Here's How a Clean-Water Agency Enlisted Public Support Through Outreach — and How You Can, Too

New Hampshire regulators recognize Concord for plant tours and other outreach aimed at winning public support for upgrades and day-to-day operations.
Here's How a Clean-Water Agency Enlisted Public Support Through Outreach — and How You Can, Too
Operator John Hanlon and other Hall Street Wastewater Treatment Facility team members help with presentations as part of Concord’s award-winning plant tour program.

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The Concord (New Hampshire) General Services Wastewater Treatment Division has kissed the low profile goodbye.

Leaders decided that residents needed to understand the division’s Class A biosolids program and how the two treatment plants produce clean, clear water — so that they would support investments in plant facilities.

That’s why the plants are regularly on display: The division regularly opens them up to tour groups that get the full overview of the processes, according to Dan Driscoll, plant superintendent. Tours host groups from school children to adult service groups and senior citizens. Each tour is geared to the age level.

The Hall Street Wastewater Treatment Facility, built in 1979, treats an average of 4 mgd, including 5 million gallons per year of landfill leachate and 2 million gallons of septage. The plant generates 7,500 tons of Class A biosolids per year, which is used as fertilizer or as a component of manufactured topsoil.

The Penacook Wastewater Treatment Plant, built in 1973 to treat discharge from a tannery, was later converted from conventional activated sludge to a sequencing batch reactor with a 1.2 mgd capacity.

Uptick in outreach

While the division has always offered tours, only two to three per year were given until three years ago, when an engineering study concluded that a digester would be the preferred alternative for future biosolids handling.

“For a long time, I guess you could say we would sit back and try to stay out of the way,” Driscoll says. “If it was quiet, it meant we were doing a good job. But with that big project in the works, we knew we’d need community buy-in. The people needed to know how it would benefit them.”

Tour groups are queried to find out what part of the treatment process they’d like focus on. For student groups, the staff tries to choose a theme that fits the class curriculum. “It can be anything from learning about the trickling filter process and taking samples, which would fit into a biology class, to learning about the equations we use to figure flow rates, which is often some higher level math,” Driscoll says.

“A lot of our adult tour groups like to learn more about our Class A biosolids production. Many people in the community don’t realize what level we go to for making sure our biosolids are safe for the environment.”

Becoming clear

While the increased outreach has cost, mainly in overtime for the staff to plan and lead tours, the payoff made it an easy decision. “People know we’re here, and they know what we do now,” Driscoll says.

The efforts have earned noticed at the state level. Last April, the New Hampshire Department of Environmental Services presented the division with its 2017 Outstanding Public Outreach Award. It recognized the tours as well as brochures, website updates, social media, news releases and participation at community events.

Driscoll calls the award a credit to his staff: “It’s great to be recognized because it lets us know we’re going down the right path. The award was a bit of a surprise, but it’s a testament to the job our staff does.”

Other communities have taken notice, too. Last year, the plant hosted a group of concerned residents from nearby Belmont. At issue was the safety in spreading Class A biosolids on farm fields. The presentation was made several weeks before a community-wide vote to ban the spreading of biosolids.

“We talked about what we did with biosolids in Concord and met with many people who were either leery or totally against the idea,” Driscoll says. “Many of them didn’t know the safety precautions involved in producing a Class A product. Once they learned more, we saw some stances softened. The resolution ended up failing, and biosolids continue to be safely applied to farm fields throughout the community.”

Continuing to build

The division hopes to extend its outreach by increasing its presence in classrooms, especially in middle and high schools. Department staff is also planning on planting a demonstration nursery in front of the plant that will utilize biosolids to grow trees for city landscape projects. Staff members throughout the Concord General Services divisions also recently took part in a recruitment video urging people apply for job opportunities in the department.

“It’s important to help break down that perception of the utility worker leaning on his shovel and not getting anything done,” Driscoll says. “When people know what we do, they are more apt to support future initiatives. The people who pay our salaries deserve to know where their dollars are going.”


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