William D. Hatfield award winner Sue Baert succeeds with hard work, a winning management style, and extensive service to industry associations.
Sue Baert credits her husband, Dan, for gettinG HER into the wastewater treatment industry.
“I grew up on a Wisconsin farm, got my biology degree and worked in the lab at a cheese plant,” says Baert. “Then I met my future husband, who was from Illinois.” He showed her an ad for a lab technician at the Wheaton (Illinois) Sanitary District.
That was 27 years ago. She got the job, worked in the lab for 18 years, and worked up to wastewater treatment plant superintendent, a position she has held for seven years. Her experience and management skills served her well as she met challenges head on, from plant upgrades and staff training to learning the financial side of the business. She’s eager to share information with those who seek her advice.
Baert is grateful to her mentors, including lab manager Danette Stout, former plant superintendent Steve Bollweg, and executive director Steve Maney. Her biggest mentor, though, was former plant manager Bob Clavel. “He exposed me to many outside organizations by suggesting that I check out what they were doing in the wastewater field. He encouraged me to become involved with state and federal regulations by reviewing and submitting comments. But all my mentors let me grow and encouraged me to think outside the box.”
Baert received the 2016 William D. Hatfield Award from the Central States Water Environment Association (CSWEA); she was named Operator of the Year by the Illinois Association of Water Pollution Control Operators in 2014. She credits the plant’s solid compliance history, made possible by good design and a talented, proactive staff. She also credits her volunteer work as an executive board member of CSWEA and the DuPage River Salt Creek Workgroup.
The district’s activated sludge plant (8.9 mgd design/6.19 mgd average) serves about 63,000 customers in Illinois including Wheaton, southern Carol Stream, small portions of Glen Ellyn and Winfield, and unincorporated areas of DuPage County.
Archimedes screws carry the influent through 4 mm fine screens (Headworks International), followed by aerated grit chambers. Raptor units (Lakeside Equipment) wash and compact the screenings and grit. The flow moves on to four primary settling tanks and then to five aeration tanks with fine-bubble diffusers (Environmental Dynamics International) fed by a 200 hp blower (APG-Neuros).
After settling in four secondary clarifiers (Walker Process Equipment, A Div. of McNish Corp.), the water flows by gravity to eight Hydro-Clear sand filters (Evoqua Water Technologies), and is then pumped to a contact tank for sodium hypochlorite disinfection. The water is dechlorinated with sulfur dioxide gas and discharged to Spring Brook Creek. Effluent averages 1.9 mg/L BOD, 2.5 mg/L TSS and 0.42 mg/L ammonia nitrogen.
About 1 mgd of effluent is reused for pump and plant maintenance and for watering nearby golf courses. The waste activated and primary sludges are anaerobically digested. The resulting Class B biosolids are processed through centrifuges (Alfa Laval), stored on site and removed quarterly by contractor Stewart Spreading for application on farms.
The plant has been upgraded several times to meet environmental and water-quality standards. The most recent upgrade, in 2010, included new intermediate pumps (Lakeside Equipment) to convey flow seamlessly to the activated sludge process. LED lights (LED Rite) were installed throughout the plant, the aeration system was upgraded, and two backup diesel generators (500 kw Caterpillar and 350 kw Cummins) were added.
A staff of 24 keeps things running smoothly; 15 report to Baert, who manages operations, maintenance, and the lab. She also handles written and oral reports to the board of trustees, operational reports for process control, and U.S. EPA and Illinois EPA (IEPA) reporting. She ensures permit compliance and plant security and is the point person for keeping the district current with emerging technologies and best management practices.
Plant staff members are a mix of longtimers and recent hires. “I have a lot of young staff,” Baert says. “We hire people with no certification, and the more experienced employees train them.” A detailed document tells new hires what they need to know. Once they are comfortable with the procedures, they and their trainer sign off on it. New employees also use the California State University, Sacramento books and other study guides; they take classes at the Southern Illinois University Edwardsville Environmental Resources Training Center.
“We’ve had five retirements in the last six years and could have another five in the next five years,” Baert says. “So, we give tours and hire summer interns in the hopes that we will attract new staff as people retire.”
The operations staff covers the plant around the clock. An operator is at the plant from 6 a.m. to 6:30 p.m., and night watch is on duty in the remaining hours. Watch duties include sample collection, and buildings and grounds inspection and cleaning. The on-call operator can access the plant’s SCADA system via tablet.
