Culture of Excellence

A South Carolina agency balances the demands of wastewater plant operations with customer service, public education and environmental stewardship.
Culture of Excellence
Sue Schneider, general manager, and Ken Tuck, director of water treatment.

Spartanburg Water has been around a long time. A privately owned company when its original water plant was built in 1887, this South Carolina utility now includes a water system and sanitary sewer district with 250 employees, a $62 million budget and 180,000 customers in three counties.

Its website lists a variety of awards, including:

  • National Association of Clean Water Agencies (NACWA) Peak Performance awards and Excellence in Management Recognition Award
  • South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control Facility Excellence Awards
  • South Carolina Water Environment Association (WEA) Golden Manhole award

The utility’s eight water reclamation facilities received a combination of silver, gold and platinum awards in 2010 from NACWA for outstanding compliance. But what makes the agency and the plants successful is a culture that equally respects employees, customers and the environment. Twenty-six operations staff members are regularly trained in, and rewarded for, customer service, whether they work in the plant, the field or the office.

“Our employees are committed to the utility and the community,” says Sue Schneider, general manager. “They work with the public in a number of ways — supporting industrial customers, helping to clean the watershed, or conducting high school career fairs and plant tours.”

Committed to quality

Rebecca West, deputy general manager of technical and engineering services, observes, “We have good and conscientious operators who apply excellent process control testing and monitoring. We keep our facilities well maintained and work closely with our pretreatment staff to make sure our industrial and commercial customers adhere to their permit conditions.”

The management team fosters a culture of excellence, reinforced with technical training and with visits to other plants that have technology or equipment the agency is considering. This helps employees feel connected and motivated and strengthens commitment to their jobs, Schneider and West agree.

Before choosing equipment for an upgrade, management involves the operators in the process. “We’re at the point where we will have to rehab and replace equipment, so we tell operators what we are planning and ask what would make their job easier,” says West. “We want to make sure operators get what they need to do their jobs.” Plant operators are active in the local WEA chapter, attending networking sessions every few months and going to workshops.

One goal, many plants

Although the Spartanburg Water System is separate from the Spartanburg Sanitary Sewer District (overseen by different commissions), the two share goals, facilities, business offices, employees and the general manager.  In 2007, the agency began using the name Spartanburg Water to present one face and one contact source to customers.

The Spartanburg Sanitary Sewer District (formerly the Spartanburg Metropolitan District) was created in 1929 to eliminate discharge of raw sewage to streams. The district’s first water reclamation plant was built two years later. Today, eight reclamation plants serve about 90 percent residential and 10 percent commercial customers in Spartanburg, Reidville, Cowpens and Pacolet. The plants are:

  • Clifton Converse, 0.29 mgd, built 1990
  • Cowpens, 1.5 mgd, 1979
  • Fairforest, 25 mgd, 1933
  • Fingerville, 0.02 mgd, 1997
  • Lower North Tyger, 2.5 mgd, 2004
  • Pacolet, 0.3 mgd, 1992
  • Page Creek, 1.0 mgd, 1973
  • South Tyger, 1.0 mgd, 2000

The Lower North Tyger and South Tyger facilities discharge to the Tyger River Basin; the others to the Pacolet River Basin. The Fairforest plant was upgraded in 2006 with new solids handling facilities and $10 million in odor-control equipment.

Highly qualified

An experienced operations team keeps things running smoothly at the plants. Schneider, who holds an MBA from Wake Forest University and has 14 years of service to the agency, coordinates all the external functions, working with customers and the Chamber of Commerce. West, with 10 years of service, is a certified biological wastewater and biosolids operator. She handles operations, maintenance, engineering and human resources for water, wastewater collection and water distribution.

Ken Tuck, director of water treatment with 12 years of service, is a certified water treatment operator, biological wastewater treatment operator, distribution system operator and biosolids system operator. Josh Smith, reclaimed water treatment manager with five years of service, supervises the water reclamation plants’ lead operators. Other operations staff members are:

  • Water programs manager David DePratter
  • Lead operators Willie Shell and Eric Tisdale
  • Operators IV Rodney Bragg, Sean Henderson, William Hughes, James Pierson and Michael Russell; operators III Michael Pruitt, Steve Seay and Gary Vanderford; operators II Danny Brown and David Greer; operator I Chad West; and operator trainee Josh Seay
  • Industrial pretreatment coordinator David Crosby, industrial pretreatment specialist John Holcomb, and industrial pretreatment technician Lance Johnson
  • Operations data technician Celeste Pauley
  • Reclaimed water treatment above-ground maintenance coordinator Kevin Wilkie
  • Above-ground maintenance technicians David Hames, Keith Hill and Lewis Speight
  • Secretary Jillane Layton

A central water reclamation plant laboratory takes samples to ensure permit compliance. The staff includes a laboratory manager, quality assurance officer, data technician, eight laboratory technicians and three sampling technicians.

