Many Illinois Operators Owe Their Career Success to This University-Based Process Instructor

Rick Lallish trains Illinois operators with a little bit of mischief and a great deal of dedication to seeing his students achieve their career goals.
Many Illinois Operators Owe Their Career Success to This University-Based Process Instructor
Lallish (center) prepares students like James Rainey (left) and John Greathouse for their careers by letting them operate a small-scale wastewater treatment facility.

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Not every clean-water plant operator can get paid for purposely upsetting the process or causing an equipment malfunction.

Rick Lallish can — and often does. It’s part of his method as the Water Quality Control Operations program director at the Southern Illinois University Edwardsville Environmental Resources Training Center (ERTC). There, aspiring operators learn the trade on a 30,000 gpd activated sludge plant and a moving-bed bioreactor inside the center.

“I have a bad habit of causing problems in the plant,” says Lallish, winner of the 2017 Kenneth Meredith Award from the Illinois Water Environment Association for promoting operator professionalism. “I might turn the aerators off for a day. I might create a power outage. On the SCADA system, I can change the screen readings so they don’t reflect what’s going on in the plant. I might open a valve and let the plant drain or turn off the sludge wasting capabilities.

“Basically, I upset the plant. It forces the students to be proactive and look for problems. At the beginning of the semester, they’re messed up; they’re running around in circles. By the end of the semester, I see them taking action. In doing their plant walk-throughs, they notice when there’s a problem, then get together and solve it. My theory is that it’s easy to run a plant that’s working well. These folks learn to operate a plant when it’s not running well. They learn how to fix problems and get the plant to run right.”

Such mischief aside, Lallish takes pride in giving sound one-year training programs to people looking to enter the profession. He and colleagues also present short schools for experienced operators looking to acquire more advanced licenses and take special two-day workshops to sites around Illinois. “My goal is to help all the operators in the state achieve their goals,” he says. “I do what I can to make sure the training they receive is fulfilling and effective.”

A knack for solutions

Operations and instruction comprise a second career for Lallish. In 1983 after graduating from high school in Greenville, he joined the U.S. Navy and served 10 years, mostly as a cryptologist. During Operation Desert Storm in Kuwait and Iraq, he served on the aircraft carrier USS Forrestal, running the machines that encrypted and sent highly classified information.

The logic and problem-solving skills he learned in the Navy served him well when he entered the clean-water profession in 1994 in Greenville. He took night classes at the ERTC to earn his Class 1 Wastewater Operation and Collection System Operator certifications. During 14 years at Greenville, he worked up to lead operator, in charge of a 1.5 mgd oxidation ditch plant and a 25-mile collections system with seven lift stations.

Besides the variety inherent in the job, Lallish enjoyed troubleshooting. “I was able to put my Navy training to use,” he says. “My basic mindset was, OK, here’s the problem. How do we tackle it? Is it mechanical? Is it software? Is it operations?” Once he and his team fixed an outbreak of filamentous bacteria (Nocardia) by adding low doses of chlorine to the return activated sludge.

When an industrial discharge caused a spike in effluent nitrogen, Lallish traced the problem to the business responsible. It was related to the chemical content of product: “Whenever they cleaned out a vat, it basically acted like a time bomb in terms of the ammonia nitrogen in the plant. I learned how to do a TKN test using the distillation method. I was able to collect some numbers and had an outside lab verify my findings.” Seeing the data, the company installed pretreatment.

On to instruction

Lallish also enjoyed the people side of the profession — working with Greenville residents, making sewer service calls, and dealing with the City Council. That came in handy when he joined the ERTC in 2008. He’s indebted to his Greenville boss and mentor, the late James “Jim” Maurer. “When I left, he gave me one piece of advice: ‘Whatever you do, don’t forget the operators. Those are the people you work for.’ I do my job with that in mind every day.”

The ERTC’s basic program consists of two semesters of water and wastewater operations training, followed by a 10-week internship at a water or wastewater treatment plant. Graduates are eligible to take Illinois and Missouri certification exams.

On arriving, Lallish discovered how much he had to learn to transition from operator to teacher: “I didn’t realize when I started how much there was to this job and how much responsibility came with it. I thought I knew my business, but I had to relearn everything. I had to learn every process, not just activated sludge. I had to understand lagoons, how fixed film works, and why disinfection does what it does. I had to broaden myself quickly to become confident enough that if somebody asked me a question, I could give a sound answer.”

He did that by “hitting the books” — studying Water Environment Federation manuals, reading textbooks, reviewing previous instructors’ PowerPoint presentations and creating his own. “By writing my own presentations and setting up lesson plans, I forced myself to learn the subjects I would be teaching.”

Healthy mix

The one-year classes for new operators typically include 25 to 30 students, usually a good mix of ages, including about one-third 24 years and younger. That creates a positive dynamic in which the older students share their work ethic and the younger ones help others with math and technology. Students break into groups and alternate weeks in the facility’s water plant, wastewater plant, lab, and maintenance area.

