Managing for Success

Initiatives in environmental management, staff training and staff retention pay dividends in morale and performance in Richmond, Va.

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Meeting new nutrient removal requirements is a top priority forthe Richmond (Va.) Wastewater Treatment Plant. So is the facility’s Environmental Management System (EMS), and so is attracting and retaining quality operators with a plant-wide training initiative and an innovative pay-scale structure.

 

The plant has made progress on all these fronts, to the mutual ­ benefit of employees, the city and the 200,000 people the plant serves.

 

Meeting the permit

Located on the south bank of the James River, the 70 mgd Richmond treatment plant serves the City of Richmond and parts of Chesterfield, Henrico and Goochland counties. This advanced secondary treatment plant with tertiary sand filters is the largest of its kind in Virginia. As a combined sewer operation, the plant takes in flows from 1,500 miles of sanitary sewers, 38 miles of interceptor sewers and the Shockoe Retention Basin, a 50-million-gallon stormwater reservoir used during heavy rains.

 

During rain events, the plant increases its flow to 75-80 mgd. When the Shockoe Retention Basin and Hampton McCloy tunnel and sewer system are filled to capacity, the excess flow is relieved at combined sewer overflow (CSO) outfalls.

 

At the treatment plant, wastewater passes through screening and grit chambers, then to primary sedimentation tanks, aeration tanks, final clarifiers and chlorine contact tanks. From there, it is sent to effluent sand filters and then to the James River. The biosolids are sent to primary sludge degritters, gravity thickeners and digesters, then to the dewatering building, and finally to biosolids holding tanks. The treated biosolids are then land-applied.

 

The plant is undergoing a five-phase, $130 million upgrade to remove nitrogen and phosphorus to meet more stringent permit requirements that go into effect in January 2011, and to update and improve plant systems and equipment (see sidebar). The more stringent limits are designed to protect the Chesapeake Bay, to which the river flows.

 

At present, the plant uses tertiary treatment with sand filters (Tetra Tech) to meet limits on TSS (10 mg/l) and CBOD (8 mg/l). Phase 1 of the upgrade will be completed at the end of 2010 and will enable the plant to meet new limits on nitrogen (8.0 mg/l) and phosphorous (0.5 mg/l).

 

Ambitious training

The Richmond plant has embarked on an extensive training program that involves rewriting and updating all standard operating procedures (SOPs) and writing a new operation and maintenance manual for all current and future equipment, including combined sewer operations.

 

“Our SOPs are 30 years old, and with all the equipment upgrades we’ve had and are going to have, it was clear that we needed to update all these documents,” says Clair Watson, superintendent of plant operations. “We’re also going to train our entire staff of 122 people, from maintenance people all the way through the plant, on our existing and new equipment.”

 

This mammoth task is expected to take three years. It will involve bringing in a modular training building stocked with computers and overhead projectors. Consulting engineering firm Greeley and Hansen, which is involved with the five-phase upgrade, will help conduct the training.

 

The plant has 37 operations staff, including those assigned to the Shockoe Retention Basin; 41 maintenance staff, including mechanics, electricians and instrumentation people; 8 lab employees; and 36 sewer maintenance workers. Plans call for transitioning the maintenance and retention basin employees to the operations staff.

 

Operators are further categorized into biosolids operators and general plant equipment operators. Operations and maintenance staff work 12-hour shifts, with four people on each shift. Before the training started, there were 12 on a shift. “We have lost people through retirement and other issues over the past 20 years,” says Watson. “We also moved four operators off shift to the biosolids operation. So, we’ve had to do more with less. When you’re running a plant 24/7, it’s hard to pull people out for training.”

 

To help mitigate the effects of downsizing, the plant installed a $5 million Foxboro (Invensys Operations Management) management information system (MIS) that allows staff to observe plant operations from numerous computer stations, including three off-site lift stations and the Hampton McCloy CSO tunnel.

 

“Our training program has benefited the operators immensely,” says Eric Whitehurst, who supervises seven direct reports and 34 indirect reports as superintendent of operations. “We have a lot of seasoned operators, some of whom have been here 30 years, and now they are starting to learn about new technology and to understand the whole process from beginning to end.”

 

Biosolids reduction

The plant’s EMS program began in 2006 as part of a commitment to reducing biosolids to save on land application costs. It soon evolved into a plant-wide initiative.

