Ace Troubleshooter

Gary Hanson doubles as an operations specialist for a global consulting firm and superintendent of a tiny utility. Both profit from his problem-solving skills.
Ace Troubleshooter
Hanson takes manual measurements at the plant, comparing the readings to those taken by an automatic probe.

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For Gary Hanson, wastewater is more than flows, lift stations and chemicals. Over the last 38 years, it has been his life’s work — a career that has taken him all over Wisconsin, the United States and the world.

A Wisconsin-licensed wastewater (Grades 1-4) and water treatment (Grade 1) professional and certified environmental trainer, Hanson juggles two jobs with aplomb. He’s a senior operations specialist with the AECOM global consulting engineering firm and, for the past 36 years, part-time superintendent of the Yorkville (Wis.) Sewer Utility.

His dedication and problem-solving skills earned Hanson the 2012 Koby Crabtree Award from the Wisconsin Wastewater Operators Association (WWOA) for excellence in the transfer of technical information and training in the wastewater field. Hanson knew the award’s namesake, the late Dr. Koby Crabtree, a Hiroshima survivor and wastewater microbiology specialist who shared his knowledge with plant operators nationwide.  

“I never expected to win this award; it came as a complete surprise,” says Hanson, 63. He has been active in the WWOA since 1975, serving as treasurer, recorder and president of the Southeast District and as director, vice president and president of  the state group. With the Water Environment Federation, he serves on the plant operations and maintenance committees and has organized several hands-on workshops at the annual conference. He’s also a member of the American Water Works Association and the National Environmental Training Association.

Hanson was appointed by former Governor Jim Doyle to revise Wisconsin’s wastewater operator licensure criteria and now serves on the Department of Natural Resources committee to update the wastewater operator certification exam. “I’ve been very involved with the WWOA, which has given me a lot of opportunities to grow professionally and I’ve tried to give back to it,” he says.

The right moves

With a bachelor’s degree in Business Administration from Carthage College in his hometown of Kenosha, Wis., Hanson in 1975 joined the Village of Union Grove as water and sewer superintendent. He worked there until he joined an AECOM predecessor company in 1988, citing the need “to learn new things and advance in my career.” In 1981 he began his 33-year association with the Town of Yorkville Sewer Utility.

Hanson calls his AECOM position, “the best job in the company, because I get to see the wastewater plant before we do upgrades and modifications. Then I get to be part of those activities and go back at completion and help start the plant up, train the operators and make sure it works.”

Although his primary focus has been the Midwest — Wisconsin, Minnesota, Michigan, Iowa and Illinois — he has worked recently in Texas, California, Florida, the Chesapeake Bay region and around Washington, D.C. He traveled to Egypt in 1999 to oversee the building of wastewater plants and the training of operators.

Over the years, Hanson has overseen activities at treatment facilities from the smallest — 25,000 to 50,000 gpd flow — to the 125 mgd plant in Arlington, Va., and the 150 mgd operation in Orange County, Calif. In addition, he has worked on plants in Racine and Waukesha, Wis., and has trained thousands of operators. He often gets calls out of the blue that a plant has a problem, and in those cases he works with the operating team, offering suggestions to bring the facility into compliance.

Projects varied

“I’m pleased that I can help utilities and wastewater operators solve problems,” says Hanson, who drives more than an hour to the AECOM offices in Sheboygan every day. “That’s what keeps my job interesting and rewarding — the ability to get involved and contribute ideas for doing things better.”

That said, he pointed to several projects that have brought him great satisfaction.

He worked on a capacity expansion (from 1 mgd to 3 mgd) at the Northwest Regional Wastewater Treatment Facility, a total nutrient removal plant in Polk County, Fla., that produces reclaimed water for irrigation.

The project called for rehabilitation of equipment including grit removal and oxidation ditches, conversion of two clarifiers, modifications to pumps and filters, building of a high-service pump station for reclaimed water and installation of piping. Hanson reviewed the design, oversaw construction, and trained operators in handling the new equipment and treatment process. Work was completed in June 2013.

Hanson also led the startup and training for a new activated sludge wastewater treatment facility in Watertown, S.D. The former plant consisted of 350 acres of failed seepage lagoons; it needed a superintendent and a trained staff, and Hanson acted as temporary superintendent.

