UMass Wastewater Pilot Plant - Historical Overview

In 1969 Professor Tom Feng negotiated an agreement with the Massachusetts Division of Water Pollution Control (MDWPC) which launched a series of research and demonstration grants.  These grants were aimed primarily at municipal wastewater treatment technology and protection of the aquatic environment.  With the creation of the US EPA, passage of key environmental water pollution legislation (e.g., NEPA, PL92-500) and the federal wastewater construction grants programs, there was an urgent need for new ideas and professionals working in the field of water pollution control.  The MDWPC grants continued until 1989 and helped to support the construction and operation of the UMass WWPP.

The need for a facility where students could test wastewater treatment systems at scales larger than could be accommodated in the CEE labs was evident.  An ideal location for such a facility was next to the town of Amherst’s wastewater treatment plant.  A strip of land immediately west of the town’s primary clarifier (at the time the Amherst WWTP was a primary plant) was selected as it allowed easy access to both raw wastewater and primary settled wastewater. In June of 1970, Tom hired Dr. Gerald Foess, a recent U. Mich. grad and classmate of Fran DiGiano's. Gerry was funded for 3 years on the MDWPC grant and his primary assignment was to oversee the construction and operation of the WWPP and help to manage the MDWPC research projects. Over the next year, Jerry would design and manage construction of the WWPP as well as installation of donated treatment units.

Continuous Flow Pilot Plant: 1971-1983

In late 1971 a 24,000 gal DAVCO extended aeration unit was donated by CDM (had previously been used for a project in Leominster) and delivered to the site. Bob Weiman, a senior CE major, was tasked by Fran DiGiano to oversee the installation and startup. About this time, a 1600 square foot Butler building was purchased and constructed on the site by a local contractor as early as 1971, but more likely in 1972 (probably by O'Leary Construction, now O'Leary Group, Inc of Southampton).  In addition, several large pre-fabricated in-ground treatment units (e.g., extended aeration activated sludge, trickling filter, plastic media tower) were donated and installed.  They became operational in 1971 or 1972.  During this time the faculty engaged in water quality and treatment research were Tom Feng, Dean Adrian, Enrique La Motta, Fran DiGiano and Jerry Foess (only through June 1973).  At this time, Bernie Berger was also affiliated with the program.

For the first 6 years (1971-1977) both raw and primary treated wastewater was piped from the Amherst WW treatment plant.  At the time, the Amherst municipal plant only had primary treatment.  A submersible pump was placed in the center clearwell of the primary clarifier and a pipe was run across the clarifier to the fence and over into a wet well which fed the DAVCO units by gravity.  This raw WW required the need for a Bauer hydrosieve before further treatment on the UMass site.  Return flow required a pumping station equipped with a Gorman Rupp pump to lift WW back to headworks of Amherst WWTP.  In addition, primary clarified wastewater was piped directly from the splitter box and over the fence.  For more on the original WWPP design click here.

With construction of a new Amherst secondary WWTP, the wastewater supply had to be re-built.  This required that new raw and primary piping had to be installed.  A pair of 4 inch PVC lines were laid between the new municipal plant and a newly constructed pump house on the UMass side of the fence.  In addition, a 2 inch PVC line was installed to provide secondary effluent to the new pump house.  For more on the 1978 WWPP design, click here.

Thus, for about a dozen years, the WWPP was fed by a continuous flow of raw, primary and eventually secondary municipal wastewater.  During this period, research was conducted on chemical nutrient removal, sludge treatment, biological nitrification-denitrification, and activated sludge treatment.  By the early 1980s, only the primary WW line was used.  The raw WW line frequently became plugged and may have been affected by plugging of the hydrosieve. By 1983 use of the pumped wastewater supply was completely discontinued.

Wastewater Pilot Plant – Inside Work Only: 1981-1986

With the departure of Enrique La Motta in 1980, Fran DiGiano in 1981, Tom Feng in 1982, and finally Dean Adrian in the summer of 1983, demand for some of the unique capabilities of the WWPP diminished.  Mike Switzenbaum was hired in the fall of 1981, but his research tended toward smaller bench-scale systems that could be conducted back in the EVE labs on the main campus. Nevertheless, the Butler building with its wet lab areas and proximity to the Amherst WWTP made it a convenient place for bench-scale work and some lab piloting.

