A Sparkling Legacy

New York’s Steve Askew takes pride in his plant, in his team’s performance, and in the changes wastewater treatment has helped bring to the city’s waterways.
A Sparkling Legacy
Members of the North River plant WEF Operations Challenge team, the Harlem Pumptrotters, are, from left, Bill Sedutto, Mike Leone, Joe Riccardi and Justin Manfredi.

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Steve Askew concisely sums up the challenge

of running New York City's North River Wastewater Treatment Plant: "We're a 28-acre, $2 billion piece of concrete, processing millions of gallons of wastewater every day, 500 feet away from tens of thousands of people on Manhattan's West Side."

Askew, the plant's superintendent and chief operator, meets that and more specific challenges daily with expert help from a staff of 125, all but about 20 under his supervision. For them, it's about making a difference — and it's easy to make the case that they have done so.

"In the simplest sense, water comes in dirty and goes out clean," says Askew, a veteran of 29 years with the city Department of Environmental Protection (DEP). "New York City has experienced continued improvement in water quality in the last generation, and I'm proud to be part of that.

"This is not the same city it was 25 years ago with respect to water quality and access to the water. The city is located in a marine environment. Between Manhattan Island, Staten Island, Brooklyn and Queens, we have nearly 600 miles of coastline. Twenty-five years ago, either people couldn't get access to the water or they were afraid to go near it.

"Now people want to go to the beach. Real estate values along the waterfront have skyrocketed, and public access to the waterfront has come to the forefront among the city's policies. That couldn't be done unless the waterways were clean. There are 8 million people in this city, and this would be quite literally a cesspool if we didn't do what we do, and do it well."

Big green roof

It's hard to imagine a more unique setting for a treatment plant than North River's — it actually has for its roof the 28-acre Riverbank State Park. Rising 69 feet above the Hudson River, it provides spectacular vistas. It includes an outdoor 25-yard lap pool; a wading pool; tennis, basketball and handball courts; a softball field; a 400-meter running track; and a football/soccer field.

Buildings house an Olympic-size pool, a covered skating rink, an 800-seat theater, a 2,500-seat athletic complex with fitness room, and a 150-seat restaurant. So, besides the challenge of keeping a 175 mgd (design) activated sludge plant in permit compliance, there's the need to be a good "downstairs" neighbor. In part, that means operating a vast odor-control system.

While the park itself is run by the New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation, the North River plant maintains close ties with the park staff. "Wastewater treatment plants are generally not in the public access business, but we have a strong public outreach program at North River, and the park is a vital part of that," Askew says.

It's all in a day's work for Askew, a Grade 4A license holder and winner of the New York Water Environment Association William D. Hatfield Award (2007) and Uhl T. Mann Award for operations and maintenance excellence (1999). As the ranking employee on site, he is in charge of the entire facility, including operations, maintenance, public relations and contract administration.

Always learning

It has been a rewarding journey for Askew, son of a city DEP employee. After high school, he attended City College of New York to pursue electrical engineering, but "life got in the way" and he was unable to finish. Instead, he joined the U.S. Navy, where he worked in the nuclear power program for six years, both on shipboard and at the shipyard in Newport News, Va.

"When I got out of the Navy in the early 1980s, the nuclear industry was in a state of turmoil because of the Three Mile Island incident," Askew recalls. "I needed a job and more or less followed my father's footsteps into the DEP."

He started as a mechanic, doing repairs and installation on major equipment like pumps and engine-generators. He earned his wastewater operator license, moved into an operator's role, and worked up the chain to shift operator, shift supervisor, assistant plant superintendent, and ultimately plant superintendent at North River in 1996.

His varied education served him well. "A wastewater treatment plant has electrical systems, mechanical systems, HVAC systems, so everything I learned in school with respect to engineering, chemistry and biology applied to my new career," Askew says. "My formal schooling and my nuclear work certainly transferred over."

Along the way, Askew took courses in facilities management at New York University and Manhattan College, along with training specific to the wastewater field. He also became certified in vibration analysis and as a value engineering facilitator. "I'm always looking to do things better," he says. "I'm kind of a mover and shaker. I don't accept the status quo."

All choreographed

Askew's team includes assistant superintendents Sammy Andalib (operations) and Charles Youhan (maintenance), along with operators, general mechanics, skilled tradespeople such as machinists and electricians, process engineers, logistics support, and administrative staff.

The plant also operates three boats that haul biosolids from the mesophilic anaerobic digesters — some 70,000 to 100,000 cubic feet per day — to centrifuge dewatering facilities at Ward's Island on the other side of Manhattan.

"Everything is choreographed and everybody works in concert with one another," says Askew. "I'm sort of the conductor who keeps it all moving." The plant's average dry-weather flow of 125 mgd, down significantly over the past decade, is mainly thanks to the city's water conservation initiatives. Flow peaks can be high because the city operates a combined sewer system — maximum permitted wet-weather flow is 340 mgd.

Odor control is especially critical, and to that end, most plant process areas are enclosed. The headworks, for example, is inside a building, and the primary clarifiers are covered. "All of the air from within these spaces is drawn off and sent to odor control systems," says Askew. "We move about 750,000 cfm of air through odor control, in addition to moving 600,000 cfm for supply ventilation. Many of these spaces are occupied by operators, and we have to provide the necessary air changes per hour."

