Young Treatment Plant Staff Winning Awards

Rising star Chris Cox builds an award-winning career at the clean-water plant, managing treatment while leading a team of youthful, high-energy operators.
Young Treatment Plant Staff Winning Awards
The Montpelier Water Resource Recovery Facility team includes, from left, Matt Lamson, Sam Campbell-Nelson, Chris Cox and Devin Hoagland.

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Remember the adage, “Youth must be served?” At the Montpelier Water Resource Recovery Facility, chief operator Chris Cox and his young staff are the ones doing the serving.

They operate the 3.97 mgd (design) plant in Vermont’s capital efficiently, cost-effectively and in a way that produces effluent quality much higher than tough state and federal regulations require.

Since he joined the plant in January 2012 for his first job in the wastewater field, Cox, 27, has built some serious credentials. He has assembled an energetic team that includes Matt Lamson, 26, assistant chief operator; and Sam Campbell-Nelson, 30, operator. The team’s senior member is operator Devin Hoagland, 48, who came on board about the same time as Cox.

Cox has been promoted twice, and in early 2016 received a 2015 New England Water Environment Association Operator Award. It’s an honor that recognizes the “best of the best” water-quality professionals within the 2,000-member NEWEA organization.

Bob Fisher, Cox’s mentor and previous chief operator, nominated him for the award. Fisher, who spent 12 years at the Montpelier facility, now serves as water quality superintendent for the city of South Burlington, Vermont.

Besides the honor for Cox, Montpelier received a 2015 Governor’s Award for Environmental Excellence, recognizing the water resource recovery facility’s energy conservation measures, which save about 475 MWh of electricity per year. The plant also earned a 2015 Wastewater Utility Award from the NEWEA Utility Management Committee for operations and performance excellence and energy conservation.

Scaling the totem pole

“I was surprised and honored when I won the award,” says Cox, who in a year and a half earned his Class 5 wastewater certification and Class 4 water certification. He needed both as a part-time operator at a water treatment facility in Websterville (population 550). “Though I’ve come up the totem pole pretty quickly, it’s been a great learning experience and I’ve been lucky to have had a great teacher in Bob, a first-rate boss, and an excellent group of operators,” Cox says.

He’s a native of Graniteville (population 800), home to the Rock of Ages Corporation, the nation’s premier granite quarrier. He went to Spaulding High School and was recruited to play Division 3 basketball for Colby-Sawyer College, a private college in New London, New Hampshire. He graduated in 2010 with a bachelor’s degree in environmental science.

After graduation, Cox worked for the New Hampshire Fish and Game Department as part of a study of endangered Arctic and roseate terns. While he enjoyed the outdoor work, he wanted more responsibility, so when an operator’s job at the Montpelier facility came open, he applied and got it, ultimately replacing as assistant chief operator a 38-year veteran who retired.

Soon after, Cox represented Vermont in an operator exchange program with Rhode Island, learning new wastewater processes and various techniques used to keep the water supply clean. This included a visit to the 13.2 mgd Cranston Water Pollution Control Facility, which takes in neighboring facilities’ biosolids and processes them through a multiple-hearth furnace as a source of revenue.

He also spent time at the West Warwick Regional Wastewater Treatment Facility and its composting operation, and at the 45 mgd Field’s Point Wastewater Treatment Facility in Providence, Rhode Island, which treats wet-weather flows up to 200 mgd.

Not about age

The experience paid off: Cox was named chief operator three years after he started and is responsible for the plant’s $3 million budget. That’s not the norm for Vermont, where many water and wastewater operators are older. Cox sees this firsthand as a board member of the Green Mountain Water Environment Association, where he is about 30 years younger than most of the other directors.

That fact isn’t lost on Cox’s boss, Kurt Motyka, assistant public works director and city engineer. He acknowledges that there has been turnover and that the facility’s collective experience has gone from 100-plus years to less than 20 years, with some loss of institutional memory. Still, he feels his plant team is more than up to the challenge.

“With the older guys retired, we have a pretty young staff, and an excellent one, so age really doesn’t matter,” says Motyka, a former consulting engineer who has been with the city for eight years. “Chris and Matt are hardworking, dedicated individuals, as are Sam and Devin. As chief operator, Chris is very hands-on. He enjoys the physical work and the management aspect of the job, and he’s great at both. We’re lucky to have such a talented staff; we hope to keep them for a long time.”

Challenges abound

Cox and staff keep plenty busy, working 7 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. maintaining operations at the Montpelier facility, which treats an average of 1.8 mgd. Of course, given the city’s combined sewer system, if it rains hard enough the flow can jump to 4, 5 or 6 mgd. The city’s sewer department runs the collections system, including seven pump stations, and the water distribution system.

Operational since 1962, with multiple upgrades over the years, the conventional activated sludge plant uses chemical addition for phosphorus removal; it has no biological nutrient removal capability. That is likely to change as a result of a $3.5 million upgrade of aging equipment expected to begin in 2018, with a strong emphasis on solids handling. Anaerobically digested biosolids are dewatered and sent to a landfill. Effluent flows into the Winooski River, a 90-mile-long tributary of Lake Champlain.

Protecting these valuable environmental resources is a responsibility Cox and his operators take seriously. They’re cross-trained in all plant operations and constantly update their skills through online courses. And it doesn’t hurt that Cox is eager to pitch in, regardless of the job.

Inclusive management

“With Chris, it’s like we don’t have a boss; we have another co-worker,” says Lamson, a Class 5 wastewater operator and Level 1 lab analyst who worked part time at a treatment plant in the town of Waterbury before coming to Montpelier three years ago. “He’s willing to do whatever it takes. If we have a tank cleaning, Chris is usually the one in the tank doing the work. Also, if we want to make changes in what we’re doing, or want to go to training programs, he lets us do it.”

