Making Great Music

Joe Geary and his team at Lawrence, Mass., met the challenges of a new treatment plant with cross-training, teamwork and consistent ingenuity.
Making Great Music

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Joe Geary, lead operator at the Lawrence, Mass., water treatment plant, loves playing in a band. Strumming the banjo and mandolin with the "Strung-out Playboys," he enjoys the teamwork and the idea that band members can just take off and do what they're good at.

He approaches his job the same way: "I tell my staff, 'Don't be afraid to try something. If you've got an idea or an answer to a problem, let's hear it.' I've learned a heck of a lot from the people I work with. We keep an open attitude so people feel free to contribute. We're all part of a team."

Geary is an employee of Woodard & Curran, an engineering, science and operations firm based in Portland, Maine, that has operated the Lawrence facility under contract since soon after the plant started up seven years ago.

Challenging source

The 16 mgd plant uses state-of-the-art equipment, including upflow clarifiers, carbon filters, and UV disinfection (all by Infilco Degremont). A sophisticated SCADA system (Intellution with Allen-Bradley/Rockwell Automation PLCs) monitors and controls plant processes.

"Raw water is drawn from the Merrimack River," Geary explains. "That's one of the biggest rivers in Massachusetts, and a lot of communities use it for both drinking water and wastewater discharge," requiring a high level of treatment at Lawrence.

Screens at the raw water intake remove leaves and other organic material. The clarifiers work on a pulsation principle, building a sludge blanket just off the bottom that acts as a pre-filter.

The staff uses a novel approach to replace carbon in the filters: "One-half of the filters are being replaced with virgin carbon, and the other half are being replaced with carbon reactivated by the carbon supplier," he says. After two years, the team will perform iodine testing on both types, then choose which way to go in the future. "The advantage of reactivated carbon is that it costs about 25 percent less than virgin and has the potential for big savings over the long term," Geary says.

Since UV treatment of drinking water is relatively new to the state, Geary's team is also working with the Department of Environmental Protection to develop reporting forms. "We're developing the forms in-house using the U.S. EPA Ultraviolet Disinfection Guidance Manual as a guide," Geary explains.

Successful career

Woodard & Curran began working with the city as the new plant was being phased in. The old plant across the street, built in the 1930s, continued to operate until the changeover was complete in 2007. Geary was assigned to operate the old plant, while the operators were trained on the new facility. The new plant represented a big step forward in technology for the city, and ultimately the city hired Woodard & Curran to operate it. Geary became the lead operator.

It's the latest job in a 23-year career that Geary calls both secure and satisfying.

"I started out pursuing a degree in business administration," he says. "But my sister was working in a water treatment laboratory, and she got me interested in water and wastewater." He took courses at University of Massachusetts Lowell, passed the state licensing exams, and got a job at the Lynn Water Treatment Plant (in his hometown), working for a contract operator.

Excelling in his role, Geary was assigned to manage the startup of a treatment plant in North Adams, Mass., and later be the manager of utilities at Salem, N.H., before joining Woodard & Curran 11 years ago. He holds both Class 4T (treatment) and Class 3D (distribution) certifications for Massachusetts and New Hampshire.

"I've learned a lot through experience and through studying on my own," he says. "Over the last couple of years, I've been trying to learn more about SCADA controls and electronics. I have people who know it like the back of their hands, but you really need to understand more about it when you're working with them."

The Lawrence assignment has put his qualifications, and those of his six staff members, to the test. "We have a lot of new bells and whistles here," he says. Plus, the state regulatory authorities handed down a list of some 170 consent order items that the new plant had to address when Woodard & Curran took over.

It's about the team

Geary's team has worked through the list and had satisfied all but two of the items by last summer. That kind of performance doesn't surprise Sam Torissi, water and sewer supervisor for the city. "He's the most even-keeled and knowledgeable person I've dealt with in the water business," he says.

"We had numerous issues with the new plant, and he has corrected each and every one of them. But it's more than that. There were a lot of little things in the new plant that didn't work. The air conditioning wasn't heat-sensitive in one of the rooms, a polymer pump was in the wrong place, a valve was rusting. He went through the entire plant and fixed countless little things."

Geary will tell you his team is responsible for the success. Teamwork is on his mind continuously: "When I drive to work in the morning, I'm thinking about who's on duty and what their strengths are. If it's the guy who's the computer whiz, then I'll have him look at computer stuff while he's there. Another person is good mechanically, so we'll get at those things."

He tries to be pragmatic, but admits it's not easy and takes discipline. "I delegate a lot, and I'm not going to nit-pick," he says. "If you know the best way to get something done, then do it. If you have the right people working for you, it's not a problem. I see my job as big picture. Sometimes you have to be detailed, but if you dwell on the small things too much, you'll go crazy."

Peer review

Torissi says Geary's style is widely admired among his peers: "When we go to consortium meetings with other cities in the Merrimack Valley, it's amazing. He knows everybody, and he's respected, gets high praise. He's meticulous. When his company has a problem, they send Joe."

Woodard & Curran colleague Paul Roux has known Geary for more than 10 years, and says he can balance "a hundred things at once. He's very cool under pressure."

In turn, while Geary believes the water management field offers both job satisfaction and security, he has no misconceptions about the challenges. "It can be demanding," he says. "You give up a portion of your life being on call on weekends and in the middle of the night. Ours is a 24/7 commitment.

"But I find it interesting. The technology is always changing, you're always learning about new things. Problem solving can be a lot of fun."

He says a key to success, at Lawrence or anywhere, is to get people well trained in all areas of the plant and its operations. "We like to cross-train our people, so they can do a little bit of everything – laboratory work, operations, maintenance, sampling," he says. "If you do that, you'll have a much more well-rounded staff. It's better than having just one person who knows everything."

Confidence building

The cross-training and the confidence Geary instills in his staff pay off time and again. "Just this afternoon, we were looking at a trihalomethane issue we sometimes have in the far reaches of our distribution system." Geary reflects. "We wondered if it might be because of carbon in the bottom of the clearwell affecting the THM level.

"We sent a Sentry robot down to take a picture of the bottom, but we couldn't tell if the black stuff down there was carbon or just some staining. Then one of our operators suggested that we send our Sludge Judge (Nasco) down there to take a sample. It turned out it wasn't carbon, but it was a simple idea for sampling that nobody had thought of before, and it worked."

One of Geary's long-term goals is to get more young people interested in the field. "This is a very stable career choice," he says. "Good operations people are always in demand. You rarely have to worry about finding a job."

Roux observes that Geary is "exceptional with the staff reporting to him. He's very fair, and aware of everything his people face. He stresses career development and works hard to take people under his wing and train them so they can pass the exams and get a job at a water facility. He's done that with at least 10 people I know of. He wants them to stay in the industry."

Geary summarizes his profession: "I always tell people that the good part of this job is people always need water. The bad part of this job is people always need water." He could say the same about his banjo-playing: "The good news is people like to hear good music. The bad news is people like to hear good music."


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