Leaving Things Better

Operator of the Year Dawn McCoy and her team keep the process humming at a Mississippi plant with a unique biological treatment system.
Leaving Things Better
Team members at the McComb facility include, from left, Dawn McCoy, Severn Trent project manager; Shannon Moore, assistant manager; Samuel Reese, maintenance technician I; and Eric Jones, operator II. They are shown beside the plant’s vertical loop reactor (Siemens Water Technologies). Not pictured is James Anderson, maintenance technician III.

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Dawn McCoy likes to leave things better than when she found them. That attitude has served her well during her 18-year career in the water professions.

Her hard work has led to a series of promotions, from laboratory technician/operator to field operations manager, area manager and finally project manager at the McComb (Miss.) Regional Wastewater Treatment Facility.

Today, as a Class IV senior wastewater operator, she manages four team members and is responsible for operations, maintenance, accounting and paperwork at the plant, operated by Severn Trent Services through a public-private partnership with the city.

She has spent her entire career with Severn Trent, moving to McComb six months before startup in 2010. The $34 million facility uses a vertical loop reactor (VLR) and interchange biological reactor (IBR) process, first of its kind in Mississippi and one of only a dozen in the country. The 15 mgd (design) plant replaced a lagoon treatment system that was decommissioned but now functions as a flow equalization basin and regional pumping station. The transition from old to new posed challenges for McCoy and her staff.

“We had a lot of work to do, learning how to operate all the new equipment, writing standard operating procedures and cataloging everything,” says McCoy. “It seemed like a whole lot to do at the time, but you just work out what you can until it’s time to go home, and come back the next day and do it again.”

For her efforts, McCoy received the 2011 Don Scott Award as Outstanding Wastewater Operator of the Year from the Mississippi Water and Pollution Control Operators Association (MWPCOA).

Doing it all

McCoy has always been interested in science and biology. In 1994, she applied for a job as a laboratory technician with Severn Trent in Clinton, Miss. While there, she earned her Class II wastewater and Class D drinking water licenses, enabling her to serve as backup operator for the town’s water and wastewater facilities.

“The town had small package plants, and I did a little bit of everything, including water and wastewater laboratory sample collection and analysis, administrative duties, meter reading and hydrant flushing,” McCoy recalls.

From there, she went to Jackson, Miss., working in the laboratory, serving as backup operator for a satellite plant, and performing maintenance and administrative tasks. In 2002, she was promoted to field operations manager: “The operator I filled in for had passed away, and they asked me to fill that position. I was responsible for operating, maintaining and managing the Ceres Industrial Complex, Gulf States Canners and Culkin Water District wastewater systems.”

While in Jackson, she honed her wastewater operations skills while learning about records maintenance, regulatory reports, assigning and scheduling staff, and developing and managing a project budget. She also earned her Class IV senior wastewater operator license. She credits her mentors with much of her success: “My first boss, David Canizaro, taught me how the wastewater process works. Kelvin Peters in the technical services group at Severn Trent taught me all my lab chemistry. I still call him with questions.”

Meeting challenges

It was the McComb job that really allowed McCoy to flourish. “Severn Trent was brought in during equipment installation at the new plant, and they needed a Class IV operator who could also manage the facility,” McCoy says. “I met with equipment vendors who taught us how the equipment worked and the preventive maintenance that was needed.”

Besides McCoy, two other Severn Trent employees relocated to the new plant, and the company hired two additional operators who had worked at the old plant. McCoy commuted 75 miles each way to her new job for 18 months before moving to a nearby town. She and the other operators had a hand in the design process: “The engineer, contractor and operators met every week during the final construction and equipment installation stage. We were able to provide input on some new lab equipment that we preferred and that was needed for compliance.”

The new plant’s VLR activated sludge process provides a high degree of total nitrogen and total phosphorus removal, and the IBR process (Cannibal system from Siemens Water Technologies) significantly reduces waste activated sludge. “There are two unique things about this plant,” says McCoy. “It operates as a BNR, or biological nutrient removal process, which historically has a higher waste sludge need. But, because of the Cannibal process, it allows the plant to act as a BNR while reducing waste sludge.”

Starting up the new plant proved challenging. “No one had any experience with the technologies, and there was no history on the plant,” says McCoy. “We had to figure out what numbers were normal and set the parameters. There was a lot of trial and error. Fortunately, the design engineers came out and helped us.

