Tireless Devotion

Award-winner Kathy Cooper’s dedication to her role and her state association have benefited colleagues and other operators in the region
Tireless Devotion
The Rochelle team includes, from left, operators Andrew Cunningham, Shawn Mortenson and Gregory Stechschulte, lead operator Thomas Lampley, lab technicians Elaine Ahlberg and Sharon Hawkins, and water and water reclamation superintendent Kathy Cooper. Not Pictured: Operators Jim Moore and Jesse Jones.

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When Kathy Cooper moved to Rochelle, Ill., she had to make a career change: She was a medical technologist, but there were no local jobs open in her field.

She hired on with the Rochelle Municipal Utilities in the wastewater treatment plant laboratory, where her previous lab experience came in handy. Her superintendent, Mike Bollinger, trained her in operations, since she wanted to get out and learn the ropes.

Now, 27 years later, after working at the Rochelle water reclamation plant as a treatment operator and assistant superintendent, she is superintendent of both water and water reclamation. Through those years, she has distinguished herself through tireless devotion to her job and to professional organizations.

This dedication has earned accolades, most recently the 2010 William D. Hatfield award from the Illinois Water Environment Association (IWEA). “I won the Hatfield award because a nice friend nominated me,” says Cooper, “But I think serving as president of IWEA, while also being an operator, and being active on various committees within the organization, helped me win.”

She also earned the 2003 Operator of the Year award from the Illinois Association of Water Pollution Control Operators (IAWPCO). She has served as an Illinois EPA field instructor and as a member of the Illinois Association of Wastewater Agencies (IAWA) Nutrients Committee, and has given presentations at WEFTEC and other wastewater conferences and workshops.

How does she find time to do all this while supervising six wastewater operators and a full-time and half-time lab technician, and overseeing the city water plant and 75 miles of sanitary sewer? “I make the time,” she says.


Credit to mentors

Cooper’s track record at the 4.87 mgd (design) city of Rochelle Water Reclamation Plant is impressive. The plant has consistently met NPDES permit requirements, averaging 1.4 mg/l CBOD, less than 1.0 mg/l TSS, 0.1 mg/l ammonia nitrogen, and less than 1.0 mg/l phosphorus. Three members of her wastewater staff have been there for more than 20 years, and there is very little turnover.

Yet, she is humble about her accomplishments, crediting those who trained her, notably Bollinger, former manager of utilities Ray Schwartz, and consulting engineer Matt Hansen at Willett-Hofmann. “There is also the camaraderie and reliance on operators and professionals in other communities, such as fellow IWEA members Sam McNeilly, Greg Garbs, Dave Pauling, Mary Johnson and Dennis Priewwe.”

Cooper had been living in Texas when she decided to return to Rochelle to be near her family. It was Bollinger who saw Cooper’s interest and potential and trained her in plant operations and the mechanical workings of the equipment. “At that time, we had two 180-foot trickling filters that were unable to treat the high-strength waste from a hog slaughtering operation and a yarn-dyeing factory,” Cooper recalls. “The filters were overloaded, and the ammonia discharges did not meet the requirements. The plant was placed under consent decree.”

To solve the problem, the city in 1991 began building a new activated sludge plant with preliminary treatment, flow equalization, secondary treatment with single-stage aeration and nitrification, secondary clarification, and tertiary sand filtration. The new plant was commissioned in 1993.

In 2001, the plant installed the Enviroquip SymBio biological nitrogen removal process (Ovivo) and an automated blower control system. Plant equipment includes:

• Jones & Attwood grit removal (Ovivo)

• Spencer centrifugal blowers (250 hp) (Spencer Turbine Co.)

• Sanitaire fine-bubble diffusers (Xylem)

• ESCOR automated blower controls with Limitorque valves (Flowserve Corp.)

• Tow-Bro clarifiers (Siemens)

• Aqua-Aerobic traveling bridge sand filters

• Komline-Sanderson gravity belt thickeners

• Alfa Laval centrifuges

Waste activated sludge is sent to the two gravity belt thickeners and is pumped to the centrifuges before being sent to landfill. Plant effluent discharges to the Kyte River.


Moving up

When the new plant was complete, Cooper was promoted to assistant superintendent. “I also helped to get a pilot pretreatment program in place, even though it is not required by our EPA permit to have a pretreatment program, and it isn’t EPA approved,” she says.

The pretreatment portion of the plant is an anaerobic lagoon that treats high-strength wastewater. “The former utility general manager called it the bladder,” Cooper says. “It’s a giant baggie that holds the wastewater, and the anaerobic bacteria break it down. During the days when it operated as designed, we got about 85 percent BOD removal. There was also a biogas system that we used to flare off the excess gas.”

The hog slaughtering operation and a yarn-dyeing factory have since closed, and the pretreatment system is no longer necessary. “The bladder is still in place, although it now acts as a primary clarifier,” Cooper says. “We get good solids removal, and a BOD removal of around 25 percent. The anaerobic lagoon supplies the bacteria for the phosphorus removal.”

