Life Is Full of Second Chances. Cliff Church Provides a Sterling Example

Cliff Church rebuilt his career from factory work to an award-winning job as reclaim water technician at the clean-water plant in Myrtle Creek, Oregon.

Life Is Full of Second Chances. Cliff Church Provides a Sterling Example
Cliff Church, reclaim water technician, Myrtle Creek Sewage Treatment Plant

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Sorry, F. Scott Fitzgerald, there are second acts in America. Just ask Cliff Church and his colleagues at the Myrtle Creek Sewage Treatment Plant. Church, his boss and a fellow operator have turned lemons into lemonade after losing their previous jobs by building successful water and wastewater careers in a quiet, forest-products city of 3,400 in southwestern Oregon.

Church, who holds Grade II Wastewater Operator and Grade I Water Operator licenses, received the 2016 Oregon Wastewater Operator of the Year Award from the Pacific Northwest Clean Water Association. The award announcement calls Church “an operator who exhibits a commitment to learn safe and efficient plant operations. … He is willing to understand the operations of each plant and has shown a mechanical ability by repairing, maintaining and troubleshooting equipment.”

Church, a reclaim water technician, was nominated by Andrew Albee, former Myrtle Creek Public Works director and now superintendent of the clean-water plant in Roseburg. “Right from the start,” he says, “Cliff struck me as a real square guy who cared, was really interested in his work, and didn’t treat wastewater as a just a job.”

Church expressed surprise that he won. “I try to work hard and do a good job for the city and its residents,” he says. “But I had no idea my peers saw me as worthy of an award. It is a huge honor and shows what a great career wastewater has been.”

Courage to start again

Church has worked tirelessly to learn the business and make sure plant effluent meets all permit requirements for discharge into the South Umpqua River (winter) and a pond at the Cougar Canyon Golf Course in the Umpqua Valley (summer). Past and present supervisors cite his strong interest in treatment processes and plant safety.

Church knew nothing about water or wastewater before 2010, when he lost his job of 20 years at a Roseburg aluminum cable plant, an event that “felt like the end of the world.” Born in Southern California and raised in Myrtle Creek, Church graduated from South Umpqua High School and attended Umpqua Community College for two years before leaving to help at his family’s grocery business.

As one of 78 laid-off workers from the plant, Church enrolled in Oregon’s Dislocated Worker Program, which works with local providers to help workers affected by layoffs and closures. He got a year of paid training in wastewater, learning chemistry, equipment, plant operations and treatment techniques. “I had no idea what wastewater entailed,” he says. “Like most people, I took clean water for granted. But I had lost my job, and as a husband and father, I couldn’t afford to be without benefits or salary very long. The opportunity for a full-time position saved my life and gave me a whole new start.”

Training complete, Church took a job as a wastewater plant operator for the city of Canyonville, about 10 miles south of Myrtle Creek. Although pleased to be working at the small plant built in the 1950s, Church longed to be back in his hometown. Six months later, in 2012, the Myrtle Creek operator job opened up; he jumped ship and has been there ever since.

“A friend connected me with Andy Albee, and we hit it off,” Church says. “I love this job: there are so many facets to it. You have to know a little bit of everything, and that makes the work interesting.”

Many roles

In a three-person operation, Church does everything from collecting water samples and doing lab analysis to troubleshooting problems and maintaining equipment at the plant, which came online in 2003. With a dry-weather design flow of 1.8 mgd, the plant treats wastewater from Myrtle Creek and its Urban Growth Boundary area — 7,300 total customers — served by the Tri City Water & Sanitary Authority.

Church’s maintenance duties cover work on gearboxes, submersible pumps (Flygt - a Xylem Brand), sludge pumps (Vogelsang), an Alfa Laval centrifuge, two clarifiers (WesTech Engineering), cylindrical screens (Andritz Separation) and three Enviroquip PAD process aerobic digesters (Ovivo USA). He calibrates equipment, changes oil in the machinery and keeps track that everything is working well, including the plant’s Orbal four-channel oxidation ditch (Evoqua Water Technologies).