During the first semester on the wastewater side, Lallish runs the plant and has the students help. “I show them hands-on: Here’s how you do this, this is what you look for,” he says.

“They go away for Christmas break, and when they come back for the second semester, we switch roles. I become the regulatory authority and let them run the plant.

“I have them check the equipment, do the startup, cultivate the activated sludge, check the bugs under the microscope ... the whole works. I have them report to me as the Illinois EPA. If something’s wrong, they have to call me. I let them make mistakes. I let them do what they can to get that plant up and running and maintain it.”

That’s also the time when Lallish pulls his pranks. While that causes the students some consternation, it teaches them to be observant. “When they come in the morning, the first thing they need to do is a walk-through,” Lallish says. “Does it smell funny? Does it look funny? Is everything flowing that’s supposed to be flowing? What do the numbers look like on the SCADA? They have to gather readings every morning.”

In the classroom phases of training, Lallish strives to keep the subjects interesting and ease fears of challenging areas. While a colleague teaches the wastewater math class itself, math enters into other sessions, and Lallish tries to make it as simple as possible. “I give them a lot of practice equations. I teach them how to read the formulas and how to put the formulas together. I teach them how to do it on paper because when they’re taking the test, there’s no computer.

“I show them what the exam questions will look like and give them methods for solving the different kinds of problems. Some older students haven’t done math in 20 or 30 years. It’s difficult for them, and I understand that. I try to bring it down to their level and make it so they don’t have to fear it.”

Lasting connections

Lallish estimates that he has personally trained at least 270 new operators, 400 more in short schools, and that many more in workshops. The ERTC as a whole, from June 2016 through May 2017, trained nearly 800 students and awarded more than 58,000 continuing education and classroom clock hours.

Graduates mostly find jobs in Illinois and Missouri, many with the Metropolitan St. Louis Sewer District. “We get a lot of feedback from plant managers saying, ‘We want your folks — we don’t have to train them. They know what they’re doing when they get here.’ They’ve done the work. They’ve got their hands dirty. They can hit the ground running. Utilities like that.”

Lallish’s connections with his students don’t end when they leave school. He makes it clear that they’re welcome to call him with questions. He returns their calls quickly. If they ask a question he can’t answer, he taps his broad network of operators.

His rewards come when his students succeed. “For my new operators, it’s when they call me after they get their first job in a wastewater plant and tell me it’s the first time they felt as if they had a career and something to look forward to. One student a few years back had a pretty rough time growing up and not a whole lot of prospects for a decent life. He took a leap of faith and came to the one-year program. He graduated, got his certification, and got a job at a large treatment plant. Now, he has bought a new home and a car. He has a retirement plan and medical benefits for himself and his family. He called one day and said we changed his life.

“For experienced operators, I get a lot of satisfaction when one of them calls after a class and says, ‘I passed my license exam, and I couldn’t have done it without you guys.’ There is no better feeling than just being told thank you.”

Beyond Instruction

Rick Lallish wears multiple hats at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville. Besides directing the Water Quality Control Operations program at the Environmental Resources Training Center, he’s the operator in charge of the university’s 0.6 mgd activated sludge plant and works with operators John Harper and Mike Taylor. The pilot plant in the ERTC receives its raw wastewater from that facility; effluent from the ERTC plant goes back to the main plant for final treatment.

Lallish also chairs the Illinois EPA Certification Committee, which meets once a year to review the database of questions used to create the state certification exams. He is first vice president of the Illinois Association of Water Pollution Control Operators, serves as an officer for the Mississippi-Kaskaskia Valley Water Pollution Control Operators, and a member of the Illinois Water Environment Association Operations Committee.

In his spare time, Lallish is an avid St. Louis Cardinals fan and a bowler with a 190-plus average. He’s also newly married
to Niki.

His ERTC colleagues are Kim Bateman, operations director; Drew Hoelscher and assistant Kurt Neuhaus in the water program; David Wesselman, laboratory; Jim Winslade and Marty Reynolds, adjunct instructors; and Marci Webb, office manager.


The Environmental Resources Training Center constantly looks to upgrade equipment to give students access to the most current technologies. One recent addition is a SCADA system that controls the pumps, valves and other systems at the wastewater treatment plant used in training.   

The next project is to build a wastewater collections system and a drinking-water distribution system, both above ground so that students can easily observe their functions. “The collections system is scheduled to have four manholes — one of those being a lift station,” says Rick Lallish, director of the Water Quality Control Operations program. “We’ll be able to have simulated blockages and other simulated problems. We’ll be able to teach operators how to test for slope and velocity. If funds are available, we’re looking at a push camera students can use for inspections.”

Speaking of which, each year Key Equipment, an Envirosight distributor serving Greater St. Louis, brings in an inspection truck with a tractor camera for a day and lets the students operate it. “We actually open a manhole outside the school and lower the camera in there,” Lallish says. “The students actually perform a visual inspection. They love it.”


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