This Lead Operator Is Nothing Short of a Civic Asset

Stan Shaffer applies long experience, people skills and a nonstop learning quest to build an award-winning career as chief water plant operator in Oneonta, New York.
This Lead Operator Is Nothing Short of a Civic Asset
Stanley Shaffer, lead operator, Oneonta Water Treatment Plant

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To the 16,000 customers of the Oneonta (New York) Water Treatment Plant, Stanley Shaffer is more than the lead operator. In 38 years there, driven by a commitment to provide the safest and cleanest water possible, Shaffer has become a resource vital to the city’s health and well-being.

City leaders and officials with the New York State Department of Health (NYSDOH) call Shaffer “extremely knowledgeable,” “forward-looking,” and “an incredible asset.” Oneonta Mayor Gary Herzig, in a local newspaper column, observed, “One big reason that we can take healthy water for granted is a man named Stan Shaffer. If you spend time with Stan in our water treatment plant, you will quickly learn that he has a passion for producing healthy, good-tasting water.”

Honored for dedication

Officials praise Shaffer’s desire to learn new technologies and treatment techniques, his ability to manage and motivate operators, and his determination to generate positive interactions with the community through meetings, internships and school tours.

Those good feelings culminated last April when Shaffer received the 2017 Operator’s Meritorious Service Award from the New York Section AWWA. The group cited his “dedication to researching new technology and process improvements, which has allowed Oneonta to continuously improve its water quality while maintaining a low cost to the end user. Even during many storm and flood events, including the 500-year flood of 2006, the city, due to Stan’s leadership and diligence, has had zero U.S. EPA and NYSDOH water-quality violations to date.”

Despite such accolades, Shaffer remains humble. “I was more than shocked when I learned I’d won,” he says. He mentions his nomination by Greg Mattice, city engineer, and his endorsement by Shane Finch, the city’s NYSDOH representative. “Even my wife, Karen, filled in some of the blanks in the nomination form. Everyone played a role, including the great team of operators I supervise.”

From dairy farm to water plant

A self-effacing style has been Shaffer’s trademark since he joined the water plant team in 1979. Growing up on his family’s dairy farm, he showed a strong interest in natural sciences. He earned an associate degree in laboratory techniques from the State University of New York Cobleskill and then, in 1972, a bachelor’s degree in biology from SUNY Oneonta, where he also took chemistry and environmental science courses. Needing a job, he worked at a factory in Walton, a village of 3,100, and then spent a year and a half as an operator at that community’s wastewater treatment plant.

Seeing an ad in the Oneonta newspaper for a civil service exam for wastewater and water treatment plant operators, he took the test but heard nothing. A year and a half later, while working at the Walton plant, he interviewed for a job at the Oneonta wastewater plant. He didn’t get it, but the chief operator told him there would soon be an opening at the water treatment plant and laboratory. He was hired in 1979 and was promoted to chief operator in 1990. He earned a Grade II-A Community Water Operator license in 1981 and Grade I-A license 10 years later.

Managing an aging water plant

Once on board, Shaffer dedicated himself to providing excellent drinking water by helping the plant operate as efficiently as possible. Designed by New York City engineer Thomas Riddick, whom Shaffer calls “a genius,” the 4.5 mgd plant came online in 1957. Oneonta, once a big railroad town, became smaller as the Delaware & Hudson Line offices and repair shops closed or moved away. When Shaffer arrived, the plant was treating about 3 mgd; at present, it averages about 1.6 mgd.

City water comes from two reservoirs, Wilber Lake and Oneonta Creek, and a supplemental well. Water is piped through a conventional treatment process and pumped to a booster station, then into six Aquastore fiberglass-lined steel storage tanks (CST Industries) before being fed through 66 miles of distribution mains. During his career, Shaffer has led a variety of upgrades and initiatives. These include:

  • A preventive maintenance program that involved scraping and painting of the filter gallery floor and installing a new access catwalk to the low-service/sludge pumps.
  • Installing SolarBee solar-powered mixers (Medora Corporation - SolarBee / GridBee) in several of the water storage tanks.
  • A switch from dry chemical feeder units to metered liquid dosing pumps (ProMinent Fluid Controls) that proved more accurate and more cost-effective.
  • A 2003 conversion from gaseous chlorine to a two-stage mixed-oxidant disinfection system (MIOX Corporation) and a subsequent system upgrade in 2011.
  • A new SCADA system (Dell computer, GE software, Bristol-Babcock controls) installed in 2015-16 that incorporates inline analyzers for chlorine, pH, turbidity, ORP and UV transmittance. (The facility uses a UV254 analyzer to fine-tune the coagulation process for organics removal.)