For example, in November 1981, Ecolotrol Inc provided a skid mounted Hy-Flo pilot plant.  This was an anaerobic fixed-film fluidized bed reactor for anaerobic treatment of primary wastewater, used by the Switzenbaum group.  In the mid-1980s, this same group built a large incubator at the WWPP for a project with Argonne National Lab (DOE). They were using synthetic waste on a UASB pilot in the Butler building.

Non-CEE Research (1982-1990)

About 1982, the Chemical Engineering Department was given access to the Pilot Plant building by the Dean of Engineering.  The Chemical Engineering researchers were engaged in pyrolysis work (Biochars?) that were creating unwanted air contaminants in their normally-assigned lab spaces.  The WWPP seemed an ideal remote location where such nuisances would not be a problem.  The ChmE use of the building did not ultimately last very long. Nevertheless, the EVE group continued to use the pilot building for various purposes throught the 1980s. 

Then, in July 1988, Professor Peter Veneman began using the site for a USGS project on denitrification systems for on-site wastewater treatment.   Peter hired Eric Winkler for this work, and the treatment system used primary settled wastewater from the existing piping and pump system.  They constructed a 17x24 foot greenhouse (or Quonset hut) just northeast of the 1978 Pump House to house their reactors .  Outside the greenhouse was a 3780 L concrete septic tank and a 2300 L concrete WW wet well.  The system was located in a 4ft below grade excavation, and testing began in July 1989.  Peter and Eric’s work continued through the end of 1990. At the completion of the project, the greenhouse was removed and the tanks were crushed in place.

First Period of Inactivity (1990-1997)

At an EVE faculty meeting on March 27, 1989, it was decided that while the EVE group’s need for the WWPP was reduced, the Geotechnical engineering group would be granted shared use of the facility.  Almost immediately, Alan Lutenegger began using the site, including the Butler building.  At that point, Peter vacated the building retaining access only to the new pump house.  There he constructed a 35x25 ft greenhouse for his reaction vessels.  Alan and the geotech group probably only used the south side until 1997.

Geotechnical Research at the WWTP Site (1997-2010)

With the arrival of Carl Ho in the fall of 1996 and Jason DeJong in January 2002, the interest in using the WWPP site increased.  Carl began a project there on Soil Nail Retaining Walls (funded by FWHA) about 1997, followed by a rail GPR project (FRA) with Ernie Selig around 2000. Then, Jason started his drilled shaft project (NSF) about 2002.  More recently, Alan Lutenegger initiated a project on Mechanically-Stabilized Earth Wall Piers and another on Auger Anchors.

Second Period of Inactivity (2010-2015)

During this period the site was used for storage of large equipment, mostly from the geotechnical group.  There was no longer any attempt to keep the site clear of vegetation, as a result it became quickly overgrown.
Also during this period Dave Reckhow began planning for the WWPP to be returned to its original use.  The idea of using the WWPP came out of discussions Dave had with governmental officials at the May 8, 2012 SWIM meeting.  With the help of a group of water engineers and entrepreneurs, a plan was advanced to include funds for this work in the MA Environmental Bond Bill. 

Rebirth of the WWPP (2015-present)

In 2015 work began on renovating the old Butler building. With no real budget, it's progress relied almost entirely on "sweat equity" and dual use in collaboration with the EPA Center, WINSSS. Leading this effort was Patrick Wittbold, the WINSSS QC Manager. Finally, on February 24, 2017, municipal wastewater from the Amherst plant began circulating throught the facility, for the first time in more than 30 years.



Pre-Construction Drawings (January 1971):

Design Drawings for Research Buliding (May 1971):

New Davco Unit (Dec 1973):

Modifications (June 1975):

New Pump House (Nov 1978):


Additional Background:

The MDWPC grants were key to the early growth and success of the UMass Environmental Engineering Program. It supported a substantial expansion of the Master's program thereby helping to meet the growing regional and national need for environmental engineers. In addition, the MDWPC grants were instrumental in establishing the UMass Wastewater Pilot Plant (WWPP) on the west side of campus. With these funds, Dr. Gerald W. Foess was hired in June 1970 to serve as research coordinator for the MDWPC grants, and oversaw the design and construction of the WWPP. Following Jerry's departure in 1973, a series of Research Engineers were hired to help administer the MDWPC grants and to provide general laboratory assistance. Among these were Bob Pariseau, Jim Martel, Bill Evans, Kevin Sheehan and Dan Wagner.

Relevant Program Documents & Memos:



For more on EWRE Program history


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