Always Looking Forward

Chris McCalib brings a progressive outlook and a team orientation to his job as operations manager responsible for two treatment plants

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How many wastewater treatment plants have volunteers coming out to help with plant operations? Next question: How many have a waiting list of volunteers?


That’s the situation at the Lakehaven (Wash.) Utility District (LUD). Wastewater operations manager Chris McCalib has created an environment where employees look forward to coming to work every day and where people are willing to work for free to gain experience.


“We’re a staff of experienced and seasoned operators who’ve been around awhile,” says assistant wastewater operations manager Norman Cook. “But Chris inspires us, makes us excited to get to the plant.” As a result, the district’s treatment operations are popular with prospective employees eager to give their time. At present, four non-paid interns work with McCalib and his staff, learning the processes and building their resumes.


Working with his team, McCalib has created a collaborative environment where people work together to deploy innovations in wastewater treatment and energy management, and where it’s standard procedure to plan for the future.


Broad responsibility

The LUD is a special purpose municipality serving 112,000 people in a mostly residential area between Seattle and Tacoma in King and Pierce Counties. It serves most of the city of Federal Way, parts of the cities of Auburn, Pacific, Tacoma, Des Moines and Milton, and an unincorporated area of King County.


The sewer system includes 350 miles of mains, 27 pump stations and two wastewater treatment plants. The water system includes 400 miles of mains, 22 wells, and 12 storage tanks with 31 million gallons of storage capacity. The average daily pumping rate is about 10.6 mgd.


McCalib came to Lakehaven in 2006 as assistant manager and assumed the top job two years later. Today, he’s responsible for the Lakota treatment plant, a 10 mgd (design) activated sludge facility, and the Redondo treatment plant, a 5.6 mgd trickling filter operation.


Lakota has a headworks with mechanical screens, followed by grit removal, primary clarifiers, a four-basin complete-mix activated sludge system, secondary clarifiers and UV disinfection. At Redondo, the headworks contains a new perforated screen. Then come primary clarifiers, two parallel-feed trickling filters, secondary clarifiers and UV. Both discharge through deep outfalls into bays on Puget Sound.

Class B biosolids from each plant are digested, dewatered, and trucked over 200 miles for application to dry-grass wheat fields. The application site is operated by Boulder Park Inc., a cooperative organization encompassing 14 wastewater treatment agencies.


A world view

McCalib has always had a keen interest in the world around him and how things work. His father was a contractor, and McCalib has known about the construction business ever since he could walk. After high school, he joined the U.S. Navy and was assigned to the USS Bunker Hill, a guided missile cruiser. He made three cruises to the Western Pacific, visiting 23 countries, and as a mechanic’s technician he got to know engines, generators, boilers and pumps.


Later in his 4-1/2-year tour of duty, he served as a Second Class Chief Petty Officer aboard the frigate USS Ford, running the auxiliary systems in the engine room, including making freshwater, handling oil-water separation, and dealing with wastewater.


If he loved getting a different look at the world during his time at sea, he is just as excited about the view of science and technology he gets in wastewater treatment. “You see all facets,” he says. “Biology, mechanics, chemistry. A treatment plant is a living, breathing organism.”


After the Navy, he did a short stint with a local manufacturing firm, then signed on with the Southwest Suburban Sanitary District outside Seattle in 1999. He spent a year in the field learning collections and earned his senior operator grade and electrician’s licenses in four years. In 2006, seeking more opportunity to advance, he joined the Lakehaven team.


“It’s very, very interesting,” he says. “Changing regulations, emerging compounds of concern, endocrine disrupters. It takes a lifetime to get your hands around this profession. It’s not redundant like other jobs.”


He communicates that enthusiasm and vision to his managers and staff. “I took him under my wing 13 years ago,” says Cook, who is nearing retirement. “He has far exceeded everything I taught him. He’s intense and serious about this profession. He has a vision, and he inspires the same among the staff — where we’re going, looking forward, and finding innovative ways to resolve issues. Staff shares his enthusiasm, and asks how they can do more.”


LUD general manager Don Perry agrees: “He makes my job easier. I’ve been involved in wastewater treatment, coming up through the ranks. So I know how hard it is to meet permits. Chris is really focused on the quality of the water we produce and is doing things I never thought were possible.”


Volunteer effort

Some folks might not think it possible to have volunteers on the plant site, but McCalib and his crew make the arrangement work, and they acknowledge benefits in both directions.


“Right now we have four volunteers on board — two at each plant,” McCalib says. “And we have a waiting list. They’re non-paid interns, but they shadow our employees, get experience in all tasks, learn trades, and receive a letter of recommendation and documented plant time.”


The plant benefits, as well, and not just from the free help. “The interns keep our employees engaged in their work,” McCalib notes. “The thought processes are stimulating. We get asked questions we haven’t had to answer in years.”


The district does a background check and drug test on applicants and pays about seven cents an hour to cover labor and industry insurance. “When our interns leave here, they’re employable,” says McCalib. Three recent volunteers have gained positions at other treatment plants in the state.


“We’re talking with other communities about forming a regional volunteer intern program,” he says. “We need to get our local colleges on board. Students learn more if we put boots on their feet. It’s in our best interests.


It provides a backup of talent to make sure all our needs are met.”


The future

All of McCalib’s colleagues give him high marks for forward thinking, and there are concrete projects to prove it. “We’ve rehabbed the secondary treatment processes at both plants,” says Cook. “We’ve taken those processes (activated sludge, biotowers) and made them function on all eight cylinders.”


The staff is now installing new dewatering equipment at the Redondo plant and is exploring solids-to-energy technologies at both facilities. “We have solids constraints at the Lakota plant,” McCalib says. The upgrade plan will expand digestion capacity and improve thickening and dewatering. Ultimately, digester gas will be used for cogeneration to make the facility more energy independent.


At Redondo, energy efficiency is even farther along. The plant is installing a pair of engines (Stirling Biopower Inc.) to produce 85 kW of renewable electricity and 500,000 Btu/hr for the digesters and buildings. The project will replace an aging boiler.


Down the road, McCalib sees the need for biological nutrient removal as part of increased efforts to reduce the nutrient loading in Puget Sound. General manager Perry comments that McCalib is always checking things off, looking ahead. It’s a challenge, because the district doesn’t always have the funds to accomplish everything McCalib envisions.


But whatever changes the district makes, it’s a sure thing that all of McCalib’s employees will be involved in the process, and the process will be well-planned.


“He’s changed the way we view equipment,” Cook remarks. “We take everything down to a science. And we get everyone involved in the process. We go over drawings and plan for the full sequence of events. Everybody has an opportunity to voice an opinion. With consensus like this, we have very few hiccups.”


McCalib adds, “We have lots to do. My job is to take a 30,000-foot view and apply it to everyday situations to get the plant and district ready for the next 20 to 30 years. It’s very exciting. We’re seeing big changes in technology, driven by cost and efficiency. And we’re true stewards of the environment, giving back to the public and the rate-payers. You know, very few of us who get involved in this business ever leave it. It’s a career.”


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