Try, Try Again

Pete Laramie shows ‘true grit’ at the Fair Haven treatment plant, fine-tuning denitrification to produce top-quality water.
Try, Try Again
Laramie takes abundant pride in the plant’s effluent quality, a sample of which is shown here.

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“Determination gives you the resolve to keep going in spite of the roadblocks that lie before you.” Author Denis Waitely could have been talking about Pete Laramie, chief operator at the Fair Haven (Vt.) Wastewater Treatment Plant.

Laramie has shown persistence throughout his 28-year career in water, 20 at the Fair Haven plant at the southwestern “hook” of the Green Mountain State. He and his staff have worked tirelessly to optimize biological phosphorous and nitrogen removal, trim energy and chemical costs, and reduce nutrient loadings discharged to the Castleton River and, ultimately, Lake Champlain.

In the process, Laramie, a fourth generation Fair Haven native, earned the 2012 Regional Wastewater Treatment Plant Operator Excellence Award from the U.S. EPA. The awards program recognizes those who have provided invaluable public service managing and operating treatment facilities throughout New England.

The plant also won the 2012 Excellence in the Wake of Irene Award from the Green Mountain Water Environment Association (GMWEA) for its response to Hurricane Irene, which devastated parts of Vermont and the East Coast in 2011.

While acknowledging his gratitude with the EPA and the Vermont Department of Environmental Protection for nominating him, Laramie credited his team: Pete Root, assistant chief operator/maintenance supervisor; Jim Heller, operator; and Paul Olander, consultant, who supported the team’s denitritification efforts. Such credit sharing is typical of Laramie, whose career has taken more than few twists and turns.

Overcoming challenges

“I started working at the Fair Haven water plant back in 1985,” Laramie says. “I’d gotten out of the Air Force the fall before and never had a job anything like it. I was chief operator there until mid-1987.” After a short break with the town, he went to work as its zoning administrator, then served as administrative assistant and later superintendent for the Water and Sewer Department. In 1993, when the chief operator at the wastewater plant left, he told the town manager he wanted the job. “I’ve been there ever since.”

Over the years, he has expanded his skills and earned a Grade 3 Domestic Wastewater Plant Operator license. What drew him to wastewater treatment was its unpredictability: There’s no way to know when it will rain, if the temperature will turn cold or hot, or if someone will dump something bad into the sewers. “Every time you think you’ve got it licked, something comes up that you don’t know about. That keeps you on your toes.”

He has met his share of challenges at Fair Haven, built in 1969 and designed at 0.50 mgd. They include:

  • A major upgrade in 1989 that added six Aire-O2 aspirator aerators (Aeration Industries) on the bridge mounts of the racetrack oxidation ditch, along with a cyclone grit separator and comminutor (solids reduction device).
  • A 2000 upgrade for phosphorous removal, which included selector tanks and chemical addition to help reduce phosphorus and add alkalinity to stabilize pH levels.
  • Inclusion of timers in 2006 on the oxidation canal’s six 15 hp aerator motors, set to cycle every three hours in winter and every 90 minutes in summer.
  • The addition in 2007 of variable-frequency drives to work with the timers. By matching motor speed to oxygen needs, the drives maintain a dissolved oxygen level of 2 mg/L and reduce energy consumption.
  • Purchase in 2009 of a new aerator (Environmental Equipment Engineering), LDO meter and variable-frequency drive to convert the final selector tank to a pre-aeration tank.

Even with the upgrades, the Fair Haven plant consists of a basic ball rock and grit-removal system, with an average flow of 0.20 mgd. Influent flows into a selector tank, and then goes into the oxidation ditch. From there, the flow moves to two secondary clarifiers (Lakeside Equipment) before reaching a chlorine contact chamber where operators chlorinate and dechlorinate and send the treated water to the Castleton River.

Tackling denitrification

Laramie’s biggest challenge came in summer of 2006, when he found the plant’s oxidation canal pH was too acidic and the process of adding bag after bag of soda ash had become too costly. That’s when he, Root and Heller teamed with Olander, then a State of Vermont Engineer, to solve the problem. They balanced pH levels and eliminated soda ash costs while reducing electricity costs by nearly 20 percent.

“Paul suggested denitrifying because when you denitrify, you return up to half of the alkalinity back to the system,” Laramie says. “Our plant nitrified all year round. The only problem is that sometimes the operators would eliminate too many ‘bugs’ and the plant would get caught with partial nitrification. When that happened, our nitrite numbers would go way up and suck up the chlorine, so we wouldn’t have the E. coli kill we needed. That caused more problems.”

