Just One Big Family

Plant superintendent John LaRocca feels kinship not just with his own team but with industry colleagues at large through service to his state association
Just One Big Family
John LaRocca, shown at the secondary clarifiers at the Joseph L. Devlin Wastewater Reclamation Facility, won the 2010 Operator of the Year award from the Illinois Association of Water Pollution Control Operators.

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The clean-water profession has a family feel to John LaRocca,and not just because his father introduced him to it. The profession feels like a family because of the closeness among his team at the Village of Roselle Public Works Department, where he is superintendent of wastewater operations. Then there are connections he has made while serving on the board of the Illinois Association of Water Pollution Control Operators (IAWPCO), and interacting with other clean-water professionals around the state.

“I’ve met so many great people,” says LaRocca, a member of the industry for 36 years, since age 18 (and arguably even longer). “One thing I’ve always said about wastewater operators: I don’t think I’ve ever met a bad one. There are so many good people in this industry it’s almost unbelievable. Almost everybody I meet, everybody involved in the associations, they are just really nice, great people. I am just elated to be a part of this profession.”


Starting young

Roselle is a village of about 23,000 in Northeastern Illinois. The Public Works Department’s Wastewater Division oversees two wastewater treatment plants, 11 pump stations and about 90 miles of sewers with a team of nine, which LaRocca leads.

LaRocca grew up in the nearby Village of Addison, where his father was wastewater plant superintendent for many years. “I would go to work with my dad when I was a kid,” LaRocca says. “I got to see how he interacted with his team, and I talked to the guys, as much as a kid could do. My dad would put me to work, cleaning baseboards in the lab and doing other menial tasks, and he would pay me a couple of bucks.”

After high school, LaRocca tried college, and when it didn’t work out, he entered the wastewater profession. “I’ve always had a passion for water,” he says.

His father helped him land a job with Citizens’ Utilities, a private operations company, working in the Village of Bolingbrook. After a couple of years, he moved to Salt Creek Sanitary District in Villa Park for four years, and then hired on with Roselle. Four years later, he returned to Salt Creek, and 18 years after that he moved back to Roselle in his current job as superintendent.


Two facilities

Of Roselle’s two treatment plants, the larger is the 2 mgd (design) activated sludge Devlin Wastewater Treatment Facility. Its average flow of 1.65 mgd can swell to 10 to 12 mgd during heavy rains. A 2.84-million-gallon equalization basin and 700,000-gallon excess flow clarifiers help handle high flows.

“When we get torrential downpours, we still get excess flow discharges, but having that additional 3.5-million-gallon capacity has cut those in half,” says LaRocca, who holds a Class 1 wastewater operator license. The excess flow clarifier is similar to a primary clarifier, except that it has no collector inside. Solids simply settle to the bottom and are pumped to the plant headworks when the high-flow event is over.

The Devlin plant has tertiary treatment with Hydro-Clear sand filters (Siemens Water Technologies Corp. – Zimpro). “We installed them in 1986,” LaRocca says. “It’s a good design, and it works well. Our annual average effluent TSS is 2 mg/l, and BOD is about the same.” The plant discharges to Spring Brook Creek, a tributary to Salt Creek.

The other plant, the 1.4 mgd (design) Botterman Wastewater Treatment Facility, has oxidation ditch treatment followed by secondary clarifiers. The plant discharges to the West Branch of the DuPage River. Both plants use aerobic digestion to produce Class B biosolids for land application.

The Devlin facility was nominated twice for the IAWPCO Group 1 Plant of the Year Award, and won it in 2002. The Botterman plant received a Clean Water Award from the Conservation Foundation and the DuPage River Coalition in 2001. “Both our facilities are well run and produce a pristine effluent,” says LaRocca. “We’re very proud of the work we do.”