The odor-control system first passes air through wet scrubbers containing a solution of sodium hypochlorite and sodium hydroxide to oxidize the sulfurous compounds. The air then passes through activated carbon filtration to remove remaining odorous compounds and scrubber off-gasing before being exhausted. "We've got 25 scrubber towers and close to 60 carbon vessels, each holding 20,000 pounds of carbon," Askew says. "That's a lot of odor control."

Cost-control challenge

Cost control is another challenge in a time of tightening budgets and fiscal constraints. "To increase efficiency, the DEP has embarked on an operational excellence program where we're looking to optimize our processes," says Askew. "Every year, new mandates come in that may tend to increase operations complexity and cost. On top of that, equipment gets older every year. Meanwhile, resources are becoming more and more scarce. That's a challenge, but we are certainly up to it."

For one thing, "We're very regimented with our maintenance practices. We're being creative with reliability-centered maintenance. It's not the old planned maintenance where you do an open inspection at a fixed interval. We don't go around greasing pumps that haven't run in six months. We don't waste time and resources over-maintaining equipment."

The maintenance regimen includes vibration analysis to detect equipment anomalies that could signal impending failure, and infrared thermography to locate "hotspots" on equipment or in electrical connections, again to detect and head off trouble.

"We also do lube oil analysis," Askew adds. "For example, instead of changing oil every three months on an engine, we'll take an oil sample every month, and if we start seeing a trend, then we'll change the oil. We don't want to throw away good oil. That just wastes time and money."

Askew also seeks efficiency by doing work in-house: "It's not cost-effective in all instances, but we've been successful in picking and choosing which tasks to outsource and which tasks to insource, and we've developed a balance there."

Leading the team

A major driver of efficiency is an effective team, and here Askew strives to motivate by involving team members in decision making. "I'll never ask someone to do something that I haven't done myself or am not willing to do myself," he says. "I try to foster a sense of ownership within the facility.

"I think it was General Dwight Eisenhower who put a string on the table in front of his generals and showed them that if he pushed the string, it didn't go anywhere, but if he pulled the string, it followed him. If you become a leader rather than a pusher, things will get done, and they'll be done better, because the people have more of a sense of pride, and quality goes up.

"In a municipal environment, it can be difficult to give positive motivators, so we try to instill trust in people. Any good management program will tell you that intangibles — a person's sense of self-worth and being part of a team — really goes a long way in motivating people. I certainly stand by that.

"Before I come up with an initiative I'll lay it out and get feedback from the team. When you do that, they can say, 'Hey, this program was a success not because somebody else constructed it and I filled in the blanks, but because I was part of its development.' That really helps out a lot."

Askew also believes in immediate feedback: When he observes people doing things right, he tells them on the spot. The reverse also holds true. For the longer term, Askew lets team members know that a good career path is available to them.

"I try to encourage them to keep their career paths open," he says. "Some people are very amenable to that, while others are content with where they are in the organization. If a person aspires to upward mobility, I'll mentor that person. I've been quite successful in that.

"There are probably more plant superintendents and assistant superintendents in the organization who have worked for me than any other chief operator, and I take great pride in that. It's their own motivations and abilities that got them there, but I like to think that under my tutelage I instilled that motivation in them."

Upgrades on the way

Keeping Askew motivated are continuing facility improvements and upgrades, one of the largest being a new combined heat and power system. North River's anaerobic digesters produce about 1.6 million cubic feet of methane gas per day. At 650 Btu per cubic foot, that's roughly a billion Btu of energy.

The digester gas fuels 10 large reciprocating engines — five 1,700 hp units that directly drive the main sewage pumps, and five 1,000 hp units that drive the process air blowers. Heat is recovered from the engine jacket water, lube oil and exhaust for total thermal efficiency approaching 85 percent.

Those dual-fuel engines (gas with diesel pilot ignition) are near the end of their lives and will be replaced by a combined heat and power system using spark-ignited gas engine-generators producing electricity to drive the pumps, blowers and other equipment. The project is in the design stage, and construction is scheduled to start late this year.

"It's going to be a balancing act because we have to maintain full operational capability," says Askew. "It affects the most critical parts of the facility. As we take equipment out of service and put new equipment in, the construction and coordination will be quite complex.

"I've been involved in plant upgrades before — I probably have a billion dollars of construction under my belt — so I really look forward to it. Maybe that's one of the reasons I'm sticking around."

Leaving a legacy

Indeed, Askew already has "stuck around" for more than a year beyond the time he could have retired: "It's fun, and as long as I keep having fun, I'm going to stay.

"I work for a good organization. I've been lucky to work for some really good people who support me and trust me. I've also been fortunate to have good people work with me. The success of any supervisor is really contingent on the quality of subordinates. I've been really lucky at both ends."

As for his legacy, he says: "We can all look at ourselves at the end of our career and ask: Did I make a difference? It would be self-serving to say I did. That will be determined not by me but by my peers."

For New Yorkers enjoying the city's rejuvenated waterways, the impacts of Askew and his peers are not in question.


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