Falling Into the Wastewater Treatment Field and Learning on the Job

August 20, 2013


Operators must choose the profession and prepare to run our facilities of the future

Working in the wastewater field often is the result of serendipity rather than career planning. Yet engineers and operators in the field often stay for a career lifetime.

I have worked in the wastewater field for 40 years. That’s a lot of wastewater aerated, clarified, filtered, and disinfected before being discharged — unrecognized and unappreciated by water consumers — into a receiving stream and passing under the proverbial bridge. But I was hired into the wastewater business without previously seeking it out as a career or taking specific academic courses to prepare me for the job.

I graduated in 1972 with a bachelor of science degree from the University of Guelph (Ontario) into a recession-plagued economy. My degree provided academic training in microbiology, chemistry, and experimental techniques. In early 1973, I was encouraged by a friend to apply for a job in the Ontario Water Resources Commission’s research and development group. Even without having taken a single course specifically addressing wastewater treatment, I was hired.

The research and development  group was divided into water and wastewater divisions, with a clear distinction between the two. The former was perceived as “favored,” as it dealt with potable water, while wastewater was viewed as a less desirable field. I had been chosen to work in wastewater — as I found out when sheets of data were placed on my desk for my first assignment. I was to produce trend analyses on wastewater process parameters, such as 5-day biochemical oxygen demand, suspended solids, and phosphorus across a number of treatment-plant influent and effluent studies.

I conducted field work, participating in research projects to improve secondary effluent, precipitate phosphorus in municipal wastewater lagoons, and experiment with tertiary filtration. And with only an introductory understanding of treatment, I taught course work primarily to experienced wastewater operators. What I learned from teaching is that a large number of the operators I met were terrified of basic arithmetic, a condition that I think is still characteristic of many operators today. The black plague would have been more palatable to them.

During the next 3 years, I was privileged to work with some of the best engineers and technologists in the business. The education, training, and mentoring I received from these top-notch professionals helped me become hired as superintendent of the City of Barrie, Ontario, wastewater plant.

City of Barrie operators could take apart a secondary clarifier with a damaged flight in the middle of a winter storm, put it back together, and have us fully operational again with little help from me. But ask them for a specific oxygen uptake rate or a microscopic examination of the plant’s activated sludge for indicator organisms, and they were lost.

John Seldon, WEF Member and Founder of Temporary Operations and Maintenance Inc.

Photo courtesy of John Seldon.

Photo courtesy of John Seldon.

John Seldon, a Water Environment Federation (WEF; Alexandria, Va.) member since 1980, is founder and president of Temporary Operations and Maintenance Inc. (Port Burwell, Ontario) and a principal of Envir-O-Site Inc. (Sarnia, Ontario). During his career, Seldon has focused on optimizing municipal and industrial solids collection and dewatering systems.

Since entering the wastewater field in 1973, Seldon has

  • developed and taught courses for wastewater treatment operators;
  • published articles and research reports on various topics, such as biosolids, regulations, and operations;
  • presented research at many industry events;
  • worked as technical support superintendent, in wastewater equipment sales, and as project manager;
  • joined the Canadian Institute of Planners (Ottawa), Ontario Professional Planners Institute (Toronto), and Ontario Association of Certified Engineering Technicians and Technologists (Etobicoke, Ontario);
  • became a certified engineering technologist and registered professional planner;
  • obtained certification in environmental assessment; and
  • earned a master’s degree in regional planning and resource development.
In the 1970s, I found that wastewater operators came from other walks of life and often ended up at the one location where no one else wanted to work. A major reality check came with the realization that many of the operators, in spite of numerous training certificates found covering the administration building’s walls, did not know the basic process parameters for operating a conventional activated sludge facility, from sampling to calculating coagulant dosage rates.Although the operators performed a modicum of typical process tests, they did not generate a useful summary of the data, such as a trend analysis, or even have a practical sense of the results’ relevance. After I began completing a daily and monthly summary as part of a daily review of operational data, operators did not understand the reason for this action. The operators did not question the data or seek to use it to interpret how well the facility was operating.

This experience introduced me to a major divide in municipal wastewater treatment operations. One group, the mechanics, carried out mechanical-level process changes, based on the manager’s direction, to perform repair and maintenance. The second group, the process operators, used the facility’s basis of design values to evaluate the ongoing performance and suggest the mechanical changes needed for necessary adjustments. Communication on process parameters always came from the top-down.

Even though I was hired into the wastewater business without specific experience in the field, I believe that we must now actively seek out individuals who wish to make wastewater treatment a first choice of career. I am advocating hiring only those who seek out this career field and who have trained for it.

A wastewater operator carries the primary responsibility of protecting our receiving streams, our potable drinking water quality sources, from contamination. Because of this enormous responsibility, these individuals must be fully capable of operating all aspects of their facilities. This requires operators to complete the educational criteria to qualify themselves in this discipline and have secured appropriate credentials from reputable professional organizations.

John Seldon, WEF Member

Print Friendly, PDF & Email
, ,

Comments are closed.