South Vietnam Native Duyan Tran Becomes Sustainability Director For Large Firm

Duyen Tran has come a long way from South Vietnam, to project manager in an Arkansas city, to sustainability director for a major engineering consulting firm
South Vietnam Native Duyan Tran Becomes Sustainability Director For Large Firm
Tran and Jerry Genz, team leader, with the small dozer used to load biosolids into a thermal dryer at the Biosolids Management Site.

Passion. You hear that word a lot in conversations about Duyen Tran. Her co-workers cite her “passion for the wastewater industry.” City officials applaud her “passion to improve sustainability.” Her boss credits her “passion for hard work and mentoring” with helping to strengthen client service.

Tran, who calls herself “green before green was cool,” puts it this way: “I’m passionate about water and wastewater. I didn’t recognize the importance of clean water until I actually worked in the wastewater field and understood how what we do helps prevent pollutants from entering our drinking water. So I made it my passion not only to make a difference in my career, but also to help young professionals who want to make wastewater their career choice.”

Tran has spent most of her 25-year career with the CH2M HILL consulting firm working for the Fayetteville (Ark.) Wastewater Division, first in the lab and ultimately as project manager. Last year she became CH2M HILL’s director of sustainable operations.

Last October the National Association of Water Companies honored her commitment to the profession with the 2014 Living Water Award Grand Prize, recognizing exemplary private water industry professionals. “It’s overwhelming to think I was selected from among all the dedicated water professionals and my peers,” Tran says. “I’m very thankful for the nomination, support and recognition of my efforts and passion.”

Up the ranks

Tran came to the United States with her family after a difficult escape from South Vietnam in 1975 (see sidebar). She met her husband, Hung Duong, in a refugee camp in Fort Chaffee, Arkansas. Tran entered the wastewater business by answering a newspaper ad for a chemist in an environmental laboratory in Fayetteville. She and her husband had moved to Fayetteville from Little Rock after he took new assignments with IBM in northwest Arkansas.

Tran earned a bachelor’s degree in chemistry from the University of Arkansas-Little Rock and afterward worked three years as a chemist in the inorganic and radiochemistry laboratories for the Little Rock Health Department, analyzing drinking water. The Fayetteville job was with CH2M HILL, which has provided wastewater operations and management services for the city since 1987.

Tran started in 1989 as a chemist. She became lab director in a few months, then advanced to assistant project manager in 1997 and to project manager in 2003. Along the way she earned a Class IV municipal wastewater license.

“Fayetteville has been a great place to work, with the best team in the industry,” she says. “I love the culture and ethics of CH2M HILL and the strong partnership we have with the city. It’s a wonderful company and great city, especially for people of diverse cultures, like me.”

More than treatment plants

As project manager in Arkansas’ third-largest city (population of 74,000), Tran directed operations at two wastewater treatment plants. The 11.2 mgd Paul R. Noland Wastewater Treatment Plant is an advanced facility built in 1987. The 10 mgd West Side Wastewater Treatment Plant is an advanced facility that came online in 2008. Both are biological nutrient removal plants with permit limits for ammonia and phosphorus in addition to BOD and TSS. Managing 45 people, Tran had responsibility for:

  • The Biosolids Management Site (on 670 acres next to the Noland plant) that produces Class A material sold as fertilizer. The project uses six Thermo-System active solar dryers (Parkson Corporation) and a natural gas thermal dryer.
  • The Nutrient Uptake Program. Fayetteville stopped land-applying biosolids in 2003 due to elevated soil phosphorus. Effluent from the Noland Wastewater Treatment Plant is applied to the Biosolids Management Site hay crops to enhance phosphorus uptake. The hay is harvested and sold, providing revenue to the city.
  • The Industrial Pretreatment Program.
  • The Woolsey Wet Prairie Sanctuary (next to the West Side plant), a 43.65-acre wetland restoration project built to offset the loss of 9.88 acres of wetlands to the plant’s construction.
  • The city environmental laboratory, which in 2013 conducted 8,574 analyses on 3,359 samples, in addition to 2,205 analyses for data quality control.
  • Operations of 38 lift stations and maintenance on five abandoned lift stations.

