All In for the Hometown

John McCool runs the Warren (Ill.) Wastewater Treatment PLANT with an eye toward protecting the trout waters downstream, and the pocketbooks of local residents.
All In for the Hometown
As essentially a one-person operations team, McCool has duties that include routine lab testing.

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Maybe John McCool would rather have an automated bar screen scraper instead of having to rake the screen three times a day. But when the Warren (Ill.) Wastewater Treatment Plant was last upgraded in 2005, money ran short, and the scraper was one of the “nice to have” items cut.

“That’s just the way it is,” says McCool. That reflects his attitude toward caring for the village’s 330,000 gpd (design) activated sludge plant. He does what needs doing. “We have a lot of fixed-income people in town,” he says. “We have to be very frugal.”

That doesn’t mean cutting corners on effluent quality, because Wolf Creek, the receiving stream, flows on to the Apple River, which the state Department of Natural Resources stocks with rainbow trout for anglers in Apple River Canyon State Park.

As wastewater superintendent and the plant’s only full-time operator, McCool personally handles most basic maintenance and stays in close contact with the Illinois EPA, all to keep the equipment humming and the effluent leaving at 2 to 3 mg/L BOD and TSS, well below the permit levels of 12 mg/L.

While village residents may not notice the job he does, McCool’s peers certainly do. The Warren facility received the 2012 Plant of the Year award from the Illinois Rural Water Association, an honor given to small plants for environmental compliance, appearance, record keeping and other measures.

Big on excellence

Warren, a community of 1,450 in far northwest Illinois, has seen economic struggles as businesses closed or shipped production to Mexico. The original treatment plant was built in 1937. It was upgraded in 1964 and 1976, and again in 2005, to the tune of $2.2 million. Dry-weather flows average 150,000 gpd, essentially all domestic wastewater. The annual operating budget is $350,000.

McCool grew up in Warren and has worked for the village since 1976, mostly at the treatment plant. After high school, he studied psychology for three years at Illinois College in Jacksonville, then went to work in a local plastics factory. He scored high on a test for a tool and die apprenticeship, but then learned from his father, a dentist and village board member, that the village Public Works Department had an opening.

“I’d reached the point where I had to decide if I wanted to work in a factory environment or get into a setting where I could be more my own boss,” he recalls. He applied with the village, got the job and went to community college to earn his wastewater and water certifications.

Today he is one of three Public Works team members. Todd Stone operates the water plant and is also licensed for wastewater; Jeff Bartell takes care of the streets. The three help each other when needed. “I still plow streets, install water and sewer mains and fix hydrants with the other guys,” says McCool. “We have to work as a team because it’s the only way to get things done. That’s just the way it works.”

Protecting the waters

In his role at the treatment plant, McCool treats effluent quality with the utmost care. “Our discharge parameters are very stringent, and they should be,” he says. “Wolf Creek is such a small stream that last year when we had a drought, it was dried up. We were the flow of the stream for a couple of months.”

The plant’s activated sludge process is fed by 13 miles of sanitary sewers and two lift stations. After passing the bar screen and grit chamber (both Walker Process Equipment), and a Muffin Monster communitor (JWC Environmental), the flow splits and enters two primary clarifiers. A lift station moves the primary effluent to a two-cell oxidation ditch (Siemens Water Technologies), after which it enters the secondary clarifiers and from there flows to the creek.

In wet weather when I&I drives the plant flow above 500,000 gpd, excess water flows over a weir into two aerated lagoons (total 2.6-million-gallon capacity) for about a week’s detention time, and then is chlorinated for discharge to the creek.

Primary and waste activated sludges are delivered to two aerobic digesters and from there to three sand drying beds (total 3,200 square feet) inside a building with a clear polycarbonate roof. After three to four weeks, the material is applied to cropland.

“One farmer is right next to the plant,” says McCool. “We apply it with his tractor-drawn manure spreader. He loves it and can’t get enough of it. We haul the material in a dump truck to another farmer’s place, and he goes ahead and spreads it.”

Making investments

While the facility and process are relatively simple, McCool is proud of what the village has invested: “For a town like ours, there’s a lot to this plant. Many towns this size just go with a lagoon system.”