In 1998 when Bollinger retired, Cooper was promoted to plant superintendent. By then, she had extensive hands-on experience in operations, had completed the Sacramento wastewater course, and had earned her Class 1 in wastewater operations. In 2000, the city manager asked her to take on the water division, and after four years of learning that field, she received her Class C license in water operations.


Wastewater team

Her wastewater group comprises: Sharon Hawkins, lab technician A, with 12 years at the plant; Elaine Ahlberg, lab technician B, 9 years; Tom Lampley, lead operator, Class 2, 22 years; Greg Stechschulte, operator/maintenance, Class 2, 34 years; Jim Moore, operator/maintenance, Class 2, 22 years; and operator/maintenance employees Shawn Mortenson, 3 years; Andrew Cunningham, 3 years; and Jesse Jones, 7 months.

Cooper trains new operators and meets monthly with her staff to discuss the status of planned projects and hear concerns. The operators maintain the plant, equipment and collection system. “Maintenance skills are a must,” says Cooper. “Tom Lampley recently installed a SCADA system for the plant. We contract out the major maintenance, such as replacing bearings on the centrifuges.”

Although the plant’s NPDES permit requires testing only once a week for most parameters, the lab generally tests three to four times a week. Technicians run a settleability test and microscopic examination of the mixed liquor daily. They also perform additional process control testing on COD, phosphorus and alkalinity. The lab staff samples the receiving water upstream and downstream twice a month.


Solving problems

Cooper’s favorite part of the job is process control matters, such as handling sludge bulking problems, meeting ammonia limits in cold weather, and handling unexpected loading issues. She also loves solving problems. “One of the industrial plants in town dumped some chemicals down the drain, so there was a green liquid going to the receiving stream,” Cooper says. “We had to track where it came from by opening the manholes and backtracking the flow to the chemical source.”

Cooper’s biggest challenge is being a manager. “Dealing with employee issues can be stressful, but I’ve learned to talk it out with the person, and never do it in anger,” she says. Her management philosophy is to empower her employees to make decisions and not be afraid to make mistakes.

“It may not always end up being done their way, and sometimes it’s got to be done my way,” Cooper says. “But I think my employees would say they enjoy the job, and they all support each other.”

A forced merger of the water and wastewater divisions created some tension as wastewater employees had to make room for the water staff, and the water equipment had to be moved to the wastewater site. “This has worked out over time, and the water operators now help the wastewater operators, and vice versa,” says Cooper.


Oversized plant

A key challenge is operating and maintaining a reclamation plant that is too large for the present load. “The plant is so over-designed for what we have to treat right now,” Cooper says. “We have four aeration tanks but are only using one. We have two 100-foot clarifiers, and are only using one. We have four 250 hp blowers and are using one at its lowest amperage.”

The plant was designed to treat 13,000 pounds of BOD. In 1999-2000, monthly average BOD was nearing capacity at 11,000-12,000 pounds per day. In 2000, the plant upgraded the capacity to 18,000 pounds per day. But when the hog slaughtering and yarn-dyeing plants closed, the BOD load dropped to 3,500 pounds per day. Then, another industrial user ended production, and the load dropped to 2,000 pounds per day. Today, the Rochelle plant treats about 5,000 pounds of BOD per day, at a flow of 2.0 mgd.

The plant must maintain the unused equipment so it is ready in the future. “We rotate blower operation, so that all blowers are used regularly,” Cooper says. “It’s an operation and maintenance challenge to have more equipment than we need.”

That is starting to change. A maker of meals-ready-to-eat (MRE) for the military is operating at the former hog slaughtering site, and the treatment plant has started accepting landfill leachate. “We are seeing a lot of warehouses going in, and although they are not large sewer users, we still need to get service to their facilities,” says Cooper. “Right now, we’re putting in new lift stations to serve those areas.”


Future goals

Looking farther ahead, Cooper’s goals include making plant improvements with a limited budget and making sure there will be enough money for future upgrades. “There is no state program for energy efficiency upgrades to treatment plants in communities served by a municipal electric provider,” she says. “The treatment plant was constructed under the IEPA State Revolving Fund Program. The loan has been refinanced with lower interest rates.”

Cooper is working on a 20-year plan with an engineering consultant to prioritize what needs to be done to meet future growth and regulations, and to operate the 20-year-old plant more efficiently.

Priorities include rehabilitating the sand filters, starting a replacement program for the centrifuges, cleaning the lagoon, and rewelding the cover seams. Cooper would like to see better grit removal at the headworks.

“Every year when we clean the diffusers, we have to remove grit from the aeration tanks,” she says. “The grit also decreases the life of the pumps.” She would like to incorporate anaerobic digestion at the plant so that biosolids could be used on farmland. Another wish is energy-saving improvements: installing more variable-frequency drives, and replacing older centrifuges and blowers with more energy-efficient models.

Lowering customer rates is another goal. “Our rates are some of the highest in the state,” Cooper says. “About a third of our rate structure is debt payment, and this will be significantly reduced when our revolving loan is paid off in 2014.”

In the meantime, Cooper plans to continue her hard work for Rochelle Municipal Utilities. “I am not able to do this alone,” she says. “It takes all the employees working together, each with their own strengths, to run a treatment plant. If you have high expectations for yourself and your operators, you will be successful.”


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