the polluted water, once and for all?

The answer? Simple, says Hendrickson. Just zap it. Electrocute the sewage so you kill all the pathogens.

Dan Hendrickson, bringing back Electro-Coagulation

The technology is called “Electro-Coagulation,” he says. And guess what? It’s been around for 130 years. It was back in 1889, in London, that engineers actually started applying EC to treat sewage. And avoid expensive and slow chemical reagents.

“What takes 6-8 days to treat biologically, can be treated in 10-20 seconds of electrical charge,” says Hendrickson. “It’s like giving the electric chair to billions of bugs.”

And the beauty is the contaminants are not only zapped clean, the electrical charge also makes them sticky, “coagulates” them into cakes of material that can be used as fertilizer. And the water can be cleaned all the way up to potable.

Did it catch on? Uh, no. Not really.

Of course in a polluted TJ river situation, we can be talking huge amounts of material needing decontamination.

“During the big event of 2017, our estimates came out to average about 4.7 million gallons a day. It is [contaminated at a rate of] 4400 parts per million, and it has to be brought down to 175 parts per million, which is a reduction of around 97 percent.”

Talk to Dan for half an hour and your head starts spinning. He has stats and formulas coming out his ears. He also has a life story that makes most of our lives look like, well, gray water. He is an ex-Navy SEAL captain, helped start Iron Man, and he genuinely believes electro-coagulation is desperately needed.

“Fifty years ago, I commanded a SEAL team. We would take the teams down to the Tijuana River sloughs for training.”

The sloughs were especially useful training for Vietnam, where crawling along rice paddy canals was how you got to work. That would be impossible today. The sloughs are too polluted.

After he retired from the Navy 30 years ago, he became a mechanical engineer, and launched himself into projects like this one that look so, well, quixotic. “But apart from the regular pollution issue, EC answers a problem both we and Mexico see coming down the tracks,” he says. “The Colorado River is running out of water. This system gives fresh water back.”

The only question is: why so-o long? It’s 50 years since the Clean Water Act. Dan Hendrickson smiles the smile of a man who has fought this battle before. “The problem,” he says, “is that there are entities involved who are — how should I say? — invested in the status quo.”

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