Clinton Wastewater Treatment Plant superintendent John Riccio fosters excellence in his operations team — and it paid off during a major emergency in March 2010.


When the going gets tough, the tough get going. That's what John Riccio and his staff did when their plant flooded in March 2010. Riccio, superintendent of the Massachusetts Water Resources Authority (MWRA) wastewater treatment plant in Clinton, Mass., remembers it well.

"A bad storm caused a huge increase in influent flows, made worse by the South branch of the Nashua River overflowing its banks," Riccio says. "At one point, the influent wet well elevation rose so rapidly that the pumps couldn't keep up."

Riccio's team kept the plant running, and processed 6 to 7 million gallons of the estimated 20 mgd influent flow. His performance in this crisis was the main reason he won the New England Water Environment Association (NEWEA) Operator of the Year award.

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The flood was just one of the challenges Riccio has conquered in his 33 years as a water professional. Besides the NEWEA award, he won the 1992 MWRA Excellence in Performance award. To recognize excellence in his own team, Riccio established the plant's Stellar Award, which has been a great staff motivator.

Lifelong career

A lover of animals and science, Riccio first planned to become a veterinarian and earned a bachelor's degree in biology from the University of Massachusetts, Boston. He decided on a different path after a veterinary program admissions process steered him toward laboratory work. He landed at the Metropolitan District Commission (MDC) Water Quality Laboratory in Somerville, Mass., and then the MDC Laboratory at Deer Island in Boston.

"When I was out at the Deer Island wastewater plant taking samples alongside operators, I decided that I wanted to get out of the laboratory and work at an actual treatment plant," he says. He worked in the industrial pretreatment program, the operations department and the environmental quality department at the MWRA headquarters in Boston before being promoted to superintendent at Clinton in 1996.

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He is glad he chose the wastewater field: "I love the variety. I can watch the maintenance guy work on a pump, or I can talk to an operator about sludge/chemical issues, or I can work on planning and budgeting for equipment upgrades."

Advanced treatment

The Clinton plant serves the towns of Clinton and Lancaster. Designed for 3.0 mgd, it sees an average flow of 2.7 mgd and a peak of 12 mgd. The plant started as a pump station in 1896 and was upgraded to secondary treatment after World War II. The MWRA took over the plant in 1987, and by 1992 it had new primary, secondary and advanced treatment processes.

Major equipment includes a bar rack and grit system (Infilco Degremont), four primary clarifiers (FMC), four trickling filters and three intermediate lift pumps (Siemens Water Technologies), six aeration tanks (Case/Cotter), three clariflocculators and two gravity thickeners (Ovivo), two digesters with Komline-Sanderson pumps, two belt filter presses (Ashbrook) and chemical pumps (Milton Roy).

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Discharge is to the South Nashua River. Dewatered biosolids are trucked to an 8.4-acre MWRA-owned landfill. Riccio's team operates the landfill, about 3.5 miles away. The plant is scheduled for upgrades to some equipment, including:

Digester rehabilitationAn energy-efficient diffused air activated sludge systemNew influent and intermediate lift station pumpsInstrumentation and control coordination for pumps and aeratorsPrimary clarifier rehabilitationPhosphorus treatment disc filtration system and pump station

Winning team

Riccio's duties include setting operation and maintenance procedures, training, reviewing plans and specifications for new projects, budgeting, reviewing compliance and process data, and handling outside service contracts. Since the plant has no plumber, electrician or groundskeeper, Riccio hires contractors for that work. He reports to the MWRA Deer Island director, and supervises eight employees:

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Administrative assistant Jane Densmore (4 years at the plant)Area manager Robert Gorham, Grade 7 wastewater license (42 years)Area supervisors George Poske (26 years) and Paul Stanton (21 years), both Grade 6Operator Larry Thomas, Grade 7 (23 years)Maintenance and operation specialists Jeff Stanton (14 years) and David Miniscalco, Grade 2 (1 year)Facilities specialist Mike Amirault (5 years)

Lab chemists, Jeffrey Ferber (25 years) and Jeanette Spero (new) report to the MWRA central laboratory. The plant is staffed from 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. with an alarm system that dials the on-call operator after hours.

"Bob and George oversee the plant's day-to-day operation," says Riccio. "My management style is to empower them to do their job. A manager is only as good as the players on the team, so I let them do what they do best."

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This style has paid off. His team won the EPA New England Operations and Maintenance Excellence award in 1996, the MWRA Excellence in Performance award in 2001, and the National Association Clean Water Agencies Gold Award in 2004.

