A minimum-security prison’s treatment plant sends clean water to the environment and better people back into society
As certified operators at a wastewater treatment plant in Littlerock, Wash., Derek Williams and Anthony Nitsch are looking for new opportunities anywhere in the country. Their boss, Ed Burns, would be happy to see them leave his plant at the Cedar Creek Corrections Center and move into careers in the wastewater industry.
Williams and Nitsch are inmates at the Cedar Creek minimum-security prison southwest of Olympia. While incarcerated, both have earned their Group 2 Wastewater and Group I Water Distribution certificates.
Another inmate, Dustin Harris, just started the prison’s 4,000-hour operator’s course. Their hopes are to have a career in the field, just like the last inmate to leave the prison’s program. He is now running the treatment plant of a large Washington ski resort at a salary of $25 per hour, along with a house to live in and free lift tickets.
While learning, the inmates operate the prison’s 46,000 gpd activated sludge tertiary treatment plant under the leadership of plant manager Demar Holtz and two prison staff members, backup operator Steve Blahut, and Burns, the senior operator and trainer.
Built in 1991, the plant consists of a headworks, aeration basin, secondary clarifier, sand filter, cooling tower, two UV disinfection channels, and a digester. The plant staff talked about the treatment plant and the training program in an interview with Treatment Plant Operator.
TPO: Why offer a training course for wastewater operators?
Holtz: It’s part of our re-entry initiative to get these guys back into the community. Once they finish the program, inmates continue working at the plant until they qualify for work release or finish their sentence.
TPO: How is the plant staffed?
Holtz: We have two staff operators and three inmates. One staff operator is on call after normal hours. The inmates are the first responders during plant upsets.
TPO: What kind of treatment performance have you seen?
Holtz: We have no redundancy, but our operators have been able to operate it extremely well. We received the state Department of Ecology’s 100 Percent Wastewater Award in 1995, 1996, 2007, 2008 and 2009.
TPO: You also received acknowledgement for an emergency repair last summer?
Holtz: The operators did a critical and outstanding job alongside the contractors when we had to replace the aeration basin liner. We brought in a large tank to act as a waste holding tank and installed fine-bubble diffusers so the digester could be used as a temporary aeration basin. We bypassed the headworks and influent line to install two valves and an 8-inch line from the headworks to the digester and from the digester to the clarifier to isolate the aeration basin.
We then removed the single 30 mil liner and the underdrain system and installed two 60 mil liners with a mesh layer and leak detection, and a new underdrain system. The aeration basin replacement took 36 days and the entire project took three months. We met our permit requirements the entire time.
Nitsch: We also drained, cleaned, and inspected the clarifier while refilling the new aeration basin. And we replaced the variable-frequency drives, giving us control of RAS/WAS flow rates from the lab, which is better than trying to maintain flow manually from a valve at the pumps.
Williams: Earlier this year, we replaced our UV disinfection system with a slightly larger one, while keeping the same footprint. The new one gives a digital readout of the UV intensity, and an alarm to indicate when it drops below its set point.
TPO: Cedar Creek offers many vocational programs. Why did you, as inmates, pick wastewater?
Williams: I knew someone who had done this and saw the chance he had to make a change in his life and the type of money he can make. It was an opportunity to do something different with my life and become successful at something. I gain a sense of gratification in helping protect the world’s water and environment.
Nitsch: I’ve been locked up for more than 13 years, so I was looking for something to help me get back into the community. I just got my Operator 2 license and became eligible for work release, so I’ve applied at two plants.
Harris: It’s an industry that’s going to be here for a long time, and I wanted to have a career that would support my family in the long term.
TPO: With 480 inmates and only three positions available in the treatment plant, how are people selected?
Williams: There is an interview process when they need someone. If selected, you’re on a trial basis for the first month. If you do well, you start the Sacramento State University correspondence course to help you get a Group 1 certification. Since we also work with the water system, we have the opportunity to take the Waterworks Operator Certification exam.
TPO: What does the training program include?
Nitsch: The program offers three courses. It is recommended that we also take the Operation and Maintenance of Collection Systems course to give us a better understanding of the affect a collection system has on a treatment plant. We can, at our own expense, continue courses to help us take the Group II test. There are a lot of other study material and books available to us.
Williams: They give us hands-on experience in learning the entire process and teach us how to make decisions. We do everything from walk-throughs to laboratory tests such as TSS, VSS, settleometer, DO uptake, pH, BOD, fecal coliform, chlorine residual, and microorganism examination.
They teach us to interpret that data and apply it to process control. Ed Burns makes sure we understand the operation and maintenance of all the equipment, and we have the responsibility of maintaining it. The plant is susceptible to seasonal flow increases and upsets. We’re taught to recognize, understand, and deal with problems.
Harris: We receive a combination of schooling and on-the-job training. Being able to apply what we are taught helps us absorb the knowledge and understand the process.
TPO: Beyond running a wastewater plant, what have you learned?
Nitsch: How to approach studying and learning, and about taking responsibility. I’ve spent a lot of time preparing for release. Before I joined this program, I concentrated on trying to survive.
Before being locked up, I wasn’t concerned about much and wasn’t responsible for anything. I feel good about my chances of getting a job in wastewater, being responsible for myself and others around me, and being a productive member of society.
Williams: I didn’t have a lot of hope for my future. I’ve learned a lot about myself. It’s given me confidence in my ability to have a career, learn new skills, overcome my past, and become a positive member of society. I take pride in doing this.
Harris: Being new, I’m learning so much so quickly it’s hard to pinpoint. Definitely responsibility and working with others. Before going to prison, I graduated from community college and took a one-year carpentry program, but I never really knew what I wanted to do.
I was looking for something to better my future. It’s a wide open field with a lot of room for growth. I have three years left on my sentence, so I have plenty of time to obtain my Operator 2 certificate. I’d like to go all the way to an Operator 4. I’m excited about my future.
TPO: Why should a treatment plant hire people from this training program?
Burns: These inmates have worked hard to learn this trade and are treated as regular employees, expected to show up ready for work and to learn every day, weekends included, as if this were a regular job. They are not going to easily forfeit this hard work once released. I am confident they will work as hard for you as they have for me. These guys are not just worker bees; they know what they are doing.
Holtz: The program not only benefits the offenders, it’s a great benefit to the staff, the facility and our taxpayers. These guys perform a major responsibility at pennies on the dollar. There is a recognizable difference in them.
Blahut: Our inmates learn every process. I see them as they begin to appreciate our ecology and environment. Then they start seeing how it correlates with their social environment and start making personal changes.
Harris: Wastewater pays a lot less than most jobs around here, plus we have to study and take the courses. The people coming out of the program have a passion for this.
Williams: We’re not just felons. We’re people who are coming back into society. We’ve learned some good things and have a lot to offer. The past is the past and we’re trying to do something about our future.
Wastewater treatment plants can contact Holtz at 360/359-4141 for more information about the offender training program, work release opportunities, or hiring certified operators when they get out of prison.