The Next Generation

The City of Groton treatment plant creates an internship program that attracts high school students and leads some into careers as operators

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At age 48, Kevin Cini is the second youngest operator on the staff of six at the City of Groton (Conn.) Wastewater Treatment Facility.


The one younger team member is junior operator Joshua (Josh) Rezendes, who came on board full-time two years ago by way of the plant’s internship program. Cini, chief plant operator, sees interns as the key to finding and developing the next generation of wastewater treatment professionals.


The internship program, offered through Grasso Technical High School in Groton, gives high school seniors-to-be exposure to and hands-on experience with the profession that they otherwise might never get. Cini hopes a certain number of interns will enjoy the work and make it a career — as Rezendes already has done (see sidebar).


“In Joshua, we may have hired our next chief plant operator,” he says. “I plan to retire in 13 years, and all the other operators are older than I am. As they retire, my goal is to replace every one of them with one of our interns.”


The 3.1 mgd (design) City of Groton plant was built in 1955 and upgraded to secondary treatment in 1972. An upgrade in 2000 added odor control, process automation, SCADA and other improvements.


Exemplary performance

The plant was recognized in 2007 when it received the Operations and Maintenance Excellence Award from the U.S. EPA for New England Region 1, and the EPA national Second Place Award for O&M in the category for Medium-Sized Advanced Plants, both under the Clean Water Act Recognition awards program.


The facility provides secondary treatment using a conventional activated sludge process combined with biological nutrient removal to meet total maximum daily loading (TMDL) limits for nitrogen.

Influent passes through a grit chamber aerated with a Dresser Roots blower. A step screen (Huber Technology) removes debris, which is shredded and landfilled. The flow then passes through a distribution box to four primary settling tanks. Three tanks handle normal flows, and the fourth is added in wet weather.


The two aeration basins have centrifugal blowers (The Spencer Turbine Co.) that cycle on and off to enable nitrogen removal. “We actually run an activated sludge plant as a sequencing batch reactor,” says Cini. “We run the blowers to convert ammonia to nitrate, and then shut the blowers off to enable release of nitrogen as gas.”


From aeration, the flow passes to two rectangular final clarifiers. Final effluent runs through a Parshall flume for measurement, then through disinfection with sodium hypochlorite and re-aeration via splash weir before discharge to the Thames River.


Primary solids are pumped to the first-stage and then second-stage anaerobic digesters. Waste activated sludge is delivered to a rotary drum thickener (IPEC Consultants) and then to the digesters. Methane captured from the second-stage digesters is burned for building and digester heating. Biosolids leave the digesters at 4 to 6 percent solids. A contractor removes the material for dewatering and ultimately incineration.


Variety breeds excellence

Cini attributes the plant’s performance to its operating philosophy, which aims to keep everyone fresh and energized. “Everyone does everything here,” he says. “We’re a small plant, so we have to.”

He observes that many plants have operators dedicated long-term to specific jobs. “No one guy is assigned to one job here,” Cini says. “To keep it interesting, we don’t have one guy who gets up every morning and says, ‘I’m going to start the rotary drum thickener.’ The key is a constant rotation.


“The only exception is our lab chemist. For the sake of consistency in testing and reporting, he is dedicated to the lab. Otherwise, one month an operator will be out on the collection system checking our nine pump stations. The next month he might be filling the trucks with biosolids for incineration and taking care of the primary pumping process. The next month he might be doing plant maintenance, going around and greasing equipment and making sure the planned maintenance is done.


“The variety these guys have helps keep it interesting. Sometimes just a change of scenery is nice. They also have the opportunity to better themselves educationally. The city provides full tuition reimbursement. They have never denied an educational request in the 27 years I’ve been here.”


Taking inspiration

Retaining a strong team is one thing; recruiting new team members is another, especially as experienced operators approach retirement age. About 10 years ago, Cini saw the need to find a new generation of operators. Even then he was the youngest member of the plant staff.


