The Work Is the Reward

Awards earned by Linda Barrier and her team at Rock Creek Wastewater Treatment Plant came from attention to detail — right down to the bugs
The Work Is the Reward
Clarifier tanks at the Independence treatment plant. The Rock Creek plant treats 10 mgd and uses a basic activated sludge process. The biosolids treatment process includes dissolved air flotation and wet-air oxidation. Biosolids are burned in a fluidized bed incinerator. (Photography by Denny Medley)

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How do operators work after winningconsecutive safety and plant awards from their peers? Harder than they did before, according to Linda Barrier, superintendent of the Rock Creek Wastewater Treatment Plant in Independence, Mo.

In 2010 the Missouri Water Environment Association (MWEA) recognized the facility with the Treatment Plant Safety Award. It had earned the Treatment Plant of the Year award in 2009 — one achievement the Rock Creek team wanted most. “We all set our minds to it and went after it,” Barrier says.

On the ground, that meant seeing the big water-quality picture and attending to all the details that make compliance a reality. “You go out, you look, you smell, you take everything into consideration,” Barrier says. “One of my big deals down here is that I like to look at the bugs that we’re growing every day. They can tell you the whole story. We made a habit out of every test that we run; we take a look at the bugs.”

This practice and others have served Barrier and the plant well. A 29-year industry veteran, she won the MWEA’s William D. Hatfield award in 2008, and its Operator of the Year award in 2006.


Going municipal

Barrier turned to the municipal sector after being laid off from a management position at a steel company, where she was in charge of neutralizing the acids used to clean steel rods. After that experience, she was looking for more than a job. “I had seen that there was a need in the wastewater treatment field,” she says. “It was something back in 1982 that nobody wanted to do, and it was going to be a pretty secure field, and it was going to be growing.”

After about a year of applying for positions in the male-dominated field, she was hired by the city of Independence. “When I had my interview down here, one of the guys who interviewed me told me that no women could do this job,” she recalls. “And I told him, ‘You’re looking at the first one.’”

Barrier took entry-level and advanced wastewater certification courses from Joe Herndon Area Vocational Technical School in Raytown, Mo. (Now known as the Herndon Career Center.) At that time, Dick Champion was an instructor there and was (and still is) director of the Independence Water Pollution Control Department. Barrier credits his guidance for helping to build her skills.

“He challenged me and still does to this day,” she says. “You had to be sharp in class because you knew he was going to try and trip you up with questions.” Champion this year received a National Environmental Achievement Award for his service and commitment from the National Association of Clean Water Agencies.


Not laughing now

Confidence in her abilities and dedication to the goal also brought Barrier forward in her career. “When I first started here, I told people, ‘I’m going to be your boss someday,’” she says. “They laughed at me.” No one seems to be laughing now. She scaled the ladder from operator I to shift supervisor to assistant superintendent and then, about 10 years ago, superintendent.

Searches for better opportunity brought key members of Barrier’s team together at about the same time she earned her last promotion. Jon Staton, operator I, left a bankrupt agricultural co-op to join the team. Dan Francis, operator II, was laid off from Armco Steel. Khristina Irvine, administrative specialist, came from a failed accounting software company. Vince Kackley, operator II, was hired after serving in the U.S. Navy, where he worked as a pipefitter, welder and ship wastewater treatment operator. The team’s success, Barrier says, comes from working together and never settling for “second best.”

With a hint of pride, Barrier says that although Irvine works in the plant office, she has passed the Level D wastewater certificate exam. “That shows how interested and dedicated people are down here,” she observes.


Compliance and upgrade

How does the Rock Creek team work day-to-day? “Linda gives us guidelines, but she pretty much lets us run the process,” Francis says. “We make sure we’re in compliance, way in compliance.” Rock Creek’s NPDES permit allows an average of 30 mg/l for TSS and BOD, but the treatment process routinely produces less than half that.

Constructed in 1978, the plant serves about 55,000 residential customers in Independence and Sugar Creek. The 10 mgd activated sludge plant is undergoing an expansion, first with an upgrade to fine-bubble aeration.

In the current process, wastewater flows into four 60-foot-diameter primary clarifiers. In secondary treatment, mechanical aerators in four 64-foot-square basins provide oxygen for bacteria to grow and feed on the effluent over four to six hours. After the secondary clarifiers, the effluent flows to Rock Creek, a Missouri River tributary.

With the help of a $1 million American Reinvestment and Recovery Act grant, the city plans to replace its mechanical aerators with a fixed-header, fine-bubble diffused aeration system to improve turndown capability. The process is moving forward after construction permit approval in March and a preconstruction meeting in August.

“We’ve been wanting that for 10 to 15 years,” Barrier says. “Diffused aeration will provide better control of the heartbeat of the activated control system.” The upgrade also will reduce operating horsepower by 40 percent, saving about $40,000 in pump operating costs, according to the HDR consulting engineering firm, which designed the plant expansion and upgrade.


Solids and stormwater

Rock Creek’s solids treatment process includes the blending of thickened primary sludge with excess waste activated sludge that has undergone water reduction through dissolved air flotation (DAF). Blended sludge moves through grinders and Siemens Water Technologies – Zimpro conditioning.

A high-pressure Ingersoll Rand air compressor injects air into the sludge flow at the entrance of the first heat exchanger inflow pipe. A generator operating at 400 psig sends hot steam into the reactor. The 850-gallon reactor operates at 385 degrees F for 30 minutes between 320 and 350 psig. Kackley explains that the wet air oxidation process “pressure cooks” the material, breaking down organic materials for easier dewatering by the Ashbrook gravity belt press. Barrier notes that the changeover to belt presses from vacuum filters significantly improved the solids percentage.

After time in the decant basin, the biosolids cake is ready for incineration. Staton uses a little oil to fire up the Dorr Oliver fluidized bed incinerator to 1,100 degrees but quickly shuts off the fuel because the cake burns by itself. Water “knocks” the ash off the exhaust, and the resulting slurry is pressed to a dry form and sent to landfill.


Tackling wet-weather flows

One of the biggest challenges for Barrier and her team is controlling flow during heavy rains. The expansion plan should help the facility achieve zero bypasses. Over the next five years, overflow basins are to be added at five pump stations to handle excess flows. The department considers the basins a preventive measure that will help the plant meet future, stricter regulations.

Working with HDR on the plant expansion, Barrier has developed a wish list that includes more SCADA control at the pump stations with overflow basins. The facility operates now with a Wonderware (Invensys Operations Management) Factory Suite In Touch SCADA system. She also has asked for new dissolved oxygen meters for the aeration system to help monitor and control the activated sludge system.

Pending nitrification and disinfection regulations are driving future upgrades. By 2013, the facility will have new chlorination-dechlorination facilities to comply with state rules. By 2015, Rock Creek will have enlarged its blower building to accommodate four more aeration basins for nitrification requirements in its permit. All told, the expansion will enable the facility to increase peak capacity from 18 mgd to 20 mgd.


Lots of motivation

Working in wastewater treatment can become a routine, but the Rock Creek team generates positive energy. “It’s the people I work with that keep me interested,” Barrier says. “When you get along with people and accomplish things, it keeps you going.”

Kackley says his shifts are not really “work” because he enjoys what he’s doing. Staton suggests that part of the team’s motivation comes from making a difference today for tomorrow’s environment.

With the advantage of having a self-motivating team, Barrier employs the simplest management style. “Actually, I like to sit back and do nothing, just empower them,” she says. “I let them do their jobs.”


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