The answer? Turn off the aerators for a time — an hour on and an hour off throughout the day. Finding the right times required a good deal of experimentation, not to mention Laramie’s tenaciousness.

“Pete’s focus was awesome,” says Olander, who has been doing operator training and providing technical assistance around Vermont for eight years. “He’s always been a great operator, but with the denitrification project, he really came to the fore. Going out and trying to change the process wasn’t easy. Fair Haven has the six aerators, which he put on timers. He was out there every day doing tests and adjusting the timers and trying to zero in on his optimal aeration schedule. Every time he made a change, he’d watch what happened, then make another change and watch that. He kept after it until he got it right.”

Root, a Grade 1 operator, has similar admiration for Laramie, his colleague for 20 years. “Pete has concentrated on denitrification, process control and nutrient removal, and they’ve worked well for us,” Root says. “He’s done an excellent job, and that has been recognized throughout the state. Pete has tried new ideas, and they’ve been successful. Our water quality is exemplary: we have anywhere from 98 to 100 percent removal.”

Tweaking the process

Laramie’s denitrifying regimen has yielded impressive results:

  • $3,600 savings per year by eliminating soda ash to keep pH levels up, plus a reduction in alum used for phosphorous removal.
  • $9,000 initial annual electrical savings from cycling the aerators, using the VFDs and eliminating mixers for the soda ash. Seven years later, the plant is still saving $6,000 to $7,000 a year over what it had been spending — money that now goes for new equipment and plant improvements.
  • Substantial improvement in nitrate reduction. Before denitrification, nitrate numbers for effluent were 40 to 50 mg/L, but once the plant began denitrifying, that dropped to 1 to 3 mg/L and often went below 1 mg/L.
  • A dramatic reduction in phosphorous. Fair Haven is permitted for 0.8 mg/L, which means it is allowed to discharge 912 pounds per year. In 2012, the plant discharged less than 100 pounds.
  • Strong BOD and TSS improvement. The plant is required to remove 85 percent of influent BOD and 85 percent of TSS. An April 2013 report showed 98.6 percent removal for BOD and 98.7 percent for TSS.

Curt Spalding, administrator of EPA’s New England regional office, cited Laramie for doing “an outstanding job over the years in maintaining and operating the facility.” In a news release, he called professionals like Laramie “essential to keeping our environment healthy by protecting water quality.”

Although grateful for the recognition, Laramie sees himself as a facilitator: “Some folks call me the plant supervisor, but I am the chief operator. I’m not the boss. I’m responsible for what the plant turns out, and I do a lot of hands-on stuff. Besides, everybody knows his job. Pete’s our mechanical specialist, working on pumps and motors, while Jim, who works at the Public Works Department half the time, is responsible for our lab work.”

Filled with activity

A typical day for Laramie starts at 5 a.m. with “morning checks,” making sure the aerators, mixers, clarifiers and other pieces of equipment are running properly, and that hypochlorite, bisulfite and alum are pumping correctly. Then he or a colleague check dissolved oxygen reading, check the amount of chemicals used overnight and check the motors’ hour meters.

After that, he takes an effluent sample and reviews ammonia, nitrite and nitrate levels. Then it’s a drive to check the five pump stations the plant team maintains. After that, he’s back for daily testing, and from that point on it’s routine work, unless someone finds that a piece of equipment needs attention. He leaves for the day at 2:30 p.m.

For Laramie, it’s another day doing a job he enjoys greatly. A graduate of Fair Haven Union High School, he spent a year at the University of Vermont and one at Castleton State College before joining the Air Force. Today, he lives with his wife and older son, 23, who has a full-time job in the area. Their younger son is in the Marine Corps.

Getting it right

Justifiably proud of the Fair Haven plant’s performance, Laramie is still a realist when it comes to future upgrades, even though the last major one was nearly 25 years ago.

“Right now, I’m on my eighth town manager,” he explains. “I’ve had a good working relationship with all of them, but budgets are always tight. When our new town manager came in, I wrote a report saying that our plant is aging, the equipment is old and we needed to start hiring new people and think about upgrades. With the economy being what it is, that’s probably not going to happen any time soon.”

Root, a 25-year plant veteran, is equally philosophical. His reasoning: The team keeps everything running well, considering that the equipment is nearing the quarter-century mark, and other plants need upgrades more than Fair Haven.

Laramie won’t give up: “I plan to be here another eight years. I’ve been tinkering with the denitrification process all these years, and I’m determined to get it right.”


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