A day’s work
The water reclamation plants operate around the clock; half the operators work at the Fairforest plant, which is considered the operations center. The rest work in routes to operate and maintain the other seven plants and the Lawson Fork pump station. “We’re not required to staff these plants 24 hours a day, but since they operate around the clock, we have operators on call to respond to alarms and after hour situations,” says West.

During a typical day, plant operators are responsible for producing effluent that meets permit requirements, performing preventive maintenance, and troubleshooting and correcting process control performance issues. Other duties include:

  • Calibrating field test meters
  • Performing compliance testing and sampling
  • Analyzing lab data
  • Ordering supplies and chemicals
  • Calculating wasting rates
  • Digesting, decanting, dewatering and transporting biosolids
  • Adjusting feed, dosage and flow rates
  • Maintaining grounds and buildings
  • Monitoring SCADA and verifying accuracy
  • Performing security checks and observations

“An important part of their job is evaluating and recommending efficient and cost-effective modifications, improvements and upgrades to minimize operating expenses,” says West. For example, during the 2006 Fairforest upgrade, the design engineer recommended two holding tanks for solids storage. Biosolids staff recommended one large tank that managed the same volume as the two tanks.

“Our reclaimed water operations staff further recommended dividing that tank internally into sections so that multiple processes could occur simultaneously,” says West. “This allowed solids transfer from other facilities, land application, and dewatering for landfill disposal. The one tank was also smaller, saving land for future plant expansions.”

Solving problems

Operators work as a team to identify and resolve issues that affect the operation and enlist help from other departments when needed. For example, when the Fairforest plant saw high ammonia nitrogen levels on effluent composite samples, the operators worked together to find out why. They discovered that the spikes happened Tuesday through Thursday each week and that influent ammonia spikes coincided with the effluent levels.

The pattern could not be explained in process side streams, wasting habits or any chemical additions, so the operators asked the industrial pretreatment team to identify possible external sources of the ammonia. Coordinator Crosby and lead operator Shell began sampling the closest manholes in all lines entering the facility. Once they identified a line with elevated ammonia, Crosby teamed with the water quality lab and field technicians to sample for and analyze ammonia in upstream manholes.

Eventually, the team identified the source. Since the discharger did not have an ammonia nitrogen limit in its discharge permit, there was no violation. The discharger agreed to alter the operation that released the elevated ammonia.

“What makes us unique is the dedication and support of everyone in our company to assist each other in whatever capacity is needed,” says Shell. “Teamwork is not only expected, it is rigorously exercised.”

Lead operator Tisdale adds, “I feel our team is successful because it is just that — a team. The daily communication, talking with each other about operational problems, or something different they tried in the field that day that worked, definitely helps all of us.  A free flow of ideas or questions is the key to our strong team.”

Future concerns

Schneider anticipates no need for upgrades at the plants in the next five years, although it is a continuing challenge to repair and replace collection lines that are 50 to 100 years old. Nutrient limits are not in the immediate future, but changes in flows and concentrations continue to pose permit compliance challenges.

Another goal for the agency is to protect the watersheds. “We discharge to waterways that support many communities downstream, so we want to make sure they are as clean as they can be,” says Schneider. “If we don’t treat them right, they won’t be available for future use.”

Spartanburg Water just completed a master plan and developed a watershed monitoring model that tracks all public environmental data, generated from landfills or other NPDES discharges within the watershed, so that changes in streams can be identified before permit renewal cycles. That allows staff to better manage future permit challenges.

“We want to encourage better watershed management, such as managing the buffer along the riverside and better siting of landfills,” says Schneider. “We’re interested in getting people involved who use the watershed, so we host stream clean-up activities and a lake sweep once a year.”

It all goes back to the agency’s dedication to high-quality service and environmental protection for its communities.


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