City engineer Mattice observes, “Stan is a great guy and a great employee. He’s dedicated to his job and so interested in all aspects of water treatment. He has taken just about every treatment course he can, and he’s always pleased to share his knowledge with younger people. He’s always looking for new ways to improve the plant, to make the best and safest water he can make.”

Empathetic style

Technical skills aside, Shaffer earns high marks as a boss. He supervises six team members:

  • Karen Shaffer (his wife), operator and laboratory chemist (Grade I-A license)
  • Paul Thayer, senior plant operator and lab technical director (Grade I-A)
  • Thomas House, operator II (Grade II-A)
  • Steven Schaefer, operator (Grade II-A)
  • Terry Harkenreader, part-time maintenance
  • Scott Kellogg, part-time student worker

One operator comes in at 5 o’clock every morning and gets the plant going. Other staff members work from 7:30 a.m. to 4 p.m., taking samples from the distribution system for analysis in the Environmental Laboratory Accreditation Program-certified lab and doing maintenance on pumps, mixed-media filters and other equipment.

While Shaffer considers communication important to leadership, he rates empathy even higher: “You have to get the job done, but you also have to think about the person and what they’re dealing with inside and outside the plant. For example, we have an operator who has children, so it’s important for him to have some flexibility on the weekends. You have to understand the people working for you and what’s important to them on a day-to-day basis.”

Operator Schaefer gladly attests to Shaffer’s supervisory capabilities. On the job for a year and a half and the plant’s newest Grade II-A operator, he observes, “Stan has been like a father I’ve never had. He’s been very accepting of me and is eager to show me the water trade and explain how everything works. When I came to work here, I had no experience in water treatment, and he has taught me just about everything I know. He’s a nice guy and a great boss, caring about his employees’ needs and at the same time making sure things get done right.”

Targeted upgrades

Looking to the future, Shaffer and Mattice have put in place a five-year plan to upgrade the treatment plant and reservoirs, and the distribution system, which dates back to 1872. In addition, the plant faces ever-tightening federal and state regulations, including surface water treatment rules that require water systems to filter and disinfect water.

Shaffer makes sure the plant is always in compliance. For example, water coming in from the reservoirs can have turbidity anywhere from 1 to 600 NTU, while water leaving the plant must be under 1 NTU. The Oneonta plant produces water at no more than 0.04 NTU 99.9 percent of the time.

Such strong water quality merits praise from Finch of the NYSDOH Oneonta office: “Stan is always looking to optimize treatment techniques and take them to the next level. Although pretty old, the plant always produces good water. Stan is very knowledgeable, and a lot of times when a new rule comes out he’ll know better than I how it will affect the plant, because he’s always looking ahead.”

Relishing challenges

Shaffer is constantly on the lookout for the next project, treatment course or plant upgrade. That includes everything from more SCADA system upgrades to changing the disinfection system from chlorine to ozone, to rehabilitating the flocculation and sedimentation basins. He also spends a lot of time as a husband and father. His wife worked as a hydrogeologist for the Putnam County (New York) Department of Health and as a project manager for the New York City Department of Environmental Protection before joining the Oneonta team six years ago. Son Cole recently graduated from high school, and daughter Kayla is a high school junior.

In his spare time, Shaffer enjoys hiking and fishing and riding his motorcycle. When talk about retiring comes up, he just shakes his head: “I’m well past retirement age, but I keep having projects I’d like to see through, and I’ve always really liked my job. So I’m not looking to leave anytime soon.”

Prepping the next generation

Stanley Shaffer has a strong commitment to continuing education that includes developing himself and his team of operators and promoting water as a career option. He seeks ways to expand operators’ knowledge beyond the Oneonta Water Treatment Plant. For example, he coordinated the inclusion of two operators in the operation and maintenance of the city’s outdoor public swimming pool, helping the Parks Department provide a valuable service.

In 1985, Shaffer launched an internship program for college students majoring in the environmental sciences, biology, chemistry and water resources. Interns help research treatment technologies and laboratory techniques. Through a partnership with his alma mater, SUNY Oneonta, he has introduced bright, young people to various water-quality issues.

“The value of the program cannot be understated,” says Greg Mattice, city engineer. “Over the years, we’ve had scores of interns and probably hired 40 or 50 college students. Stan directly contributes to the education of the younger generation in a field that is of utmost importance to the public.” Shaffer constantly recommends water careers when he gives plant tours to students from second grade to college. He points to the variety of well-paid positions in the industry: maintenance, operations, laboratory work, construction and others.

“I tell the younger ones to stay in school and learn as much as they can,” he says. “For the college kids, I point out that water and wastewater is a great field. A lot of people don’t go into it, so there’s less competition for jobs. We have an aging workforce, so we need young people to replace those who are retiring. And there are many more men than women in the field, which means more women should get involved. There are opportunities for everyone, and I want them to know what’s available.”


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