The 2005 upgrade included the drying bed building, a new secondary clarifier, three primary effluent pumps two waste activated sludge pumps (Fairbanks-Nijhuis), a 200 kW diesel emergency generator (Caterpillar), piping and electrical updates, and the oxidation ditch, which helps the plant meet its ammonia nitrogen permit limit of 1.8 mg/L.

McCool keeps it all running on a tight budget by doing as much work as possible in-house. “I have the specs on every motor, blower and electrical device in the plant,” McCool says. “We keep the oils, lubricants and filters the manufacturer recommends, and we make sure things are lubricated at the intervals the manufacturer has set up.”

He and the village team installed polycarbonate covers on the digesters, with help from a contractor, to correct winter freezing problems. If a motor fails or needs service, McCool pulls it out, sends it to a shop, and reinstalls it. He runs lab tests for BOD, TSS, pH, ammonia nitrogen and dissolved oxygen; monthly testing for fecal coliform and phosphorus is handled by Lyons Lab in Stockton, Ill.

Safety is a priority. McCool brought the village’s insurance carrier to the plant for an inspection, “to make sure we had the right fire extinguishers, that we had lockout/tagout for electrical work, that we had warning signs on the doors for the chlorine room, that we knew where hearing protection was required. That way, if OSHA or the Department of Labor should ever pay us a visit, we’re in compliance.”

He also knows when to get expert help. He works with either of two electrical contractors on projects beyond his expertise, and he has the generator serviced by Patten Power Systems, the Caterpillar dealer in Rockford. “I’m a firm believer that if I buy a car at a dealership, they’re going to service it,” he says. “The same holds true with that generator. It might cost a little more, but we get the assurance that it will run when we need it.”

Looking upstream

McCool’s duties extend to the collection system, where I&I is a key challenge, as it is for most communities in the area. “We’re in the process of smoke testing to find out if we have cross-connections,” he says. “We don’t think we do, but we’re going that route anyhow. The system was built in the 1930s, and it’s still mostly the original 8- to 24-inch clay pipe. It would be great to slip-line the sewer mains, but it’s not affordable at the moment. If we could get grants for it, obviously we’d go after them.”

In the meantime, McCool does his best to keep the system free-flowing. The village owns a 2,000 psi O’Brien trailer-mounted jetter (Hi-Vac) to deal with blockages; the package includes a root-cutting tool. Northern Illinois Environmental Applications (NIEA) works on a contract basis, cleaning 5,000 feet of sewer per year.

“With their combination truck, they take the debris out of the flow pattern, rather than just sending it down to the next manhole,” McCool says. “We have most of the system already TV inspected, so we found the trouble spots and got them fixed.”

A few years ago, the village did get a grant from the Illinois EPA to install a 24-inch overflow pipe to correct occasional wet-weather surcharging at manholes. The pipe handles flow from an area where the sewers were undersized; it feeds directly into the main interceptor leading to the treatment plant. “We got the grant because the EPA realized we had a problem,” McCool says. “We’ve always been aboveboard with them and reported whenever we had a surcharge out of a manhole.”

Reaching out

Being aboveboard also means keeping an open door to the community and sharing with others in the profession. “Part of being an operator is having good public relations skills,” says McCool. “You have to be open with the public — they helped pay for this facility. If anybody wants to go through the plant, I’m more than willing to take them. Just recently, a third grade class came for a tour because they were studying the water cycle.”

McCool is a member of Mis-Rock Operators Association and enjoys lending a hand to other members. “I get a lot of calls from other cities about how our drying bed building works,” he says. “I’ll help anybody. The same goes for the IEPA. I get along very well with them. We deal with the Rockford office, and whenever I have a problem, I give them a call.”

It’s been a good life for McCool, personally and professionally. Thirty-five years ago, he married Anne, a new-in-town kindergarten teacher, whom he met at the village’s autumn Pumpkin Festival. “We met downtown one night and started dancing, and that’s all it took.” They have three college-graduate daughters, two with a Ph.D.

“This is a great place to raise a family,” McCool says. “I wouldn’t trade it for anyplace in the world.”


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