Campbell-Nelson, the plant’s newest hire, calls Cox “great to work for” and cites his commitment to getting the operators up to speed on plant processes right away. Campbell-Nelson, for example, is in charge of solids handling, which means he runs the belt filter presses, pumps primary sludge and makes sure levels in the digesters are properly maintained. It’s a role he thoroughly enjoys as he learns sampling, equipment repair and lab assignments.

“Chris is great to work for; in fact, this has by far been my best professional experience,” says Campbell-Nelson, who graduated from Earlham College in Richmond, Indiana, and earned a master’s degree in water resource management from the Nelson Institute at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. “His excitement and drive are contagious. He likes to troubleshoot problems and make the system work as best we can.”

As for management style, Cox looks on everyone as a team of equals whose opinions and ideas matter. That includes everything from training programs and process improvements to fixing problems. For example, one of the plant’s secondary clarifiers (Lakeside Equipment Corporation) was inadvertently left off after an oil change. That caused TSS to rise; with the drive shut off, sludge normally suctioned from the tank bottom formed a blanket that floated to the surface. Cox and his team got the issue resolved quickly and with no adverse environmental impact.

‘We use four people’s brainpower instead of one,” says Cox. “In this job you have to know a little bit about everything, such as electrical, plumbing, soldering, data management; no one can know it all. Because we don’t have decades of experience to fall back on, we have to rely on our knowledge and our capabilities. And I think we’ve done a great job for the plant and the residents here.”

Success on every level

Indeed, despite the Montpelier facility’s advanced years, Cox declares, “We not only meet all the EPA and Vermont Department of Environmental Protection regulations, but we really blow them out of the water.” As examples, he cites 95 percent removal of BOD, TSS and phosphorus.

The plant is also a model of efficiency, cutting energy consumption by 50 percent and doing so mostly without big upgrades — just through mechanical improvements (like a new methane flare and new power-use monitoring equipment) and process changes (like eliminating a 3 hp sewage grinder).

The plant captures and burns methane from the digesters to heat the digesters to 95 degrees F and to heat one of the plant buildings. As a result, the plant saves about 25,000 gallons of fuel oil annually, saving about $58,000 a year and reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

Cox takes his success in stride, preferring to credit his boss and his team and move from task to task. Early in the day, he may be in a suit meeting with city officials or attending an association luncheon. Later, he’s back in jeans working on pumps or cleaning pits. Because the plant is big on community outreach, Cox is in demand as a tour guide, regularly hosting middle school groups, high schoolers, first-year college students and even college graduates, such as those from Norwich University, which brings in its engineering students.

For Cox, variety is part of the job’s attraction. “There is always something different happening in wastewater,” says Cox, who lives in the town of Williamstown (population 3,300), about 10 minutes from Montpelier. “The guys and I take a tremendous amount of pride in what we do and the fact that we’re protecting the environment. Wastewater is going to be my career. I moved up pretty fast, and I want to stay and continue to improve on what my team and I have accomplished.”

Solids handling: big business

One of Chris Cox’s major responsibilities at the Montpelier Water Resource Recovery Facility is solids handling, which generates $750,000 in annual revenue for the city, and he works the solids processing equipment hard.

“We take in 30,000 gallons of septage and commercial sludge a day,” Cox says. “That separates us from other facilities that can’t handle anywhere near that amount. Companies pump the sludge and bring it to us from all over — New York, New Hampshire, Massachusetts and other parts of Vermont.”

In addition, Cox and his operators process about 30,000 gallons of landfill leachate daily. Leachate is high in BOD and organic compounds. The plant has a 50,000-gallon leachate tank from which operators bleed the material into the treatment process at 30 gpm over a 24-hour period.

“Handling septage, commercial sludge and leachate in an environmentally responsible manner is something few facilities in the state can do,” says Kurt Motyka, assistant public works director and city engineer. “It’s been a great source of revenue, but at the same time it has pushed our belt filter presses and other equipment beyond what they were engineered to process. That’s one reason our proposed update is so important; we need to make sure we have the capabilities to continue this work.”

It started with terns

Before joining the Montpelier Water Resource Recovery Facility, Chris Cox spent a summer on the Isles of Shoals off the New Hampshire-Maine coast, watching and banding endangered terns — seabirds found worldwide near oceans, rivers or wetlands.

Working for the New Hampshire Fish and Game Department’s Nongame Program, Cox and members of the Office of State Planning Coastal Program, Shoals Marine Laboratory, Terns LLC, Gulf of Maine Tern Working Group, and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service monitored breeding colonies of Arctic terns, which have the longest migration of any bird, about 30,000 miles. They also monitored roseate and common terns. The goal of the Isles of Shoals Seabird Restoration Project is to manage and protect the breeding populations and their habitats.

“I banded a few hundred terns that summer,” Cox says. “Despite the heat and mosquitos, it was fun to look for the birds I banded with a spotting scope and know that I was helping. Though I’ve always liked the outdoors, the job there really sparked my interest in conservation and ways to improve the environment, which I’ve applied here in Montpelier.”

Each year since the program began in 1997, biologists and team members have lived and worked on White and Seavey islands throughout the tern breeding season from April through August. Cox admits that living conditions “are rustic to say the least” — no running water or electricity. But the staff finds innovative ways to make island life more normal, such as using solar panels to power laptops and cellphones, and providing propane tanks to cook hot meals and run a small refrigerator.

Teams conduct a census of terns nesting on the islands. They record the number of eggs each pair lays, how many of the eggs hatch, and how many of the chicks survive and eventually fly. Biologists also monitor feeding activity to determine how many and what kinds of fish the terns are eating.


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