 

On the biosolids side, the staff implemented an EMS program certified by the National Biosolids Partnership (NBP). Barbara Jackson, who has been with the plant for 31 years, was promoted to biosolids supervisor and traveled to Seattle, Wash., for NBP training. She was given four operations staff members to run the biosolids operation. An environmental consultant from CH2M Hill came to the plant and worked with employees for several months, helping them to understand the EMS process.

 

“The EMS has made a huge impact on the plant,” says Jackson. “We now have dedicated employees who feel a part of something and who have a better understanding of the process. Before, we had employees rotating in and out of the biosolids operation every 12 hours, and it was just a job. Now, employees refer to the facility as ‘my building,’ and that shows ownership.”

 

The Virginia Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) has an excellence program that encourages superior performance through EMS and pollution prevention. “There are four levels in the DEQ program, and hopefully we will find out soon if we won at the third level, E3 (Exemplary Environmental Enterprise),” Watson says.

 

Working in the EMS process has helped the plant improve biosolids management. “We updated our centrifuge control panels, which helped improve the operation and resulted in a drier biosolids cake,” says Watson. “We improved our cake from 16 to 18 percent solids on average to 25 to 26 percent solids, saving $350,000 in annual land application costs and $40,000 on chemicals. Basically, having new equipment, new staff, new procedures and new thinking makes a better product. The EMS program helped us achieve that.”

 

“Now that we have a dedicated group of biosolids employees who take pride in what they’re doing, we have less wear and tear on the equipment, as they take better care of it,” says Whitehurst. “Even the biosolids building is cleaner now.”

 

The EMS has been so successful that it is being extended to all plant processes. Watson and three other employees attended an EMS training program at Virginia Tech University. They have also taken training in the ISO 14001 international environmental management standard and have incorporated that standard into plant operations.

 

“EMS is a culture, and we would like to have everyone involved,” says Watson. “We’re sending other people to training, including our maintenance superintendent and our instrument technicians. We even had our finance person involved.” In the future, they hope to put a pollution prevention program in place that would allow the plant to produce higher-quality biosolids. “The biosolids are land-applied now, but we hope to produce a Class A product that could be reused as fuel or fertilizer,” says Watson.

 

Pay incentives

Besides improving processes, plant leaders are taking steps to improve staff commitment and morale, in part, with pay incentives. Until recently, employees had no economic incentive to continue their education and earn higher-level licenses. The plant was also losing people to other municipalities that paid better.

 

The solution was a pay system called broadbanding, implemented in 2004. It provides rewards in the form of higher salaries to people who reach the next level of licensing or who earn a degree.

 

The concept of broadbanding started in the United States in 1980 as a demonstration project at two naval research facilities in California. In essence, it creates fewer job classes or occupational distinctions and broader pay ranges than traditional systems based on pay grades.

 

Broadbanding makes it easier for organizations to reward high performance even without giving promotions. It also provides more flexibility in recruiting and retaining talent because it enables managers to give greater weight to a person’s abilities and to consider market pay rates and competitors’ offers.

 

Aid to retention

At Richmond, Watson says, broadbanding has helped significantly in attracting and keeping quality employees. “Once we implemented this program, it was amazing how many people wanted to get certified. We have five bands, or pay scales, and when people know where their band starts and ends, and what they need to do to advance, they can see a light at the end of the tunnel.”

 

Whitehurst has seen positive effects at the plant. “The program gives operators the incentive to go back to school and learn about new technology,” he says. “It’s good for the plant, as the operators now have the knowledge they need to do their jobs better.”

 

All supervisors and Class I wastewater operators can earn an associate degree in water/wastewater technology at Mountain Empire Community College in Big Stone Gap, Va. Operators who want to get a higher license can take the University of California at Sacramento’s wastewater correspondence course, and can also attend one-week and various short-term wastewater operator courses at Virginia Tech.

 

Since the program began, seven employees have earned associate degrees. In addition, six operators have obtained Class I licenses and are now supervisors.

 

Higher morale

The training, EMS program and broadbanding have all improved employee morale. “We have definitely seen a change throughout the plant,” says Whitehurst. “Before, it was just a job, and people came to work and then they left. Now, people have a clear understanding of what’s expected. They know they can continue their education, and there is nothing holding them back.”

 

Watson agrees. “Our program makes people feel better about what they do,” he says. “Although money isn’t always the incentive, it sure helps!”



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