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October 15, 2022

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‘Sludge treatment master’ safeguards Shanghai’s environment

YANG Xulei safeguards the last defensive line of Shanghai’s water environment by dealing with the large amount of sewage produced in the megacity every day.

The 40-year-old sludge treatment director of the sprawling Bailonggang Sewage Treatment Plant, which handles about a third of Shanghai’s daily sewage, is titled the “sludge treatment master” by his colleagues.

He has been overseeing the sludge digestion, drying, deep dehydration and incineration at the plant since the initial phase of the project was launched in 2011.

Yang was elected as a member of the 12th CPC Shanghai Committee in June, and will attend the 20th National Congress of the Communist Party of China in Beijing this weekend.

“I learnt from the meeting that Shanghai’s air and water qualities have reached the best recorded level ever and I’m proud to be part of the water treatment campaign,” Yang said.

“I will focus on the benefit of industrial workers and send the messages from the congress to my peers.

“As a grassroots CPC member, I will keep my original aspiration in mind and contribute to the nation’s ecological civilization construction.”

He joined the Party in November 2007.

“As a delegate of the 20th National Congress of the CPC, I will actively offer advice and suggestions for the Party construction and strive to make a good voice for other grassroots industrial workers,” he added.

Bailonggang, in Pudong’s Heqing Town on the coast of Yangtze River, is Asia’s biggest sewerage plant. It handles more than 2.8 million cubic meters of sewage every day and serves over 10 million citizens mainly in Shanghai’s Xuhui, Jing’an, Huangpu and Minhang districts as well as the Pudong New Area.

More than 1.1 billion tons of waste water is treated at the plant every year, equivalent to the size of 82 West Lakes in neighboring Hangzhou.

Before the plant was built a decade ago, most of the city’s sludge was disposed of by sanitary landfill, which was unsustainable and would cause environmental problems.

Upon the completion of the plant, Yang received his first mission to lead about 100 young mechanics to take over the complicated sludge treatment systems from German experts.

He stayed at the plant to study the intricate pipes and equipment during the day, while researching the design chart and instructions for the imported systems at night.

Under his leadership, the team, which had zero experience on sewage treatment, managed to operate the eight sludge digestion tanks, three drying and 26 deep dehydration systems separately in a year.

Yang even modified some designs of the foreign equipment to improve the efficiency, while reducing the high operational cost and labor forces required.

During the dehydration process, for instance, he inserted a tube into the sludge transmission pipe to mix the reagent into the sewage more equably. The innovative measure has helped to increase the treatment capacity by 25 percent.

Yang has a notebook with more than 1,000 pages of handwriting notes about the plant’s operations and ideas for improvement, which has won him 11 national patents and two gold, five silver and five bronze city-level medals for outstanding inventions.

These inventions have helped the plant save up to 42 million yuan (US$5.9 million) in the past decade.

With the opening of upgrading and reconstruction project of the plant in late 2019, Yang felt like returning to the old days a decade ago. The new phase of the project, covering 70,000 square meters, equivalent to 10 standard football pitches, features one of the world’s largest sludge incineration systems.

It includes some new techniques on the centrifugal dehydration, sludge desiccation and incineration processes. It can handle 451 tons of dried sludge every day.

To better learn the operation of the new project, Yang led his team to follow the whole construction process from when the first pile was laid to the installation of each equipment. Yang said everyone in his team had touched each pipe of the complicated system that they would operate in future.

Yang kept putting forward creative ideas for the new system. A dust container on the bottom of the boilers, for instance, has been modified to effectively reduce the flying dust during sludge incineration.

During Shanghai’s COVID-19 resurgence early this year, Yang voluntarily stayed in the factory for more than two months from March 16 to ensure the sewage treatment of the city

After the citywide lockdown was imposed, only a third of workers were allowed to stay, but the workload had barely been reduced.

Yang and his colleagues had to wear hazmat suits, goggles and masks .

“The temperature could exceed 40 degrees Celsius near the incinerator, making all clothes wet in hazmat suit every two hours,” he recalled.

A malfunction occurred in early April during the peak of the city’s pandemic. A water pipe was jammed that affected the operation of the sludge incinerators. Due to the lockdown, maintenance workers could not enter the plant, so Yang had to fix the problem on his own.

Li Xinggang, a colleague of Yang, recalled the department director climbed into the pipes with a detecting instrument and quickly found out the key issues of the problem.

“He was covered by dust and black oil when climbing out from the equipment and told us the problem can be fixed,” Li said.

Yang led his team to work overnight for two days to adjust the valves and restore the stable operation of the incinerators.

Water pollution was once an eyesore of Shanghai during the rapid industrial and urban development. The Suzhou Creek that runs across the city’s downtown was murky and smelly.

The city government launched a clean-up campaign from the 1990s to purify the waterways. One of the key projects was to build separate sewerage pipelines to prevent dirty water from flowing to the water.

The Bailonggang sewerage plant was built to treat the waste water and sludge, before discharging it to the sea.

At the extensive plant in Pudong, pipes, workshops and treatment silos are working quietly with no smell. Few workers are visible apart from some gardeners and cleaners.

Yang said the plant needs more workers with most of the new recruits graduates from local vocational schools.

To develop a professional team rapidly, Yang established an innovation workshop. He gives lectures to the freshmen, guides them to operate equipment and encourages scientific innovation.

The talent studio named after Yang has trained 13 professional technicians and 36 senior masters who have won a number of city-level awards.

Some professionals were invited to guide the operations at the sewerage plants in other Chinese cities such as Zhengzhou in central Henan Province and Zhangzhou in southeast Fujian.

After the COVID-19 outbreak in 2020, Yang’s workshop often organizes online training sessions for the young workers by video conference with German experts.

Yang began working on sewage treatment with Shanghai Chengtou Water Group after graduating from the Shanghai Drainage Technical School in 2002. The Shanghai native grew up at his grandma’s home near the Suzhou Creek, which was murky and stink when he was young.

“I was attracted by a pumping station along the creek and watched the ups and downs of the dam almost every day,” Yang recalled.

He determined to choose water treatment as his profession at that time to realize the dream to purify the creek, which was an important part of his childhood.

He was assigned to Bailonggang on the Valentine’s Day in 2008, a date that Yang said he would remember forever because the sewage treatment is kind of a “life-long Valentine” to him.

“I always tell young colleagues that urban sewage treatment is a promising career, especially under the nation’s ecological civilization construction campaign,” Yang said.

“We’re contributing to the blue sky, green land, pure water and fresher air of Shanghai every day.”


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