“We hired a superintendent and I assisted with that,” Hanson says. “We trained the staff and constructed a new plant and improved operations. It went from being one of the worst operating plants in the nation, according to the EPA, to winning the EPA Region 8 Award for being one of the best operated plants. The staff worked hard, the superintendent was talented, and I’m happy to have been part of its success.”

A recently completed staffing study for the 150 mgd Arlington plant “has been a lot of fun,” Hanson says. The plant has about 80 employees, but management wanted to know if that was enough, if they needed to add more, or if they needed to reduce staffing. Hanson spent a week interviewing and evaluating team members — walking around, talking with operators and listening to what they had to say. He made recommendations based on his decades of experience in more than 200 plants.

“Arlington wasn’t able to find qualified people, so we had to come up with creative ideas,” Hanson says. “One thing I recommended was that instead of running ads in the local newspaper they go out and market themselves as a great place to work. I also suggested plant representatives go to Baltimore, which has a big Navy presence, and recruit from those leaving the service. They have begun to implement that program.”

Client focus

Phil Mentink, a design engineer for AECOM’s wastewater treatment business, attributes Hanson’s success to his laser-like focus on client service. The two have worked closely together for nearly 25 years on developing treatment plants, from initial design to setting up equipment and other operations and maintenance services.

“Client service is very important,” says Mentink. “Gary is great in that regard. He’s conscientious, personable and gets along well with everybody. He’s fun to work with, and he just won’t quit. He’ll keep working until he gives you what you need to solve your problem, and our clients love that. With his knowledge of how wastewater plants should work, he gives them excellent support.”

Hanson applies that same service commitment to his other job as part-time superintendent for the town of Yorkville, heading over to the 150,000 gpd treatment plant at 5 a.m. on weekdays and weekends. He remembers vividly the day in 1981 when he took on the responsibility of running the facility.

Staffing up

“The town board told me they were building a wastewater treatment plant and starting a sewer utility,” says Hanson. “They asked if I would give them some advice and look over their shoulders, which I agreed to do. When the system was close to coming online, they asked me how I would staff the utility.

“I suggested they hire skilled part-time employees and pay them well so they would stay. My reason for part-timers was that the utility and treatment plant were really small and had a very simple permit. The board then asked me if I would manage the utility and hire several people to help me. I accepted and have been there ever since.”

For the activated sludge plant, Hanson and his team do nitrification, BOD and suspended solids removal. His team includes Jack Kerkman, who does the lab work; Nick Carriker, who handles maintenance; Joe Vander Molen, who focuses on grounds care, keeping the property well-trimmed so that it looks like a park; and Paul Richter, who “floats” to wherever he is needed — that includes maintaining the utility’s three lift stations. The plant serves about 3,000 customers, and the effluent meets all U.S. EPA and Wisconsin standards.

Aggressive maintenance

One reason for this strong performance is Hanson’s aggressiveness with maintenance. Each year he devotes a sizeable portion of his $350,000 annual budget to televising, cleaning and repairing sewer system leaks as they appear.

He hires a firm to pull TV cameras through the sewers to find leaks, then has them repaired right away. The team tries to keep everything functioning well, and that includes reducing I&I. Because everyone has a second job, no one is at the plant from about 6 a.m. until Hanson stops by on his way home around 6 p.m.

“Gary is a super guy, who’s cooperative, helpful and meticulous in his work,” says Peter Hansen, Town of Yorkville Sewer Utility chairman. “He’s got four part-time people whom he manages very well. Everything at the plant is always in good shape, including the landscaping. The plant looks like a park between county buildings, so it’s hard to tell it’s even there when you drive by. That’s a real credit to Gary and his team.”

Hanson downplays such praise, preferring to focus on wastewater as being a good career — despite the fact his wife says he has no life outside of work. “It pays reasonably well, and it has enabled me to provide for my wife and two daughters,” Hanson says.

“When the alarm goes off at four o’clock in the morning, it’s not like I have to drag myself out of bed and face the grind. You never know what will happen during the day. That’s what keeps everything interesting. Although I’m at retirement age, I still like what I do, and want to keep solving problems.”

More Information

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