Taking Ownership

Pete Baranyai takes intense pride in the East Chicago treatment plant and what it has done to improve water quality in his home community

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Growing up in East Chicago, Ind., Pete Baranyai sometimes saw snow tinted orange or blackened with soot from particulate matter released by the area’s steel mills and oil refineries. Water resources were no better: The Grand Calumet River flowed heavily polluted through the city. And toxic waste products fouled the industrial sites.

Today, Baranyai is director of operations at East Chicago Sanitary District Wastewater Treatment Plant, which for 22 years has helped the river recover. The plant’s tertiary-treated water runs so clean that each fall, spawning chinook from Lake Michigan swim up the earthen effluent channel and all the way into the disinfection contact chamber.

Birds of all kinds visit the plant year-round and especially during fall migration. Deer and foxes move across the plant property. The land on both sides of the effluent channel teems with life. It is all, in Baranyai’s word, “amazing.”

One reason the plant runs so well is that Baranyai and his staff treat it as if they own it. They helped select the plant’s original treatment technologies, and since then they have rigorously maintained and updated it. Now they’re working to groom a new generation of operators to carry on what they’ve helped build.

Dealing with a legacy

East Chicago (population 32,000) lies on Lake Michigan, in Indiana’s northwest corner, between Gary and Chicago. The area is home to heavy industry and, until passage of the Clean Water Act, the Clean Air Act and other federal legislation, it was possibly best known for its severe pollution. Today, the Grand Calumet River remains an Area of Concern under the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative.

Baranyai, born and raised in East Chicago, joined the profession just before passage of the Clean Water Act of 1972. He held a summer job at the East Chicago plant in 1966 while in high school and hired on full-time as a laborer in 1972.

“I was supposed to get a different job with the city, through the fire department, but I had an accident and broke my leg, and I couldn’t pass the physical,” he recalls. “So I ended up here. It was going to be temporary until I found something else. But I’m still here.” And, he adds quickly, happy to be so.

In 1975-76, he earned a two-year associate degree in a brand-new pollution control technology program at Indiana’s Ivy Tech Community College, going to school and working full-time. He also took correspondence courses and attended EPA-sponsored classes, including an advanced wastewater training school, at sites around the country. “I was fortunate to work for a city that recognized education as something that was needed,” he says.

He remembers in particular an Ivy Tech instructor, George Kinas. “He was a dynamic person,” Baranyai says. “The group of people who went through that first class at Ivy Tech all have done well.”

Baranyai steadily worked his way up the ranks, to operator, chief operator, operation and maintenance manager, and, seven years ago, director of operations. He works for a district with 50 employees, including collection system maintenance, pretreatment, stormwater management and administrative staff.

Big step forward

His biggest challenge began in the early 1980s, when the time came to replace the original treatment plant, built in 1943.

“That plant had a biological system called the Guggenheim process,” Baranyai says. “It used a short detention time with addition of chemicals to enhance biological treatment. The plant became overloaded with industrial waste, and by 1982, we were in federal court for non-compliance with our discharge permit.

“We were being sued by the State of Indiana, the State of Illinois, and the United States government. I was subpoenaed as a witness, and at my age, that was scary. But that lawsuit turned everything in the right direction, because we were ordered to hire engineers and construct a new wastewater treatment plant, which we eventually did.”

The plant went online in May 1987. It has a design flow of 15 mgd, a maximum hourly flow of 27 mgd and instantaneous peak of 36 mgd. Flows today average 13 to 15 mgd. The basic process is extended aeration in an oxidation ditch (Eimco Water Technologies), followed by secondary clarification and automatic backwashing rapid sand filtration (Infilco Degremont Inc.), using 11 inches of media over a porous plastic plate in six filter cells, each 62 by 16 feet.

“It’s a low-maintenance system with very low operating costs,” Baranyai says. He treats the filter beds with a Zyme-Treat WWT enzyme-based grease pre-digester, formulation (United Laboratories Inc.), which extended media life to 20 years. Final effluent is UV-disinfected (Infilco Degremont Inc.) before discharge to the effluent channel and, finally, the Grand Calumet River.

A stringent industrial pretreatment program affects about 20 industrial plants that discharge to the East Chicago system. “We try to protect our facility,” Baranyai says. “It’s hard to treat the industrial waste, so we don’t try to. Some industries opt to discharge directly to Lake Michigan from their treatment plants.”

