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May 09

ESD lab protects public health and the Bay, one water sample at a time

Posted on May 9, 2018 at 2:19 PM by Aaron Kinney

One of the most important facilities in San José occupies 12,000 square feet of the Environmental Services Building, a two-story edifice on Zanker Road along the southeastern rim of San Francisco Bay.
Inside a network of brightly lit rooms, more than two dozen staff operate the laboratory of the San José-Santa Clara Regional Wastewater Facility (RWF), testing hundreds of water samples every day to ensure the quality of the wastewater treatment process and comply with state and federal regulations. 

A lab worker looks through a microscope.
A lab worker looks through a microscope at the Regional Wastewater Facility.

The lab’s skilled technicians test water samples for organic chemical compounds and a range of inorganic substances, including arsenic, mercury, lead and nickel. 

Their mission is to protect public health and the environment. Their success is evident in the lab’s sterling record of regulatory compliance and the thriving ecosystem of the southern Bay, which supports several dozen fish species and birds such as bald and golden eagles
“We’re very proud of the fact that we’re able to convert this wastewater into a product that is able to nourish all this life that’s out there by the outfall,” said Noel Enoki, director of the lab. “It’s amazing.”
The lab sits on the 2,600-acre grounds of the Regional Wastewater Facility, the largest advanced wastewater facility in the western United States. Both the RWF and the lab are operated by the San José Environmental Services Department (ESD). 
“They're hardly ever front and center, but they serve an essential function. They provide the foundation so that our operations and maintenance team (O&M) and engineers (CIP) and others can do their work,” ESD Director Kerrie Romanow said of the lab team. “They enable us to know that the treated wastewater we're discharging and the recycled water we're sending to golf courses and parks, where kids are playing and pets are running around, is safe.”
The rooms of the lab are filled with tubes, beakers, computers and an array of sophisticated equipment. The ICP mass spectrometer, for instance, heats plasma as high as 6,000 degrees to test for minute amounts of selenium, a trace element that is toxic in high concentrations.
The lab environment must be carefully maintained. Even the slightest contaminant can ruin a sample. Staff are constantly seeking ways to improve lab systems and make the facility more efficient.
“I enjoy the challenges of figuring things out, working with other people and learning from their experiences,” said Kim Nguyen, environmental lab supervisor. “Improving the lab is always a goal of mine: working on something, somehow improving it, and having the lab adopt it.”
Staff test approximately 50,000 wastewater samples per year. The lab also analyzes samples from ESD’s pretreatment, pollution prevention and South Bay Water Recycling programs. 
Enoki has been with the lab for 26 years, during which time the facility has likely conducted more than a million tests. As lab director, he sets high expectations.
“Water quality is our top priority,” said Enoki. “And the best way to gauge whether we’re reaching that goal is to provide the highest quality analytical services we can."