Susan Butts Brings A Powerful Work Ethic To Her Supervisor Career In Augusta, Ky.

Susan Butts parlayed a variety of work experiences and a powerful work ethic into a rewarding career as water treatment plant supervisor in Augusta, Ky.
Susan Butts Brings A Powerful Work Ethic To Her Supervisor Career In Augusta, Ky.
Susan Butts, supervisor at the Augusta (Ky.) Regional Water Treatment Plant.

Who says the work ethic is dead? Take a look at Susan Butts and you’ll see it’s alive and well and living in Augusta, Ky., a city of 1,200 on the south bank of the Ohio River, about 70 miles northeast of Louisville.

Butts, supervisor at the Augusta Regional Water Treatment Plant, has been working since she turned 14 and began waitressing. She has been a supermarket assistant manager and a U.S. Army soldier before making water her career in 1990. It was a good move — one that taught the treatment processes and management skills that helped her become a great, hands-on boss, according to her operators, and “a true asset to the plant and the community,” as Augusta’s mayor observes.

In 2013, her go-the-extra-mile efforts earned the first Steve Crosman Award for Outstanding Environmental Professionalism from the Kentucky Division of Compliance Assistance (DCA), part of the state Department of Environmental Protection. The award recognizes people who value professionalism and see the importance of providing quality service to state residents.

Butts has displayed those qualities from her earliest days as an operator at the City of Falmouth Water Treatment Plant. Still, she was moved at being recognized with an award named after her friend, a trainer with the DCA Certification and Licensing Branch who died in December 2011.

Humbled by recognition

“Winning the Steve Crosman Award, I couldn’t have been happier if I’d won the Pulitzer Prize,” says Butts in a soft southern accent. “Steve was a wonderful continuing education teacher and a great guy. I had all my licenses before he started teaching, but he’d always answer all my questions. In fact, he’d do anything to help any water operator in the state.”

When Butts heard the DCA wanted nominations for the award, she took charge, as she has most of her professional life. She told her bosses in Falmouth and Augusta that she wanted to be nominated because she respected Crosman so much, calling him, “my water plant guru.”

She filled out the application and, after a thorough background check as part of the process, she was notified in April that she had won. “I was humbled that I’d won,” says Butts. “It really reflects well on my team and our commitment to provide quality water for the people of Augusta and all of Bracken County.”

Jobs follow Army stint

It was a big accomplishment for someone who “kind of fell into the business.” Butts spent 22 years at the Falmouth plant. During 12 of those years, she also worked part time at the Augusta facility, which she joined full time in 2012.

After graduating from Pendleton High School in 1978, Butts decided college wasn’t for her — even though she “wanted to be the next Stephen King.” She kept working at the restaurant where she had been since her teen years. Five years later, she joined the Army, serving from 1983 to 1986, first at Fort Dix, N.J., and then at Fort Bliss, Texas, where her son was born. She rose quickly to the rank of E4 (corporal) Promotable. During that time, she “never thought a thing about water when we drank from a canteen or were in the field taking showers.”

Her service complete, Butts became assistant manager of an Ameristop Food Mart, one of a chain of gas-food-grocery stores in the Ohio River Valley. Wanting more responsibility and a chance to do something different, she heard about a water operator job at the 1.5 mgd Falmouth plant, applied and went to work.

Beating the flood

In 1997, a major flood hit Falmouth, a city of about 2,100 at the confluence of the South and Main forks of the Licking River. Butts moved her son in with family members and lived at the flooded plant for more than a month. There she worked with city and state officials to clean the facility and re-establish safe drinking water.

“I stayed at the Falmouth plant for 45 days,” she says. “We had folks coming in to help us put in new motors, pumps and other equipment. We were back up and running in three days and providing drinkable water in five. That’s how dedicated I’ve been in all my years working in the water treatment business.”

With Class IV-A drinking water treatment, Class III distribution and Class I wastewater treatment certifications, Butts manages the 1.2 mgd Augusta plant with a can-do attitude. That includes teaching and coaching her two Class III-A operators, John Olson and Shane Mains, and interfacing with the mayor and other city officials.

