Operator’s Research Saves Plant Millions of Dollars

Rick Cantu’s insistence on getting to the bottom of treatment issues served his community well and saved his treatment facility millions of dollars.
Operator’s Research Saves Plant Millions of Dollars
Rick Cantu, former superintendent of the Manchester Wastewater Treatment Plant.

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Go the extra mile. For Ricardo “Rick” Cantu, that’s more than a saying — it’s how he defined his life in wastewater treatment. Since he started in 1978 as an operator, Cantu has spent countless hours researching, studying and looking at the “whys” behind every process and decision, challenging his bosses and the U.S. EPA.

The result: a stellar career marked by advancement; the respect of management, colleagues and regulators; and, last year, the 2014 Regional Wastewater Treatment Plant Operator of the Year Excellence Award.

Presented by the EPA’s New England office, the award acknowledges Cantu’s achievements as superintendent of the Manchester (New Hampshire) Wastewater Treatment Plant. Those include improved water sample collection, substantial cost savings and commitment to mentoring of clean-water professionals. The New Hampshire Department of Environmental Services (DES) was instrumental in Cantu’s nomination.

Steady progress

“I was a bit surprised that I won, because while I’ve done a lot of work in wastewater, I’ve been a bit of a thorn in the EPA’s side over the years, particularly when it comes to water sampling,” says Cantu, who retired in July 2015. “I was committed to helping people realize that our rivers are a lot cleaner than many believe. Wastewater is the best choice I made in terms of a career.”

Born and raised in Berlin, New Hampshire, a city of 9,600 along the Androscoggin River, Cantu forged a resume many in the industry would envy. After high school, Cantu worked four and a half years for Converse, the sneaker manufacturer. At Converse, Cantu took a Bell & Howell course in electronics, built an oscilloscope and started making a color television.

In 1977, he told a job counselor that he wanted to be a radio and TV repairman. The counselor suggested Cantu go into water or wastewater treatment where demand was high, so he earned an associate degree in water/wastewater technology from Berlin Vocational Technical College. When he graduated in 1978, the Berlin treatment plant had just gone online and he got a job as an operator.

Two and a half years later, Cantu moved to the wastewater facility in Dover (30,000 population) in New Hampshire’s seacoast region and stayed six years. He then worked four years for the plant in Biddeford, Maine, before becoming operations manager for OMI, the operations arm of CH2M HILL.

With OMI, Cantu worked for a series of plants before leaving for Manchester, the largest city in New Hampshire (population of 110,000). There he worked as pretreatment coordinator from 1997 to 2002, ran the newly created stormwater division from 2002 to 2007 while handling environmental permits, and ultimately became plant superintendent. Cantu has certifications in several states, including a Grade 4 Wastewater Operator license (highest) in New Hampshire.

In employees’ corner

As superintendent of Manchester’s 40-year-old conventional activated sludge plant, Cantu managed a $22 million annual budget ($11 million capital and $11 million operations). He supervised 32 people, including four supervisors, five maintenance workers, five laborers, 13 operators, two lab technicians and three electricians, as well as one person in the stormwater organization and two in pretreatment.

In addition, Cantu oversaw all plant functions and 11 pump stations serving Manchester, Bedford, Goffstown and Londonderry. Just before retiring he directed a $20 million aeration project, which moved the plant from    mechanical aeration to fine-bubble diffusers (Sanitaire - a Xylem Brand). The project allowed the facility to increase aeration capacity with fewer aeration tanks.

Through everything, Cantu has been steadfast in supporting his team. “One of the big things about being a good leader is standing behind your people,” he says. “At a lot of places, when something goes awry, they look for a scapegoat. My philosophy is that if someone makes a decision and it was made with forethought, then I’m with them all the way. I’d rather have a person make a decision, even if it’s wrong, than no decision at all, as long as it’s thought out.”

Challenging the status quo

In his 18 years at the 34 mgd Manchester plant, Cantu distinguished himself for tenacity in the face of tough federal and state environmental regulations. For example, in 2008 the EPA insisted that the plant install a $25 million aluminum treatment system, believing too much aluminum was being discharged into the 117-mile-long Merrimack River. Cantu didn’t believe aluminum was a major problem and asked for an extension of the plant’s NPDES permit, which set the aluminum limit at 87 ppb. The EPA gave the facility 15 months: 12 for a study and three to produce a final report.

Cantu and a team of state DES and plant staff members collected water under clean sampling conditions, which had never been done before in New Hampshire. That meant double-bagging bottles, avoiding clothing with aluminum zippers and buttons, and even removing aluminum eyeglass frames — anything to prevent contamination. Samples showed that the river was not endangered from aluminum, so the EPA dropped the requirement from the permit.

Meanwhile, the EPA proposed permit limits for copper and lead, to which Cantu responded, “If there’s no problem with aluminum, then there’s probably no issue with copper or lead.” He asked to do a full-year study. EPA officials agreed that the plant could take clean samples during low-flow conditions at the river. Cantu’s team produced impressive numbers: They measured 20 percent of what the EPA used in fact sheet calculations from Whole Effluent Toxicity ambient river sampling measured for copper, and a non-detect result for lead. Again, the river was found clean in terms of those metals, so the EPA dropped that requirement.