"My team is special because they are committed to their jobs and have the desire to improve themselves," says Riccio. "They take pride in the fact that they can operate all the processes in the plant, including laboratory process tests, dewatering equipment and chemical feed equipment, and see improvements from one process to another."

Upgrade challenges

The team plans to install two influent gates that will allow operators to throttle incoming flow if flooding occurs again. "Our biggest issue is flow," Riccio says. "We often exceed our 3.0 mgd limit. It would be ideal if our permit was for 3.6 or 3.7, but the EPA won't allow it because the available dilution in the south branch of the Nashua River is not enough to support additional flow."

The MWRA is negotiating a new permit that will require stricter phosphorus limits — decreasing from 1.0 mg/L to 0.15 mg/L. That will require up to $4 million in new processes and equipment.

Riccio worked with Parviz Amirhor and Carina Hart of Fay, Spofford and Thorndike (FS&T) to pilot-test a new disc filtration process with tertiary coagulation and flocculation. "This new process had never been used for phosphorus reduction," Riccio says. "We tested it over five weeks with different chemicals, such as ferric chloride, alum and polymers, to certify that the technology could meet our new proposed permit limits."

The study concluded that the technology consistently achieves 0.10 to 0.15 mg/L of total phosphorus. Tertiary coagulation and flocculation upstream of the disc filter are needed to achieve those results.

"Once the new permit is issued, we have four years to meet the new phosphorus limit — one year for the study, one for design and two for construction," says Riccio. "We are now in the preliminary design phase, and the design package will go out to bid." The plant will add another pump station and operator. The operations and maintenance staff will be trained on the new equipment by the vendor and, if necessary, an outside trainer.

Equipment rehabilitation

Riccio and his team are challenged with running the plant while equipment is rehabilitated. For example, while the plant spends a year renovating a digester, only one digester is operating.

"The operators stopped digester feeding 30 to 45 days before the contractor vented and drained the system," says Riccio. "They isolated the sludge lines to the digester and blind-flanged the methane gas lines, which fully isolated the digester for safe cleaning and inspection before rehabilitation." Once the renovation is complete, operators will do the same thing with the second digester.

Another major project is rehabilitating the primary sedimentation tanks, as the concrete has deteriorated over the past 50 years. Contractors will remove 18 inches of deteriorated concrete before replacing internal equipment and chemically lining the tanks.

"The operators will prepare the tanks to be taken out of service by isolating them and washing them down," says Riccio. "We will plan when this work can be performed, preferably during the low-flow, dry season."

Riccio typically starts his day by meeting with the area manager and senior operator to review the maintenance plan for the day and coming week. In the late afternoon, the three regroup and discuss what happened during the day. "I try to walk around the plant every day to observe the operations. When I see the operators working on a project, I praise them and ask how things are going," he says.

Stellar Awards

"My team likes new challenges, and they aren't shy about expressing ideas for improvements. If a staff member does an outstanding job on a project, or has a really great idea, they are eligible for the plant's Stellar Award," says Riccio.

The award identifies employees whose work or ideas improve the treatment plant process or maintenance efficiency. Riccio, Gorham and Poske judge each idea on its merits. The Stellar Award winner gets a certificate during a staff luncheon with food of his or her choice, for which Riccio pays. A notice of the award with the recipient's photo is posted on the front entrance bulletin board.

The staff luncheon fosters camaraderie. "They really have a good time," says Riccio. "It reinforces that we all work for the same place and enjoy each other's company." Four team members have won awards since January 2010, and the entire team won for its work during the 2010 floods.

Operator Larry Taylor was the first recipient. His idea for a temporary soda ash system pump modification eliminated overflows from the soda ash slurry tank and helped to resolve higher-than-normal influent pH. Paul and Jeffrey Stanton won for their work on realigning and repairing the gravity thickener skimmer arm.

"Paul and Jeff realigned and welded the support arm, support pole and the skimming mechanism," says Riccio. "This was critical for proper flushing of the skimming trough, which had been clogging. The repair eliminated the clogging problem and saved many man-hours involved in clearing blockages."

Future plans

Riccio isn't planning any career changes, except to get better at reviewing engineering plans and specifications.

"I loved the phosphorus treatment pilot studies, because I could see the process and touch the equipment while reviewing the performance data from the laboratories," he says. "I like to watch and see, rather than study." He also wants to improve his understanding of government procurement and bidding.

As for the future, Riccio has thought about teaching when he retires. "When I got out of college, I was a substitute middle school science teacher, and I liked that," he says. "Then again, I may want to lie on the beach for a while and do absolutely nothing!"


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