“We had to seed the new plant with biomass from a sludge lagoon that Severn Trent operates in Clinton. We used 30,000 gallons of sludge, with the idea of speeding up the startup of the aeration basin biomass.  The BOD and TSS were in compliance in a couple of months, but the ammonia nitrogen took a few weeks longer. The day after we placed the fourth aeration tank online, the ammonia nitrogen started dropping and went from an incoming level of 12 to 14 mg/L to 0.1 mg/L in the effluent.” In spite of the technology learning curve, the plant achieved compliance seven months ahead of schedule.

Better plant

The new technology has increased plant efficiency over the old aerated lagoon and sand filter system. A water information management system (WIMS) helps determine the proper control parameters. Operators input laboratory data into the WIMS, which generates monthly operation reports and NPDES monitoring reports. The staff monitors dissolved oxygen, pH, temperature and oxygen reduction potential (ORP) readings at various points in the VLR and enters the data into the WIMS. Team members also measure daily influent and effluent dissolved oxygen, pH and temperature.

“The old lagoon plant couldn’t meet the increasingly stringent total nitrogen and total phosphorus limits,” says McCoy. “The new plant is meeting these limits and has also increased the BOD/TSS removal from 85 percent to 97 or 98 percent. Our greatest challenge is inflow and infiltration. Sometimes it rains for four to eight days in a row, which means our flow can be as high as 25 mgd, instead of the typical 2.5 to 3.0 mgd.”

When this happens, the plant enters a “storm mode,” taking steps to divert flow. “We divert the influent to the third reactor cell, protecting the aerobic process in aeration basins 1 and 2,” says McCoy. “We programmed the computer to automatically divert this flow. We can also divert water to the lagoons, but only for so long.”

People who care

Four staff members assist McCoy: Shannon Moore, assistant manager (Class IV senior wastewater operator, 15 years with Severn Trent); Eric Jones, operator II (Class II, four years); James Anderson, maintenance supervisor (18 years); and Samuel Reese, maintenance technician (three years).

“Shannon and James came with me to the McComb plant from the Jackson plant,” says McCoy. “Shannon performs operations and assists in the lab. Eric is our dedicated lab person and assists with operations.”

The staff meets weekly or as needed to discuss plant operations, and McCoy holds a safety meeting once a month. “I like my staff to know why they are doing what they’re doing, since that makes the job more interesting for them,” says McCoy. “With some people, you can’t make them care, but I try to surround myself with people who do.”

McCoy describes her team as dedicated and responsible: “They care about the plant like I do, and they don’t mind if it’s 5 p.m. — they will stick around and help get the job done. They’re proud of the plant.” Eager to learn, they have taken the Sacramento online courses. Severn Trent offers a certification incentive program that monetarily rewards employees who earn their licenses. “I try to encourage that,” says McCoy.

McCoy is active in professional organizations, such as MWPCOA, where she shares ideas with other operators and takes classes: “These classes help a lot, and I am always learning something. They have lunches every other month with guest speakers.” She also takes classes through the Mississippi Water Environment Association (MWEA), and is a member of the Water Environment Federation and the Mississippi Rural Water Association.

Never boring

“I am excited about coming to work every day because I feel that I am leaving things better than they were when I found them,” McCoy says. “We are cleaning up the wastewater and returning clean water to the streams. We’re also helping to protect the environment for future generations. People have said I’m a tree hugger, because I take bugs outside and set them free. We had bees nests at the plant, and I called a beekeeper up to come and get them.”

McCoy likes the challenge of process control and the constant monitoring and adjusting of various parameters to make the process work more efficiently. “It is exciting to have such a wide variety of controls to work with, and it never gets boring,” she says. “There is always a little blip or a problem to solve. Every improvement and discovery makes the job more rewarding, and there is always something new to learn.”

She would like to see the plant develop into a true regional facility: Despite its name, it now serves only McComb and its 20,000 people. “As nutrient removal requirements grow tighter, I think this plant can be an asset to the smaller surrounding communities,” says McCoy. “They can send their wastewater here, rather than build more sophisticated plants to meet their permit requirements.”

McCoy also wants to reach out to the larger community: “I’d like to travel to other plants and help operators with their challenges and share what I’ve learned with them.”

Her advice for other plant managers reflects the kind of manager she strives to be: “Always be honest, work hard and ask questions. And try to learn something new every day.”



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