He took inspiration from an intern program a telecommunications and cable TV provider created in the late 1980s, when that industry faced a severe labor shortage. Cini got hold of a videotape being used to promote the program. “It showed kids basically saying, ‘I didn’t know what I wanted to do. I did an internship for a summer. I liked it, and now I’ve been doing it for three years,’” Cini recalls.

Believing he could do similar things with an intern program, Cini approached mayor Dennis Popp. “He said, ‘You know what, let’s do it. If we can’t put a few dollars aside to invest in the future, then what are we really doing here?’”


Cini’s fellow operators were skeptical: Would they have to babysit a high school student all summer? The structure of the internship program is what makes it successful. “It’s not a babysitting job,” Cini says.


Careful screening

The interns are selected from Grasso Technical High School in a competitive process. The school curriculum is set up so that students spend half the year in academic courses and half in a “shop” setting, training in their chosen specialty.


Interns at the plant work there for eight weeks during the summer after their junior year and also during the “shop” portion of their senior year. “One thing they have to do to qualify is take the first Sacramento course,” says Cini. “We want kids who are ambitious enough to do that on their own time. Our local Connecticut Water Pollution Abatement Association pays for the course.”


Screening is a joint effort between the plant team and the school staff, specifically Alex Pesarik, head of the bioscience environmental technology department, and Jack Cervera Jr., dean of students.


The intern program typically draws four to eight applicants. The students prepare a resume and go through a rigorous interview process. When the intern is selected, his or her parents receive a tour of the treatment plant. The intern works from 7 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. daily.


“We show them the daily book work so they get a feel for how the plant works,” says Cini. “They take down the water reads, the electric reads, the return rates. They bring samples to the lab for analysis, change the flow charts, check the SCADA screens.


“Then they get out into the collection system, taking the readings from the pumps and, depending on their background, doing O&M work. They also get exposure to lab work and the final process steps, like measuring sludge levels and chlorine residuals.”


Valuable experience

Interns benefit from their experience even when (as in most cases) it does not lead directly to a job at the plant. Intern Timothy Perkins joined the Army after his internship and was deployed to Iraq. “While he was there, his platoon was asked if anybody knew anything about wastewater treatment,” Cini says. “He was able to raise his hand. Now he’s over there helping the Iraqi’s get their wastewater treatment systems up and running.”


The 2010 intern, Zachary Kemp, knew from the beginning that there would be no position for him with the City of Groton, but he now has experience that may help him catch on with a contract operations firm. “He’s very marketable,” says Cini. “He’s pre-qualified to take his Class I wastewater exam. He has completed the third and fourth Sacramento books. He has a summer of experience, plus half his senior year. That’s six months of experience, and he’s only 18 years old.”


Interns earn $10 an hour, which adds up to $3,200 for the eight weeks of summer work. Cini considers that a small investment for substantial benefits. Mayor Popp agrees. “It’s hard to find people who want to get into the wastewater treatment field, and that’s true of many other fields,” he says. “Kevin and his team do a great job with these interns. They really take them under their wing and help them out.


“It’s a wonderful program. It may not have an immediate benefit to the City of Groton, but it has an immediate benefit to others in the industry, and it has long-term benefits to the city in that maybe five or 10 years down the road, we have a pool of qualified applicants to pick from when positions become available.


“That’s not to say we don’t go through the complete hiring process. But now in all likelihood we have applicants who have worked for us — we know their work history, we know their work ethic.”


Popp notes that the city has expanded the intern program to water treatment, water distribution, project management and information technology roles. Two former interns have been hired for positions in the IT department.


The idea is spreading to other communities, too. The nearby city of Stonington had its first summer intern in 2010.


“These young men and women are finding that wastewater and water treatment can provide great careers,” Cini says. “What the kids and their parents never realized before is that these are good-paying jobs that are secure. They can’t be outsourced.” And City of Groton interns certainly have a chance to get their foot in the door.


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