All about the team

To run the plants and related facilities, LaRocca relies on lab technician Bob Kappler, lead operator Jeff Peto and operator Ron Baird at the Devlin plant, lead operator Joe Montefalco and operator Mike Szmergalski at the Botterman plant, and collection system operators Roger Karner, Jim Campbell, and Jim Mrugacz. They are a highly experienced group, most with 25 to more than 30 years with the village.

“I can’t give enough credit to the team here,” LaRocca says. “They are a phenomenal group of guys. They really excel in all Public Works duties. Besides the wastewater facilities, they work on water main breaks and plow snow. They are a pretty diverse group. They have a lot of talent.”

LaRocca tries to draw out his team members’ talent by treating them like true professionals. “You need to be reasonable and allow your employees to be part of the operation,” he says. “I don’t rule with a heavy hand. I let them do their jobs and think for themselves. I’m here to guide them along the way. If they need help, they know where I am. My door is always open. We solve problems collectively.

“We create an environment here where people get up in the morning and enjoy coming to work. We do things together outside of work. I have the guys over to my house every year for a Christmas party. We enjoy each other’s company. We’re like an extended family. We have our disagreements, but in the end we all get along. I would say that’s a major reason everybody has stayed here as long as they have.”


Performance payoff

The teamwork pays off in permit compliance and efficiency. LaRocca says the village has been free of permit violations for about 20 years. Plant equipment runs reliably because team members care for it diligently.

“They treat all the equipment as if it were their own,” LaRocca says. “Because of that, we have few mechanical breakdowns. A lot of our equipment still looks brand new, even though it is 10, 12 or 15 years old. Our Vac-Con combination sewer cleaning truck is a year 2000 model. If I sent you a picture of it, you would swear it’s brand new. They take care of all the equipment in that same manner, and because of that, it lasts, and that saves money for the village.”

LaRocca counts on the team to step up in difficult times, such as for major storms and plant upsets. On one occasion, the team arrived for work in the morning to find that a secondary clarifier at the Devlin plant had overturned: The sludge blanket had denitrified and floated. “At that point, we had sludge flowing over the weirs, blinding the sand filters,” LaRocca recalls. “There was actually no flow leaving the plant.

“What had happened was that a part-time employee had shut the collector off as he was painting the drive motors, and he never turned it back on. So all that sludge was building up in the clarifier overnight.

“We shut off the flow to that clarifier and operated temporarily on one clarifier. We had to get some portable pumps to pump out the sand filters and get some clear water flowing through. We eventually got everything back online without any sludge discharge to the stream. Everything was contained; we didn’t miss a beat. The guys just knew what to do.”


Part of the network

Of course there are times when even the best team of operators can use help from the outside. In such events, LaRocca can turn to colleagues around the state who are members of the IAWPCO.

LaRocca is just completing his year as president of the organization, part of a five-year commitment to serve in ascending positions on the executive board. He got involved with the association by attending meetings starting in the 1980s and served on the board for the group’s northeast region.

“Being involved with the state association at the board level has been extremely beneficial to me, simply for the ability to network with fellow operators in different communities,” LaRocca says. “It pays dividends when you encounter difficulties in your facility and you know that somewhere in the state, someone has already solved what you’re dealing with. The answer is out there. That alone is worth the price of membership.

“We’ve received many ideas from other people throughout the state that have had a positive effect on our operation.” In one case, the Devlin plant had a problem with filamentous bacteria in the activated sludge.

“One way to combat that is to dose your activated sludge with chlorine solution,” LaRocca says. “But you have to get that dialed in, because if you feed too much chlorine, you kill off the good microbes. Through networking, we figured out how to calculate the pounds of chlorine we should be adding. It has worked very well for us.”


Seeking a successor

After 36 years, LaRocca looks toward eventually retiring with the facilities still in excellent hands. “One of my goals is succession planning,” he says. “I want to make sure somebody in-house is ready to take my place. We’ve been working toward that over the last few years, training the people here who one day might take over for me.

“The industry has been good to me. I enjoy sharing my knowledge and experience with others. Helping people is a part of what I do and a part of the enjoyment I get from this profession.”


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