New England Program Introduces Students to Wastewater Work

High school students get six weeks of hands-on treatment plant experience in an EPA-funded program conducted in Lowell, Massachusetts.
New England Program Introduces Students to Wastewater Work
A graduation ceremony marks completion of each year’s Youth and the Environment Program.

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On returning to school in fall, many students get the age-old assignment to write about what they did on their summer vacation. If so assigned, four students will stand out by describing their experience working at the Lowell (Massachusetts) Regional Wastewater Utility.

Their opportunity to learn about the wastewater industry and the environment came through a grant from the U.S. EPA given to the New England Interstate Water Pollution Control Commission (NEIWPCC). Established in 1947, NEIWPCC uses varied strategies to meet the water-related needs of its member states in New England and New York.

The commission used the $5,000 grant to hire a summer college intern with a background in environmental studies. The intern works with and supervises the four high school students throughout the six-week program. The students’ salaries are paid by the city of Lowell Career Center.

More than 800 economically disadvantaged inner city high school juniors and seniors applied for jobs at the center last summer. Of those, 350 were placed in positions, and four took part in the Youth and the Environment Program.

NEIWPCC is headquartered in Lowell, whose wastewater treatment plant has a design flow of 32 mgd and an average flow of 25 mgd. The plant, built in 1980, serves a population of 180,000 and has 48 employees. It has hosted students for 23 of the Youth Environment Program’s 25 years.

The Youth and the Environment Program was established by the EPA in 1990, and 2016 was the 25th summer program. It was only for lack of federal funding that the program was suspended for two years in the mid-2000s.

Eyeing careers

Mark Young, executive director at the Lowell plant, has been involved with the program since its inception and considers it a big plus for the students and the community. “The program was created to expose the students to careers in the environment,” he says. “At the beginning, we had a lot more students participating. We realized pretty quickly that the students were not getting enough one-on-one time with their plant mentors, so in succeeding years, we pared down the number to four or five per summer.

“The individual attention helped a lot. The students learned more, got to understand and appreciate the industry, and got excited about the work. It exposed them to a real work environment where they were expected to act professional, show up on time, work hard, learn lab work, and learn to be safety conscious. The students are a big help to us. We have a lot of projects that I don’t have enough operators to do. The students help us with the hosing and cleaning of the tanks and other plant projects.”

Wastewater treatment was chosen as the field of study to expose students to this industry as a career path they may not have considered. It introduces them to a range of environmental careers including wet-weather management, combined sewer and sanitary sewer overflows, energy and waste management, and natural resource protection.

Young encourages all the students to consider the industry on graduation from high school or for their college studies. He knows of two students from past programs who have stayed in the industry.

Typical workdays

The students work six-hour days. The program traditionally starts the first Monday after July 4 and runs for six weeks. According to Justin Pimpare, regional pretreatment coordinator for the EPA who has been involved for 10 years, the workdays include overall maintenance of the treatment plant, such as hosing down algae or scum buildup outside the primary clarifier walls.

Students also work in the laboratory, performing simple analyses for pH, chlorine and turbidity. They also learn to perform BOD and TSS analysis and view bacteria under the microscopes. “It helps them to understand the potential environmental problems in their own community from what is discharged into the sewer system and how wastewater treatment technology is solving those problems,” Pimpare says.

“They really enjoy the lab work. Some have a science background, but even those who don’t really enjoy it. One of last year’s students will go on to major in chemical engineering at the University of Massachusetts Lowell. All the other program graduates from last year plan to attend college.”

Don Kennedy, training coordinator with NEIWPCC, says the students get 30 to 60 minutes of daily classroom instruction on environmental topics from their college intern supervisor. The program also includes field trips. In 2015, students did sampling on Squam Lake in New Hampshire, went canoeing on the Charles River in Boston and did a river cleanup with the Charles River Watershed Association. In addition, they took a three-hour tour of the Massachusetts Water Resources Authority’s Deer Island Wastewater Treatment Plant in Boston.

Wetland studies

For the past several years, the program has included a strong wetlands component. In 2015, the students went to a nearby community, harvested plants from a wetland, and transplanted them at the Lowell treatment plant, with the goal of replicating the wetland system. They planted 4- to 6-inch plants in old 250-gallon chemical totes and watered them using effluent from the primary clarifier.

“There are two wetland systems the students monitor,” says Young. “One is from 2015 that they benchmark against and the other one is the new one that they created. They can see their progress compared to the prior year’s results.”

The students graduated  Aug. 16 in a ceremony at the Lowell plant. The speakers included staff from the plant, EPA, and Lowell Career Center. The Lowell city manager and mayor were also invited. The students presented for 15 minutes on the work they performed and what they learned, and received certificates of completion.

“During and after their experience, the students are always amazed at what a wastewater treatment plant does,” says Young. “Before, they probably thought it was done with screens or mechanical equipment. They didn’t have any idea that we are essentially doing what Mother Nature does, only we’re speeding it up. Instead of taking six months, we’re doing it in six hours.”


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