Long hours

Such responsibilities would be overwhelming if not for Tran’s work ethic. Her go-the-extra-mile focus earned the respect of her peers, subordinates and city officials. “Duyen is a very hard worker, often sending emails at 1, 2 or 3 in the morning,” says Billy Ammons, regional business manager for CH2M HILL and interim project manager in Fayetteville. “I’ve enjoyed working with her for the last 25 years. We made a strong team. She’s very gracious and gets along with everybody.”

Don Marr, chief of staff for Mayor Lioneld Jordan, calls Tran “excellent” in managing the public-private partnership. He says the Fayetteville project has grown over the years largely because of the trust that has developed between Tran and her team and the city. As a result, the city has given CH2M HILL more responsibility in operations, regulatory research, sustainability and other areas. Over the years, the partnership has won several awards, including:

2013 National Safety Council Safety Leadership Award to the CH2M HILL staff for seven years without a lost-time incident.

Finalist for a 2013 Arkansas Department of Environmental Quality Environmental Stewardship Award.

2011 National Conference of Mayors Award for Public-Private Partnership.

Tran received the 2014 Arthur Sidney Bedell Award from the Arkansas Water Environment Association for “extraordinary personal service in the water pollution control field.” She also has been recognized as Wastewater Manager of the Year by the Arkansas WEA, and by the Northwest District Arkansas Water Works & Water Environment Federation with an Individual Achievement Award.

She helped the Paul R. Noland Wastewater Treatment Plant win the 2010 AWW&WEA George W. Burke Jr. Award for safety programs. Earlier, her work helped Fayetteville win a 1998 U.S. EPA National Award for Outstanding Industrial Pretreatment Program. Those and other efforts earned Tran CH2M HILL’s Presidential Teamwork Award in 2009.

“The thing we love about Duyen is that we can always count on her to be well informed and well researched and take the time to educate us in her field, with which many don’t have great familiarity,” says Marr. “If you tell her there is something you want to work on or set as a priority, she won’t quit until it’s done. She’s a real bulldog about follow-up and follow-through.”

Moving staff upward

Tran’s people skills are legendary. Tim Luther, operations manager, has worked with Tran since 1999, when he was a wastewater operator and she was lab supervisor. Luther calls her “a great supervisor” and credits her with helping him get promoted — first to lead operator, then operations supervisor and to his present position in 2008.

“Her biggest attributes are her dedication to promoting the wastewater industry, developing her staff and her forward thinking,” he says. “In terms of growing her people, she’s done great things with the Fayetteville staff and has been able to promote them to bigger jobs in the company. Some people have gone on to water projects across the United States as project managers, supervisors and other higher-level positions, thanks to her emphasis on training, education and especially one-on-one mentoring.”

Tran’s former administrative assistant, Michelle Strange, tells a similar story. Strange, who raised four children and had been out of the workplace for 15 years, found her boss “a great mentor in helping me balance home and a new career. I wouldn’t be where I am today as a female professional if it weren’t for Duyen’s nurturing and support.”  

Giving back

While running the wastewater project, developing staff and raising three sons (now grown), Tran found time to give back to the community. In 1994, she helped form a hazardous waste committee in Fayetteville that organized annual waste “roundups.” She’s active in the chamber of commerce, helping educate business leaders about the importance of water treatment in industries. She served on the board of the Fayetteville Soccer Association, and as president led a reorganization that grew membership from 200 to 1,200. She regularly speaks in schools about the virtues of wastewater careers.

As an industry advocate, Tran has been a featured speaker at conferences in Oklahoma and Arkansas and at U.S. EPA regional events. She was recently elected speaker for the Water Environment Federation House of Delegates and is past president of the Arkansas WEA. She is also a member of the Awareness and Education Committee of the Beaver Watershed Alliance and the Technical Advisory Committee of the University of Arkansas Water Resources Center.

Given her drive and dedication to the environment, Tran’s new role as director of sustainable operations is a “great fit,” according to her boss, Robert Kuta, a CH2M HILL global operations director. As part of the O&M Services unit, she’ll bring a sustainability focus to the water, environment, nuclear and transportation markets, looking at energy savings, conservation, repurposing, recycling and reducing consumable goods.

Says Kuta, “Through Duyen’s sustainability efforts in Fayetteville and on other projects, we’ve seen some of the most impressive performances around sustainability with our client partners. Those successes have brought a lot of attention to the skills and passion she has for that area of the business. So to have her leading the charge is a win-win for us and those we serve.”   


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