In a ‘man’s world’

Sometimes her job can be challenging in a largely male-dominated industry. For example, when she needs to order parts, she often asks Olson or Mains to do it, “so I don’t get the runaround.”

If she calls to order something and asks questions, “You can picture them rolling their eyes and thinking, ‘You don’t know; you’re just a woman.’”

That’s one reason she has been involved in a plant maintenance program. “Maintenance is my weak point,” Butts admits. “Where men can come in and tear a motor apart, I can’t, so I want to work on getting better at doing those things.”

Still, Butts keeps things working. Augusta isn’t a 24-hour plant — it operates from 4 a.m. to 4 p.m., because, according to Butts, it costs less to start early and bring operations back up. As soon as she gets in, usually by 7 a.m., she does water sampling and meets with her operators, who clearly like the interaction.

Strong leader

“Susan is a very good, hands-on boss,” says Olson, who gets in at 3:30 a.m. to open up the plant and thanks Butts for helping ease his transition from a 4 mgd surface water treatment plant in Maysville, Ky., whose source water comes from the Ohio River. “She’s hardworking, very knowledgeable about the water business, and extremely supportive of everything we do. I’ve really enjoyed working for her the last two years.”

Mains adds, “Susan is the best. She works with us, and if we need something, she makes sure we get it.” He’s grateful that Butts brought him to the plant in 2011, his first job in the water industry. He sees one of her strengths as “teaching us how to do things the right way, so everything goes the way it should.”

That’s important, since Butts and her team must supply the 10,000 residents of Bracken County, in addition to Augusta. To do that, they have to fill a 300,000-gallon clearwell and a 300,000-gallon tank for Augusta, along with a 200,000-gallon clearwell and four tanks totaling just over a million gallons for the Bracken County Water District. The Augusta plant draws water from a huge aquifer that stretches all the way to Michigan (the water actually originates under Lake Michigan).

Violation-free

While Augusta’s well water has fewer turbidity issues than many groundwater plants, Butts and her team must contend with more dissolved minerals, particularly iron and manganese, which can cause taste and odor problems and speed up corrosion of the plant’s piping. To remove the minerals, the operators add potassium permanganate, an oxidizer. They also apply aluminum sulfate (alum) for coagulation, caustic soda for pH control, chlorine for disinfection and fluoride.

Treated water is pumped into a clearwell under the plant and then to the other clearwell and tanks for the Bracken County district. The water meets all the state and federal standards, and since Butts has been operator/supervisor, there have been no violations. She considers that a testament to her team’s ability to keep the plant in good shape, even though it was built in 1996 and “things here and there need repair and replacement.”

John Laycock, mayor of Augusta, appreciates Butts for her no-nonsense focus and commitment to controlling costs, whether saving energy or getting three estimates for chemicals, pumps and motors. It was Laycock who offered her the job when the former head operator quit after working two jobs for more than a decade.

He calls Butts “a well-rounded employee and very valuable to all of us. Susan has done a fantastic job and basically turned our water plant around. Not only is she a full-time operator, but she has created service manuals for the Maintenance Department on how to repair leaks, and for our water, gas and sewer teams. She helps with water distribution when we have an issue, such as a broken main or pipe. I just can’t praise her enough.”

Every day an adventure

For Butts, such praise is welcome recognition that she gladly shares with her operators. But once the glow wears off, it’s time to tackle the daily challenges. One winter morning, a 12-inch main in the plant broke. She called Mains, telling him to “use tape, ratchet straps and sealant,” which held until the team could make a permanent repair.

During the first cold spell one January, an aerator froze, and the team had to push water through it to break the ice. In February, the valve that controlled the potassium permanganate blew out, raising a few choice words from Butts, who says, “My feet are still wet and cold.”

Yet Butts, an avid reader and grandmother of three who lives 13 miles from the Augusta plant, wouldn’t have it any other way: “Every day there’s something different to do, and no two days are ever the same. Just to learn how the system works is challenging. Sure you work your tail off, and nobody ever says, ‘Thanks, my water was great today.’ But you can take pride in knowing you did your best to give people the best water you could.”  



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