“Rick has been willing to invest a lot of research time in topics that affect the Manchester plant,” says Kenneth Kessler, DES operations section supervisor, who nominated Cantu for the excellence award. “He was always trying to get to the bottom of the reasons for decisions, rather than simply accepting them. Rick has also been active in advocating for clean sampling techniques, which have affected the permitting cycle for a lot of wastewater treatment plants, finding lower background levels compared with the previous willy-nilly way data was collected.”

Valuable mentorship

As diligent as Cantu was with sampling and permit issues, he has been equally committed to developing wastewater talent. Kirk Ray, Manchester plant maintenance supervisor, says, “Rick mentored me in the job, helping me understand what was required in terms of our permits and how to motivate staff. As a boss, he was very easy to work with and let you do your job without micromanaging. Our staff liked and respected him; pretty much wherever he went there was a lot of good humor.”

Fred McNeill, chief engineer of Manchester’s Environmental Protection Division and Cantu’s supervisor, recalls how a few years ago Cantu mentored operator Dan Driscoll, who had never worked in the municipal wastewater business: “Rick helped him tremendously and groomed him for a leadership role here. Within five years, Dan seized an opportunity and went to Concord as chief operator for that city’s wastewater facility, one of the biggest treatment plants in the state, with a chance to become plant superintendent. It shows how effective Rick was in getting him up to speed on processes, regulations and management skills.”

Other operators under Cantu’s tutelage have gone on to senior wastewater positions in Nashua, Seabrook, Milford and Derry. Some came in 2011 when many industries closed down along the New Hampshire-Massachusetts border. Cantu made sure they got a well-rounded education in all aspects of wastewater treatment so they would be eligible to move up when better jobs came open.

Close to the action

Since retiring, Cantu has worked a day or two a week helping his successor, Rob Robinson, learn the superintendent’s job, with its mounds of paperwork and ever-tightening regulations. Cantu is also helping Robinson complete the aeration upgrade and make sure that the plant’s phosphorus removal system, added in 2015, is working as it should.

“Rick has been a great help during the transition period,” says Robinson, who joined the Manchester plant in 2003. “He’s a real student of wastewater treatment processes and has a real passion for the industry and the people who work in it. I’ve learned a lot from him about being a good superintendent, and I appreciate him sharing his knowledge so freely.”

Besides helping at the plant, Cantu has launched a small consulting business. In August 2015, he went to Nashua and tested the water because of lead and copper permit issues and got the same results as he achieved in Manchester — the EPA dropped those requirements from Nashua’s permit. Later he helped Lowell, Massachusetts, do sampling for silver, zinc, cadmium and other metals. Every sample came in under the requirements, which meant there was no need to treat for them. He has received calls from some small plants that need assistance with sampling and permits.

To relax, Cantu spends time with his wife, Rita, his high school sweetheart. He also plays guitar with a group of friends and enjoys camping.

Still, maintaining clean water remains a top priority: “Something just clicked between wastewater treatment and me. As I tell school kids who visit the Manchester plant, I never saw anybody get laid off in this profession because of lack of work. Plus, everyone has to go to the bathroom, and as the area’s population increases, so does our workload. That’s just a fact.”

As thorough as possible

Rick Cantu’s hard-nosed approach has been part of his persona at the Manchester Wastewater Treatment Plant. Early on, he addressed issues with pretreatment and industrial discharges.

With his strong industrial pretreatment background at OMI, Cantu had a good idea of industry impacts. When he saw the industrial discharge levels at the Manchester plant, he told the chief engineer that the local industries were doing a good job. “But I told him that we’d have to make some operational changes at the plant, and even though the culture wasn’t to rock the boat, he could see that what I said made sense,” Cantu says.

Another example occurred when Cantu became superintendent in 2007, during an upgrade of the plant’s primary clarifiers. A contractor had taken out two of the plant’s three clarifiers, and the two new ones were having problems with poor capture. The contractor wanted to take out the third one and see what would happen. Cantu and his operators refused, preferring to keep the good clarifier. They also brought in John Essler of CPE Services, who installs clarifiers all over the country, and worked with the engineering firm of Metcalf & Eddy to resolve the problems.

“After six or seven months, the original contractor admitted that its design specifications didn’t factor in heavy return flows,” says Cantu. “So the flows going through were much faster than we anticipated and as such missed a lot of solids. In the end, we got the contractor to pay 50 percent of the cost to retrofit those two clarifiers and adjust the third one.”

Perhaps the best example of Cantu’s doggedness comes from his former boss, Fred McNeill, chief engineer. McNeill remembers getting a memo from Cantu about algae in levels in the Merrimack River, on which state and federal officials base phosphorus limits. “One day Rick comes running into my office and says, ‘Look at this; this sample was taken at 4 o’clock in the afternoon, which means the sun was setting and therefore not the optimum time to take the sample,’” McNeill says. “That’s how deep he drilled down.”


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