A pilot treatment plant at Southern Illinois University-Edwardsville gives operator candidates the ultimate in hands-on instruction.


Imagine showing up at your treatment plant in the morning and finding your process completely out of kilter. It's no way to start your day, but it can happen, and knowing how to react when it does is part of being a quality operator.

Prospective and experienced operators at the Southern Illinois University – Edwardsville (SIUE) Environmental Resources Training Center (ERTC) get to experience genuine plant upsets as part of their training. That's because the Water Quality Control operator training program there includes use of a training-scale activated sludge treatment plant. It gives operators the ultimate in hands-on practice in a controlled environment where a plant upset poses no risk to receiving waters.

Paul Shetley directs the ERTC, and Rick Lallish directs the water pollution control program. Lallish is a Class 1 (highest) Illinois wastewater operator and is also operator in charge of the 0.4 mgd SIUE campus wastewater treatment plant, which for 2011 won the Treatment Plant of the Year Award for activated sludge plants under 1 mgd from Illinois Association of Water Pollution Control Operators.

Related: In My Words: Partners in Training

Shetley and Lallish talked about their training program and the pilot plant in an interview with Treatment Plant Operator.

What’s the history of the ERTC?

Shetley: Before the training center existed, professors in our School of Engineering trained wastewater operators. Federal money became available in about 1975 to establish a training center in each state. The university had the
foresight to pursue those funds and establish a training center here. The building was in place by 1979, and they were
doing training for operators in the field and getting the faculty lined up. In fall 1981, they started the one-year training course that is now the backbone of our program.

Is this training center solely for wastewater operations?

Shetley: It’s 50-50 between wastewater and drinking water. Another important part of our mission is cross-connection control with backflow devices. We are the only ones in Illinois who can certify a licensed plumber or water operator to perform cross-connection control device inspections.

Related: In My Words: Closing the Deal

How is the center staffed?

Shetley: We have five full-time instructors and several adjunct instructors — people who work or have worked in the field and teach classes for us. We have a program director for drinking water, who is Barb Woods, director of operations Kim Bateman, and lab director Dave Wesselmann. Rick Lallish is our director on the wastewater side, and Kurt Neuhaus is the hands-on instructor for the treatment plant. Our coordinator for student registration is Marci Webb.

What does the wastewater course curriculum look like?

Lallish: Our primary offering is the one-year operators’ course, in which we teach 25 to 30 students each year. It’s a two-semester course that starts with basic wastewater and progresses through lagoons, fixed-film and
activated sludge treatment. We also teach sludge handling, biosolids land application, collection systems, confined-space safety, and wastewater math. The course prepares students for Class 4 Illinois and Class D Missouri wastewater certification.

How does the center serve operators already working in the field?

Lallish: We provide training to help them earn higher levels of licensing and provide any further education they need, whether water or wastewater. We set up one- and two-day courses, and we also offer two five-day short schools, one in the northern part of the state and one here at Edwardsville. For the five-day courses, we bring in operators from all over the state and have breakout classes. We hold separate sessions for Class 1, Class 2, Class 3 and Class 4 operators, directed toward their licensing needs.

Related: On Tap: Small Systems, Big Resource

Tell us about the pilot wastewater treatment plant.

Lallish: It’s a 30,000 gpd activated sludge aeration plant inside our building. We also maintain a four-cell rotating biological contactor fixed-film system. We can operate the two in series or in parallel, or operate them completely separate from each other. The students set up the piping for each system as needed. If we want to change the piping from one tank to another, we teach the students how to do it. They do all the work. We also have two secondary clarifiers, holding tanks, and a pilot-size UV system where we train for disinfection. We operate it with training bulbs — we’re not actually doing full disinfection for safety reasons.

How exactly do you use the plant for instruction?

Lallish: During the first semester I bring the plant up online, start the bugs, get it running, and show the students how to do the day-to-day operation. At the end of the first semester, we take the plant completely down. When the students return for second semester I oversee them and they bring it back up on their own.

Where does the influent for this plant come from?

Shetley: When they designed this building, they located it about 200 yards and uphill from SIUE’s own wastewater treatment plant. We have two sump pumps at the plant, and two 6-inch PVC lines supply our influent. We get water as it comes out of the plant’s primary clarifiers, and we can also get water as it comes out of the secondary clarifiers before it goes to the tertiary filters.

Subscribe: If you don't want to bring your iPad into the bathroom, we can send you a magazine subscription for free!

Lallish: We pump the wastewater up here, run it through the pilot plant, and discharge the effluent right back down to the headworks of the SIUE plant.