Making choices

Baranyai oversaw construction of the treatment plant and, with a few colleagues, chose most of the equipment. “We tried to select the best we had seen out in the field,” he says. “I’ve been fortunate during my career to be able to attend WEFTEC conferences and see the equipment and visit other treatment plants throughout the country. One thing that’s beneficial is that our administration has been well attuned to what I try to do here.”

Choosing the equipment helped Baranyai and staff build a sense of ownership, which he tries to impart to everyone on the team. Key staff members include chief operator Nelson Cardona; lead operators Keith Perry, Steve Porras, Curt Campos and Ray Kapera; maintenance manager Angel Acosta; maintenance foreman Bill Piña; and collection system manager John Martinez.

“I encourage people who work for us to become certified and advance their knowledge,” Baranyai says. “You really have to want to do this job. I try to explain to people that this is my treatment plant. It’s not just the city’s. This is my facility. I want us to make it work as best we can.

“I spend a lot of time with the newer people. Our lead operators and assistants mostly have 20 or 25 years of experience. We have some younger assistant operators coming online, and they’re doing well, too. A couple have made nice progress in their certification programs and in their enthusiasm for the work.”

As for the plant, it runs like new, in part because in recent years Baranyai and his team have methodically made updates to nearly all major systems, including:

• Two new bar screens (Vulcan Industries Inc.) and a new grit washing system with wash presses and shaftless screw conveyor.

• Rebuilt gearboxes and rewound motors for the oxidation ditch.

• Completely rebuilt belt presses (Ashbrook Simon-Hartley).

• New or rebuilt pumps for return and waste sludge, clarifiers, and sand filter backwashing.

• New chemical feed pumps.

• Relamping for the UV disinfection system with a Horizontal Lamp System (Aquaray, a division of Infilco Degremont Inc.).

“To do all this, we spent some money we had set aside in a replacement fund,” Baranyai says. “Now I feel the treatment plant is at 100 percent performance, and when I leave here, it’s going to be in great shape for the next person.”

Miraculous recovery

What’s even greater is the plant’s effluent and the effect it has on the environment surrounding the plant. Effluent leaves the facility in a dug-out channel about 700 feet long that ends at the river.

“The old plant’s effluent was very degraded,” Baranyai says. “When we put the new plant online, in a matter of weeks and months, that darker-colored water turned to very clear, clean water. The transformation of that channel — from being lifeless to having aquatic plants, small animals, turtles, frogs, minnows and fish — happened so rapidly it was just amazing.”

The transforming moment came in October 1989 when a child in a grade school tour group spotted a large dead fish floating in the channel. Later, Baranyai pulled out the fish, ultimately identified as a chinook salmon that had made its way from the lake — through a shipping channel crossing a steel mill and an oil refinery, up the river, and into the effluent stream.

Since then, the salmon have been back every spawning season, October to December, sometimes even swimming up the plant’s 200-foot-long effluent pipe and jumping over a 4-foot-high spillway into the disinfection contact chamber. White suckers, river redhorse, and smallmouth bass also show up in the effluent channel. In addition, freshwater sponges, native to Lake Michigan and adapted to extremely clean water, have covered the walls and floor of the contact chamber.

Another class of visitors led Baranyai to a new hobby: birdwatching. One day along the channel he noticed birds about the size of a chicken, brown with some light-brown speckling, with long beaks. Visiting the Chicago Orni-thological Society booth at a flower and garden show, he learned that the birds were black-crowned night herons. “They’re on the endangered list in Illinois and we have them here,” Baranyai says. “They’re having young, and they’re around all year.”

Since then, more than 80 bird species have been seen at the plant, including great blue herons, egrets, and various ducks. Baranyai invites local birding associations to the site for spring and Christmas bird counts. His own interest has grown so strong that he has taken birding trips to Belize, Guatemala, and Costa Rica.

Life is good

Meanwhile, Baranyai sees major changes for the better in the quality of life in northwest Indiana. “I feel very strongly that the Clean Water Act and the Clean Air Act have shown tangible results, especially in our area,” he says. “The water is cleaner here. The Grand Calumet River is cleaner. Our neighboring wastewater treatment plants have tertiary treatment in place now. The steel mills have cleaned up their waste streams.

“The birds are amazing. The wildlife is amazing. I’ve got pictures of deer that come across our property. Twenty-five years ago, that would have been unheard of. In our filters and clarifiers, once or twice a year, we have Daphnia. That’s an indication that things are really good.”


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