Engineering alum helps solve water crisis using knowledge gained at Penn State

November 30, 2018

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — The knowledge Jon Dietz, a 2003 environmental engineering alumnus, gained while at Penn State has helped solve a potentially detrimental small-town water crisis in Louisiana. 

In December 2016, Louisiana state health officials sent out a public warning that nearly 22 percent of the buildings and homes in the town of St. Joseph had dangerously high levels of lead and iron in their tap water — the lead forming from a complex reaction with the iron in the drinking water.

“This was a major health issue and we had very little time to react,” Dietz said. “This was an extremely quick process.”

Bryant-Hammett & Associates, a Louisiana-based civil engineering company, sought out Dietz for his expertise in a specialized water treatment process that removes iron from water.

The chemical oxidation reaction, which Dietz researched while at Penn State, oxidizes dissolved iron using a process called Activated Iron Solids (AIS). In the AIS process, high concentrations of iron oxides are recirculated in the treatment system, and these high concentrations of AIS trap and oxidize the dissolved iron, forming new iron oxides.

Dietz indicated the AIS iron removal process takes minutes, instead of hours or days, and no other chemicals are needed in the process. Dietz has several patents regarding his AIS treatment process.

Dietz said his former professor Brian Dempsey, professor emeritus of environmental engineering, was the one who pushed him to obtain his doctorate and credits Dempsey with helping him develop the chemistry on which the AIS process is based.

St. Joseph was the first location in the U.S. that the AIS process was employed on a full-scale basis, and combined with other treatment processes, produces a clean potable water that is safe to drink, which Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards tasted during the inauguration of the new water treatment plant.

The water crisis is not something that St. Joseph faces alone, Dietz said. Many other rural towns in the deep South face aging water systems, as well. He hopes to work with the Louisiana state government over the next few years to implement his water treatment process to help other communities in need of better and safer drinking water.

While this work is important, one of Dietz’s overarching goals is to have his research and treatment processes utilized on a broader spectrum, whether in the deep South, along the Mississippi River, or in Penn State’s backyard, helping streams damaged by coal mine drainage.

He currently works as a consultant with Tetra Tech, an international multidisciplinary engineering company, where he designs treatment plants for contaminated water in Pennsylvania.

Most of his time is spent looking at coal mine drainage that impacts streams and rivers within the state, including the eastern anthracite and western bituminous regions of Pennsylvania.

The Department of Environmental Protection is currently funding restoration projects for a number of streams and rivers damaged from acid drainage from coal mines, and Dietz is helping to develop and design the treatment systems for several of these projects.

In his spare time, Dietz sits on the board of the University Area Joint Authority, which treats domestic wastewater in State College and the Centre region. It is through this endeavor that Dietz is helping to make local drinking water safer by focusing on the issues related to septic systems and their contaminants, which are affecting groundwater quality, the region’s main drinking water supply.

Overall, Dietz is adamant about taking the time to do research and work through projects the right way the first time, whether while seeking a degree or working in a professional setting.

“Always do your homework,” Dietz said. “Solid research and hard work will never let you down.”

  • Gov. Edwards speaking at press conference.

    Gov. John Bel Edwards holds a press conference. The Activated Iron Solids (AID) pretreatment systems can be seen behind him.

    IMAGE: Penn State

(Media Contacts)

Last Updated December 03, 2018