The Pen Is Mighty

Doug Sibolski saw public opinion turning against his city’s treatment plant. He said goodbye to the low profile and took to the newspaper to set things straight.
The Pen Is Mighty
Doug Sibolski

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Many clean-water operators prefer to keep a low profile: I do my job, I do it well, that’s enough, I don’t need recognition. Sometimes, unfortunately, keeping quiet allows misinformation about a plant to take hold, and that can do damage.

It happened in Lockport, N.Y., a city of about 19,000, where consistent bad publicity, based on misinformation, caused the treatment plant to be issued a state permit much stricter than plant operators felt was justified by the quality of the receiving stream.

Upon taking over as chief operator of the 22 mgd (design) activated sludge plant last January after 26 years at the site, Doug Sibolski kissed the low profile goodbye. He took to writing a series of columns for the Lockport Union-Sun & Journal newspaper. The first appeared in June.

In the columns, Sibolski addressed the specific issues surrounding the plant’s permit and generally explained what happens in the collection system and the treatment plant, why it all matters and how the public benefits. He talked about his experience in an interview with Treatment Plant Operator.

TPO: What was the force behind your decision to write these columns?

Sibolski: We did it out of necessity. Our permit was up for renewal. Downstream from us on our receiving stream, which is Eigthteenmile Creek, there’s a beach on Lake Ontario. The county health department often closes that beach after rain events because of coliform bacteria levels.

We’re more than 13 miles away from the beach by way of the creek, which the state has rated as a D stream. The superintendent of the town where that beach is located began to go public, without any facts, saying our plant was polluting the creek and causing the closings of his beach. He went on for about a year spouting that on the radio and wherever else he could.

TPO: What exactly is a D stream?

Sibolski: Our state Department of Environmental Conservation ranks streams from A to D for water quality, D being the poorest. Eighteenmile Creek is a D stream because it was polluted for about 150 years with PCBs and heavy metals from industry.

TPO: What led this town official to blame the beach closings on your facility?
Sibolski: We are one of very few plants that are not required to disinfect our effluent. We used to chlorinate. But that requirement was taken off our permit back in 1997 because the DEC found that the chlorine residual, even though it was quite small at less than 0.5 mg/L and the lowest we could achieve, was more detrimental to the creek than any fecal coliform that would go into it.

TPO: Can you document that your facility is not the source of the coliform bacteria?

Sibolski: Yes. We do put coliform into the creek, but our testing has shown that it dissipates within less than two-tenths of a mile. In addition, the county health department performed DNA tests on the coliform bacteria collected at the beach. Those tests proved that the source was second-stomach animals — like cows and deer. A lot of farmers along the creek spread manure for their fields. Besides that, there are two dams between us and the town. There is no way coliform from our plant gets to that beach.

TPO: Given that this town official’s information was wrong, what made it such a problem?

Sibolski: It became a problem because we kept our mouths shut. Over a year’s time members of the public who had heard the complaints started getting on the radio, getting on the bandwagon and blaming us. The town superintendent had people from the area writing to the newspaper saying they were doctors and recommending that our plant be denied a permit and should be closed, which when you think about it is ridiculous. In the meantime our permit was up for renewal, and we were just sitting back taking the punishment.

TPO: Was your permit actually affected by this controversy?

Sibolski: The state made our permit much tougher than it had been, at a big cost to our city. The creek is a D stream, yet some of the requirements they put on us are appropriate for an A stream. For example, they now require a DO of 7.0 mg/L, while the state standard for a D stream is anything above 3.0 mg/L. And there are other stipulations. Under our permit now, we have to test the creek for coliform once a month from June to September, all the way down to Lake Ontario — a total of 13 samples. We’re doing what the county health department used to do. That costs extra money.

TPO: At what point did you decide to write the newspaper columns?

Sibolski: When I became chief operator, I talked to the mayor, the city council, the sewer committee and the city attorney and said we needed to counteract the misinformation with the public. I thought it was about time we did some PR so that people would understand that we’re not here polluting the creek, we’re here to keep it clean.

TPO: How did you get the newspaper to agree to publish your columns?

Sibolski: The aldermen here do a monthly local TV program. Each of them has an hour to take call-in questions. One of the aldermen invited me to go on. One of the newspaper reporters saw the show and talked to me afterward. I told her about the radio publicity and the people calling in blaming us, and where it all began, and how I would like to counteract that with some articles. They thought that was a great idea.

TPO: How did you proceed from there?

Sibolski: I started by writing two articles. The first was an overview so that people could get a basic understanding of the situation with the creek. When I showed it to people here at work, they said, ‘Doug, you’re writing this as if you’re back in college writing a technical paper. People aren’t going to understand it.’ So I had to simplify it and get it to language the layperson would understand. That wasn’t so easy.

My plan over a period of six to 10 articles is to bring it down into the plant so that people understand what we do here. We are environmentalists. We are people who love our jobs, and if given the chance we’ll talk and talk and talk about it, yet people don’t know about what we do. The paper gave me the opportunity, and I’ve taken advantage of it. They run my article every fourth Sunday of the month. There is a lot to talk about.

TPO: How would you describe the reaction from the public?

Sibolski: From the beginning I got quite a few comments from people saying they couldn’t wait to read the rest of them. We’re getting quite a bit of feedback. We’ve had a compost facility here for 24 years and we allow people to buy it for $10 a yard. When people come in to pay, my office is right there, so I hear from them.

TPO: What would you say to other clean-water operators who might be thinking about raising their profile with the public?

Sibolski: I think this is an industry that doesn’t get out there enough to let the people know what we do. For that reason we’re the unseen, the unspoken — when we ask for money, people don’t understand why, and we tend not to get a lot of money or a lot of attention. The police department and the fire department normally get all the attention and the money. I think the people would be interested in us — we just need to get the information out there.

The old school tended to say you shouldn’t bring the public into what you’re doing, that you don’t hold an open house, that you keep things more secretive. I’m on the opposite side of that. I think as long as you have a clean nose, you should open up to the public and let them know exactly what you’re doing. I think it hurts when we close ourselves off. We don’t have anything to hide. I think it’s time we speak up.


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