“My staff is dedicated,” says Baert. “They are dependable, trustworthy and resilient. They work during rain events or failure issues and will still come back the next day for their regular shift.” Besides Baert, the plant’s staff includes:
- Operators Jeffrey Johnson, Philip Knight, Charles Black and Angelo Mistretta
- Watchman Terry Leggett and part-time watchmen Michael Heinz, Gary Almeroth and Jon Rusch
- Sewer inspector Stephen Beach
- Maintenance manager Dave Bullard and team members Rick Romani, Robert Vogel, Jason Ackmann and Zach Billings
- Lab manager Danette Stout and technician Shelley Jenks
- Administration: Steve Maney, executive director; Diana Soltess, manager; Michele Salami, billing specialist; Svetlana Denisov, accounting specialist; Scott Bobek, financial specialist; and Dan Rogers, IT.
The team has weathered some serious storms. In April 2013, Wheaton was declared a federal natural disaster area from excessive rain. Baert recalls, “The area lost power, as everything was underwater. We still have the 4-foot-high watermarks left on several of our buildings as a reminder. We rented generators to run the plant and within four hours had everything up and running again.”
Baert takes pride in delivering good-quality effluent and is especially proud of one project: “The district asked me to write a Quality Assurance Project Plan (QAPP) for stream sampling. This sampling was to be conducted upstream and several locations downstream, and included continuous dissolved oxygen monitoring. We were the second plant in the state to receive an IEPA-approved QAPP.” The plant team sampled from 2002 to 2008 and submitted a report every year to the IEPA before handing over the sampling sites to the Salt Creek Workgroup.
Managing people can be a challenge. “I’ve had to overcome the idea that everyone works at the same intensity that I do,” Baert says. “I have a Type A personality, and most of my staff is laid-back. I push buttons and change pumping rates and levels, and the staff can be a bit leery of doing something that I would naturally do. But I believe this gives us a good balance overall.”
It helps to have a sense of humor: “I can work well with difficult people. I was the youngest of seven kids, so I’m bolder and more accepting because of that.” She is pleased that her peers seek her out for advice. “I’ve received calls from people outside the plant asking my opinion on various equipment and standard operating procedures. I think it’s because I get exposure to other people’s issues through shared experiences at outside meetings.”
Her volunteer work with the CSWEA and the Salt Creek Workgroup has been rewarding. CSWEA includes water and wastewater professionals, consultants and students from Wisconsin, Illinois and Minnesota. The Salt Creek Workgroup was founded by wastewater professionals, environmental activists, scientists, regulators, city managers and consultants to improve water quality and stream morphology in the DuPage River watershed.
Baert spends about six hours a month working with the boards of both organizations to determine meeting agendas, budgets, and watershed remediation projects, and to stay current with U.S. EPA and IEPA regulations.
Baert is excited about upcoming plant upgrades. “We’re currently working on plans to replace the sand filters with disc filters and convert from sodium hypochlorite to UV,” she says. The disc filters will improve treatment capacity and reduce solids, fecal coliform and phosphorus loadings. She would like to stop using chlorine and SO2 and thus reduce chemical byproducts entering the creek. The disc filters will be online by 2019 and the UV system by 2020. “This is new technology for us, and learning the ins and outs should be exciting. Shortly after that, we will be evaluating biological nutrient removal processes.”
She also looks forward to learning more about the financial side of the business. “My boss, Steve Maney, has me doing more financial work, like state revolving loan applications and preparing the plant’s budget-setting rates and loan funding.”
Baert would welcome the challenge if a higher management position were to become available. In the meantime, she is content to “mother” her staff: “I consider them to be like family. One of my staff is retiring soon. He told me, ‘I’ll return if you need help, because you’ve had my back all these years, and I’ve got yours.’”
When Sue Baert goes on vacation, it’s a real one with no TV and limited cellphone access. “Every year, we go to the Upper Peninsula of Michigan at a lake resort,” says Baert. “The whole family goes — Dan, my husband of 27 years; my 17-year-old daughter; and my 20-, 21- and 23-year-old sons. We do a lot of swimming, boating, and various yard games during the day, and play board and card games in the evenings or if it rains.” Her husband’s family has been vacationing at the resort for more than 70 years.
Baert also enjoys movies, books and playing the dice game Bunco. “Once a month, I play bunco with seven ladies in their 70s, 80s and 90s. It keeps me connected with the community because they know who’s in town and what’s going on.”
She also volunteers at her church, counting the collections and cleaning. She admits to an obsession with the sudoku puzzle game and enjoys an occasional crossword puzzle. “It relaxes me, and I feel that I’m giving my brain some good exercise.”