Late Bloomer

Roger Gervais served in the Army and tried other careers before finding a calling in the clean-water profession

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When you talk with Roger Gervais at the wastewater treatment plant in Redding, Conn., you could easily believe there is nothing he can’t do. “I’m a soup to nuts guy,” he says.

He has the tickets to prove it. From a career in the U.S. Army, including service in Vietnam, to building houses and managing a warehouse, to doing just about everything at the Redding Water Pollution Control Facility, Gervais is a one-man gang.

He joined the wastewater treatment profession barely 10 years ago, at age 52. He took correspondence courses through California State University at Sacramento and eventually earned his Connecticut Grade 4 certifications in wastewater treatment and collections, plus Grade 2 certifications in water treatment and water distribution.

As project manager for Veolia Water at the small membrane bioreactor (MBR) plant on a dead-end road beneath an expressway overpass outside Redding, Gervais does the lab work, supervises the plant and operator Kerry McGuire, cleans the membranes, calls on neighboring plants when he needs extra help, and reports to the Redding Water Pollution Control Board.

He’s also responsible for the system’s single lift station and a small subsurface discharge system at a local high school. “Anything in the plant that needs fixing, he can do,” says McGuire, who has been at Redding for a year and a half. “He’s a hard worker, very methodical. He sticks to it until it’s done, whether the job is large or small.”

Redding plant

Redding is a peaceful rural community of 10,000 in the southwest corner of Connecticut, just outside the New York City metropolitan area. The water pollution control facility, operated under a contract with Veolia Water, is licensed to process up to 241,000 gpd.

It was the first plant in the state to use the MBR process (GE-Zenon, a Division of GE Water & Process Technologies), which has been in operation for about three years. Before that, the plant was equipped with a sequencing batch reactor and sand filters.

Average flow is 60,000 to 70,000 gpd. Wastewater enters the treatment train through Lakeside fine screens, passes to covered equalization tanks, and then to the bioreactors and by gravity to the microfiltration membranes. A TrojanUV system disinfects the effluent before discharge to the Norwalk River.

Gervais has a fair amount of flexibility with the system, adding alum for phosphorus removal, methanol as a carbon source, and caustic for pH control. The plant uses polymers to thicken waste biosolids to about 5 percent solids before the material is trucked for further treatment and incineration at a neighboring facility.

A pair of carbon towers (Carbtrol) control odors. A SCADA system with Allen-Bradley (Rockwell Automation) components automates and controls the plant processes. It’s a straightforward system that Gervais appreciates. “Simple is better,” he says.

Effluent averages less than 4 mg/l BOD, less than 5 mg/l TSS, and 0.1 to 0.3 mg/l phosphorus. Total nitrogen generally runs from 1.0 to 5.0 mg/l. Effluent quality gets put to the test: Students and environmental groups often take samples in the river below the outfall and are impressed with purity of the stream.

A number of restaurants feed into the collection system, and Gervais works closely with the town sanitarian to check grease traps and prevent FOG problems. “Our sanitarian is just excellent here,” he says.

A varied career

Some members of the clean-water profession discover its challenges and satisfactions right out of school, and others, like Gervais, much later. He holds a graduate degree in education and counseling, served 20 years in the U.S. Army and retired as a first sergeant, and then took on other jobs. Ten years ago, he got a tip from his younger brother working at the Waterbury (Conn.) Wastewater Treatment Plant that there were good career opportunities in the field.

He took the necessary correspondence courses and finished first in the test for a position at Waterbury. “The job was mine if I wanted it,” he recalls. “But there was no help from my brother. I got the job on my own — no nepotism there.”

Gervais worked at Waterbury for four years, taking courses and accumulating continuing education credits. Then he became second in command at the wastewater treatment plant in New Town, Conn. Looking for opportunities to keep moving up, he eventually connected with Veolia Water, and soon after was assigned to Redding as project manager.

“It was rough at first,” he remembers. “Each membrane seems to have its own personality.” The manufacturer helped on the startup and came in for later troubleshooting, but, true to form, Gervais pretty much mastered the system on his own.

“It was a lot of trial and error, and plain old common sense,” he says. “It’s kind of like being a doctor. You need to learn the symptoms and understand what is wrong.” Gervais takes a methodical approach. He checks things out one step at a time to eliminate possible causes, locates the problem, then fixes it.

Solutions finder

The quick mastery of the membranes is typical of Gervais’s ability to figure things out and find solutions. “He’s able to iron out any glitches,” says McGuire. Joe Hebert, operator of an MBR plant in Michigan, who visited Redding last April, credits Gervais for resourcefulness. “I was impressed with the attention, innovation and cost control measures,” he noted in a letter to the city after his visit. “He thinks on his feet, makes things happen.”

Indeed, Gervais seems to work constantly on reducing expenses, even if the measures seem small. “I’ve gone around the plant and used insulation and duct tape to close off areas where we were losing heat,” he says. In another step, he turns off the propane-fueled water heater when it’s not in use.

He’s saving more money by reducing or even avoiding the use of methanol as a carbon source. “There’s a lot of cost associated with that, and Roger has done a good job of controlling that expense,” says Hebert.

A strong relationship with Walter Royals, the Veolia Water manager of the Danbury treatment plant 45 minutes away, pays off even more. With only two people employed at Redding, Gervais occasionally uses VW workers from Danbury for tasks like confined-space entry and specialized electrical work, providing cost savings for Redding.

Family atmosphere

“We sometimes have problems here with electrical dropouts,” Gervais says. “I have a good relationship with the Danbury staff. We’re like poor cousins, and we help each other. Their guy comes down here to assist with valving and controls.”

Gervais also saves money by deploying other Veolia Water resources (trucks and equipment) when needed. “More and more,” he says, “we need to account for expenses and be as economical as possible.”

All these work-arounds allow the city to sustain plant performance and permit compliance without adding staff or buying more equipment. That’s the way Gervais likes it. “We refer to ourselves as trolls down here underneath the bridge,” he says with his distinctive chuckle. “People don’t notice us much and pretty much leave us alone, but when they do realize what we do, they compliment us, and that makes us feel good. At the end of the day, we take pride in our job. It’s challenging, but rewarding.”

Gervais has a good relationship with the city and with McGuire, his operator. “I’ve learned a lot from him,” McGuire says. “Everything was new to me. He has taught me about reporting, chain of custody, how to operate the membranes. He knows how to run the plant well beneath the numbers we need to meet.”

Gervais observes, “It’s a family atmosphere here. You have to be able to get along with your people.” At times, Redding has been honored as the best small town in Connecticut. Under Gervais, its treatment plant might qualify as the best small water facility in the state.


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