Altus Environmental Team use microbes to filter ground water

  • Published
  • By Airman 1st Class Breanna Klemm
  • 97th Air Mobility Wing Public Affairs Office

Water filtration is the process in which impurities and other elements found in water are removed through a biological process. A water filter can be used for many different reasons as water is not all intended for drinking.

Locally, the City of Altus obtains its drinking water from the Tom Steed Reservoir where it is filtered before ready to drink. The 97th Air Mobility Wing additionally maintains its own water filtration system on base specifically designed for ground water, or rather, water not intended for consumption. Located more than 30 feet underground, these large water filters, known as bio walls, use naturally found microbes to purify manmade chemicals from the ground water at Altus Air Force Base, Okla.

In the 1950’s environmental standards were different and did not require the rules which are enforced today. Since then, Airmen from the 97th AMW Environmental Team have worked toward creating a cleaner environment by removing chemicals that remain in the soil.

In 2007, the environmental team took the first step in improving groundwater quality by building bio walls and bioreactors to filter out harmful chemicals. Today, the team still continues to filter the contaminated groundwater in the most resourceful and effective way.

“The Air Force is required to address the environmental statues on each base, but Altus has an advantage with its approach,” said Mary Bitney, the Altus AFB Remedial Project Manager. “We are addressing the requirement to clean up the ground water in such a way that have achieved this process in the most overall and cost effective way. In some aspects, we are doing a better job of cleaning the water than a different system would.”

A bio wall is a simple concept with an effective outcome. Essentially a large trench filled with gravel, a bio wall carries natural materials which act as an underground water filtration system. A bioreactor is the result of adding naturally found microorganisms, or microbes, to the bio wall. This in turn removes potentially harmful chemicals, specifically chlorine, from the ground water while leaving the naturally found elements.

“The purpose of the bio wall is to degrade the manmade contaminates currently found in the groundwater and break them down into naturally found elements,” said Bitney. “The bio walls act like a big water filter that is 30 feet underground. As the water flows through the wall, we are purifying it from the potentially harmful chemicals that were put in the ground a long time ago.”

The 97th AMW began the process of groundwater filtration 13 years ago as a pilot project. Charles Butchee, the restoration program manager at the time, saw how effective the results of the bioreactors were and began the construction project of base bio walls. The base environmental team built a combined total of one-mile worth of bio walls and reactors spread across the south side of base.

The walls were specifically placed through the natural flow of groundwater so as water slowly flows through the walls, contaminates are filtered out. Although it may seem tedious, according to the Altus AFB Environmental Team, this process is the most cost effective and successful way of removing manmade chemicals from the ground water.

Every microbe adapts to the specific areas it is in. The microbes found inside the bioreactors here are unique to Altus because they have adapted to the high salt levels naturally found in the soil. Since this adaption, microbes are in the perfect living condition to thrive in the water, while easily removing the chlorine.

“Not all species of microbes will do this, they all have different appetites and living requirements,” said Bitney. “Some organisms may filter the water like ours currently are, but they won’t survive for long. Luckily, the microorganisms naturally found in the ground here have adapted in such a way to thrive in the bioreactors. They are the reason we are able to degrade chlorine from the water.”

After 13 years of being installed, one bioreactor has filtered more than one million gallons of ground water. Although it takes time until the ground water has been completely purified, the 97th AMW continues to work towards a cleaner future by taking preventive measures in the present.