What sort of aeration process is used in the pilot plant?

Lallish: We have both a centrifugal blower and a positive displacement blower, which we operate alternately. In the basin we run both coarse- and fine-bubble diffusers. I train the operators how to work with each one, how to recognize which one is in operation, and which one gives better dissolved oxygen. For pumping return activated sludge (RAS) out of the clarifiers, we run both a positive displacement pump and a diaphragm pump, and we alternate between those, as well.

Does the pilot plant have a solids process?

Lallish: We run the solids through an aerobic digester. We don’t have the capability for any other solids treatment at this time. One of the goals we have is to acquire a centrifuge or a gravity belt thickener for training purposes. We show the students how aerobic digestion works, and when they start seeing solids reduction, we release the material back to the SIUE plant. We also take them to the SIUE plant and show them the anaerobic digester there, so they get a bit of insight on how that’s run.

Subscribe: Save the trees for beavers, sign up for our E-Newsletter!

What about instrumentation and laboratory facilities?

Lallish: We have inline DO meters, but otherwise we do most measurements manually. We hope in the future to have a SCADA system, but we’re not there yet. We have an incredible wastewater lab fully set up for DO, BOD, TSS, fecal coliform, nitrogen, phosphorus and COD. For microscopic examination, we have that set up to display on a flat-screen TV monitor. One student can be looking in the microscope and everybody else can see what’s going on. That’s really a great teaching tool. For any typical lab analysis that a wastewater operator would do out in the field, we have the facilities here. Students spend about one four-hour class a week strictly on lab work.

How do you acquire the equipment for the pilot operation?

Lallish: Most of it we have purchased with our own funds. We try to buy what we can afford and what is best on the market. The UV system was donated to us from a state park that was renovating its wastewater treatment plant and didn’t need it anymore. We cleaned it up and fixed what needed to be repaired.

Are the students required to make the plant comply with any specific effluent limits?

Lallish: Because we discharge to the SIUE treatment plant, we don’t need an actual NPDES permit, but I have the students run off a permit I created based on the Illinois EPA’s model. I took the permit for the SIUE plant and used the same parameters for the pilot plant. They submit a Daily Monitoring Report based off that permit. The effluent limits are 12 mg/L monthly average and 24 mg/L daily maximum for TSS, 10/20 for BOD, 3/6 for nitrogen, pH 6-9, and DO a minimum of 6 mg/L. They also have to maintain a 0.5 mg/L daily maximum chlorine residual.

What kinds of things do you do to make plant operation challenging?

Lallish: The students aren’t in attendance on Mondays, so while they’re gone I like to introduce some kind of upset, so that on Tuesday when they come in, they have to figure out what is wrong with the plant. If they operate a plant that’s running perfectly all the time, they’re not going to learn as much. This way they see a plant that has some kind of abnormal condition, and they learn to troubleshoot it and get it back to running properly. I might turn off the RAS pumps for the weekend, or turn the RAS pumps up to double what they’re normally set it. That has a major effect on the mixed liquor suspended solids. I might turn the aerators down to almost the minimum and upset the plant that way. Whatever I can come up with that’s a nice way to challenge them.

What career path led you to your current position?

Lallish: I’ve been in the wastewater business since 1994, and I’ve maintained my Class 1 license since 2000. I came here to the ERTC to take night courses, short schools and correspondence courses. I worked for the City of Greenville (Ill.) for 14 years, operating their 1.5 mgd Class 1 plant. I came here for the challenge of caring for the operators and meeting their training needs, and as a way to improve myself and become a better operator. I firmly believe that if you’re teaching people, you’re training yourself. I love what I do. I’ve got a great plant to run and a great network of operators and friends all over the state and beyond. I tell the operators who attend my workshops and classes that I work for them. I make it clear that my phone is always available, my door is always open, and I’m more than happy to help them anytime, anyplace.

What does the future hold for the ERTC wastewater program?

Lallish: We’ve looked into the possibility of online training. We have a really good correspondence setup, and we’re looking to make that better. We’re always looking for different courses that we could offer around the state.

Shetley: We want to get deeper into the industrial side of wastewater. Illinois has a separate industrial wastewater license, and there’s a lot to do in industrial pretreatment. We’re trying to satisfy that need for training with some new adjunct instructors. We’re proud of the training center. We think it’s a unique place. Anyone who has ever taken training here, if they had the chance to come and work here, there is no way they would turn it down. Most of the people who work here are past students. It’s a heck of a nice place to work.


Related Stories

Want more stories like this? Sign up for alerts!