He also maintains a 14-year-old Fenton natural gas dryer (RDP Technologies), which produces Class A biosolids. The dryer dewaters biosolids in an enclosed chamber using indirect thermal technology, yielding 108 dry tons per year of granular product for farm, horticultural, municipal and domestic use. Area farmers truck the material away at no cost.

Church and a fellow operator also work a 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. shift and spend Saturdays and Sundays running the 2 mgd, membrane-based Myrtle Creek Water Treatment Plant, a 1 mgd conventional filtration plant, and a spring-fed 0.5 mgd conventional water treatment plant.

More comebacks

“Thank goodness for us Cliff is a heck of a fine worker,” says Steve Ledbetter, wastewater treatment plant superintendent. “Cliff is very dependable and is my go-to guy at the plant. In fact, he does the job I used to do. And he’s been our main man on safety pretty much since he started here six years ago.”

Ledbetter knows all about starting over, as Church did. After nearly 20 years at a Roseburg plywood mill, he was injured and couldn’t go back to work. He enrolled in the state’s Preferred Worker Program, which helps place workers who have permanent disabilities from on-the-job injuries. That led him to the Myrtle Creek plant, where he began as a trainee and worked his way up to his current role in 2014.

“In terms of wastewater, if I had known how good this career was, I would have gone into it long before I did,” Ledbetter says. “People associate wastewater with a lot of nasty stuff, but in fact, it’s a great career. I’d like to see more young people get into it because a lot of operators are about ready to retire and we desperately need people to replace them. Plus, it takes time to learn the field; it’s not something you master overnight.”

Operator Ken Redinger also had to retrain for his job. A long-haul truck driver and then a delivery driver, he injured his back and went through the Preferred Worker Program, training for a year.

“I’ve really enjoyed my time at the water and wastewater treatment plants,” Redinger says. “Between Cliff and Steve and the chance to learn new things all the time, it’s a pleasure to come to work every day. I’ve worked with Cliff for a little over three years. He’s a super co-worker, and he and Steve and I get along great. It’s a pleasure to be around them.”

Second chance

Church, a husband and father of four, enjoys fishing, spending time with his grandchildren, and playing fantasy football. He’s grateful for the second chance the retraining program provided. And while he may not chide Fitzgerald, author of The Great Gatsby, he’s a big believer in the power of starting over.

“I plan to stay here till the end of my career,” he says with firmness in his voice. “I work with great people and find water and wastewater treatment a rewarding career. For a 40-something-year-old man, it’s scary to lose your job and have to begin once more. I’m thankful things turned out the way they did and I came here. It has been a real blessing for me and my family.”

Sold on safety

For Cliff Church, safety is more than one of his duties: It’s a calling he takes quite seriously. In his five years at the Myrtle Creek Sewage Treatment Plant, he has made safety a top priority, becoming Safety Committee chairman and improving committee practices with better organization and consistency.

“When I first met Cliff, he showed some interest in safety, which was great,” says Andrew Albee, former director of Myrtle Creek Public Works Services. “I asked him if he wanted to be Safety Committee chairman; he said yes, reluctantly at first. Then, he ran with it and did a good job.”

On taking over the committee, Church instituted monthly meetings involving wastewater plant personnel as well as workers from the water, sewer, parks, recreation and other departments. Committee members toured parks to look for hazards, visited playgrounds to make sure the equipment worked as designed, and toured the water and wastewater treatment plants, which have their safety concerns including confined-space entry, guardrails, trip hazards, and the handling of chemicals and biological materials.

Steve Ledbetter, wastewater treatment plant superintendent, says, “Cliff makes sure we’re in compliance with all the safety rules and regulations. He takes safety very seriously, and he’s good at getting everyone on board with safety measures.” The plant has a strong safety record with only one minor lost-time incident and no other major accidents or permanent injuries during

Church’s tenure. At meetings, he urges attendees to look for anything that might compromise safety anywhere in the Public Works Services department.

“Safety is my forte,” says Church, who served on the Safety Steering Committee at the aluminum cable plant where he worked previously. “I’ve always cared about people and want them to go home the same way they came to work — in a safe manner.”


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