A Hectic Schedule Is a Way of Life for High-Energy Operator Dustin Coles

Dustin C. Coles thrives on a hectic schedule as he leads the Kansas team at Topeka’s second largest treatment plant, serves as a consultant, and contributes time to his state association.

A Hectic Schedule Is a Way of Life for High-Energy Operator Dustin Coles

Coles admits to being a hands-on guy, willing to take on almost any task.

Don’t blink. You might miss Dustin C. Coles, lead operator at the North Topeka (Kansas) Wastewater Treatment Plant.

In his 21-year career handling wastewater issues for the capital city of Kansas, Coles has become the go-to guy for everything from equipment repair to certification testing at the 24 mgd (peak) facility.

An activity-filled schedule and deep commitment to protect the environment have earned Coles praise from his boss (“one of our most dependable employees”); coworkers (“a nice person who’s always willing to lend a hand”); and his father, a section manager for the Topeka Water Pollution Control Division. They cite his willingness to pitch in, mentorship, and mechanical ability as major contributors to the division’s success.

“Sometimes I feel I may have a little too much going on with being an operator, a consultant and a volunteer,” Coles says with a chuckle during a rare quiet moment. “But I’ve really enjoyed my job since I started here in 1996 and all the other jobs I do. Wastewater is definitely a good career, and I’m proud to know we’re making a difference to the community by returning clean water to the Kansas River.”

Last August, he received the William D. Hatfield Award from the Kansas Water Environment Association.

Mechanical aptitude

It’s all in a day’s work for Coles, a Topeka native who graduated from Seaman High School in 1988. He majored in environmental technology at Fort Scott Community College but left before earning a degree, an oversight he’s determined to correct one day. In 1991, he joined the Topeka/Shawnee County Health Department and was so successful doing maintenance that he received an employee-of-the-month award in 1993.

After a shake-up at the department, Coles’ father, Sylvan Coles, encouraged him to apply for an operator position at Topeka’s Oakland Wastewater Treatment Plant. Initially, Sylvan Coles wanted to bring Dustin Coles in as an apprentice, but the superintendent at the time wasn’t receptive. Finally, things changed, and when a job opened at the facility, Coles took it and never slowed down.

Sylvan Coles heads the city’s state-certified wastewater laboratory, which tests samples from the three wastewater treatment plants, and manages the residuals and odor control programs. As such, he isn’t directly involved in plant operations, so there’s no conflict of interest with his son working at the plant.

“Dustin was interested in wastewater even as a youngster,” says Sylvan Coles, who earned a bachelor’s degree in chemistry from Washburn University in Topeka and a master’s in environmental engineering from the University of Kansas. “He’s a mechanical kind of fellow who has always loved working on cars and figuring out how things work. That’s what has made him a top-notch wastewater operator.”

Always in motion

At his busiest, Dustin Coles could put the Energizer Bunny to shame. As lead operator since 2015 at the $28 million North Topeka extended aeration facility, he makes sure that effluent meets all state and federal standards. In that capacity, he supervises operators Derrick Hart and Paul Pfannenstiel, oversees operations, and works closely with the maintenance staff to repair equipment.

Coles works Monday to Thursday 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. and Friday 5 a.m. to 1 p.m. He walks the plant and checks with maintenance to see what needs fixing or rebuilding. An admitted hands-on guy, he’ll tackle just about anything. That includes the mechanical bar screens (Vulcan Industries), PISTA Works grit separators (Smith & Loveless), primary and secondary clarifiers (WesTech Engineering), pumps from Marlow Pumps / ITT Controls (Goulds Water Technology, a Xylem brand), and aeration blowers (Spencer Turbine). He does whatever it takes, crediting “a great team whose support has made it possible to get everything done.”

At a moment’s notice, Coles will help operators and maintenance crews at the division’s two other facilities: the 32 mgd (peak) extended aeration Oakland Wastewater Treatment Plant and the 1 mgd Sherwood Wastewater Treatment Plant, a modular activated sludge facility built by Aero-Mod that (when it opened in 1999) was the largest such package plant in Kansas. Coles troubleshoots equipment problems, fixes what’s broken, and acts as a sounding board on plant operations and treatment issues.

Consulting help

Coles’ boss, Kyle Salmon, Topeka’s operations manager, rates his lead operator’s knowledge of wastewater as second to none. “We use Dustin in both maintenance and operations,” Salmon says. “One big benefit of Dustin is that he’s our means of communications and organizing work between maintenance and operations. That really helps lighten my workload.”

On his off hours, Coles, who has Class IV wastewater certification, does wastewater consulting. It’s an outgrowth of a now-defunct business (Coles Consulting) that he and his father started in 2006 to bring their expertise to smaller treatment operations and those in less-developed areas.

As a consultant/operator at small package plant in rural Lakewood Hills (population 2,600), Dustin Coles troubleshoots mechanical and design problems and has helped resolve the facility’s NPDES permit compliance issues. He has also done consulting work for the Auburn-Washburn Unified School District and for Westar Energy, the state’s largest electric utility. He ran two of Westar Energy’s wastewater treatment plants in the Kansas communities of Lawrence and Tecumseh.

Despite his hectic schedule, Coles is proud of his consulting work: “I’m on the state’s operator call list, so when a treatment plant gets in trouble, they call me. Most of the communities are small and often had no idea what they were getting themselves into with their treatment plants. I’m glad to help them with preventive maintenance and testing and help them understand what’s going on with their processes.”

Volunteer extraordinaire

Then there’s Coles’ 15 years of service to the Kansas Water Environment Association. Spurred by his father, who has been active in the association since 1985, Coles has been coordinator for the group’s annual joint conference with the Kansas Section of the American Water Works Association. In 2010, he was named to the Kansas Water Environment Association’s Select Society of Sanitary Sludge Shovelers (Sylvan Coles became a 5S member in 1987).

At the 2016 meeting in Topeka, which brought together about 300 water and wastewater professionals, Dustin Coles roamed the Capitol Plaza Hotel, troubleshooting everything from the temperature of the conference rooms to the projectors and AV equipment to make sure the engineers, scientists, operators, and other professionals attending got the most from the event.

Beyond the conferences, Coles plays a major role in the Kansas Water Environment Association’s voluntary accreditation program, in collaboration with the Association of Boards of Certification. Essentially it’s for professionals other than water and wastewater operations — people in fields such as residuals management, maintenance and distribution — to help them expand their knowledge and skills and increase their competency. He proctors about 200 certification exams per year throughout the state, and he’s always available to help others prepare for exams as part of his commitment to share his wastewater expertise.

Such help is vital, says Jed Fetterhoof, lead maintenance mechanic at the North Topeka plant: “Dustin is always willing to share what he knows about wastewater processes, treatment techniques and equipment with those of us on the maintenance side. He’s a big part of why the plant is a great place to work and why wastewater is such a good career.”

Advocate for wastewater

For Coles, it’s all about giving back to a field he’s passionate about. “Wastewater is a definitely a wonderful occupation, but not enough people know about it,” he says. “Here in Kansas, we’re really struggling to find young people interested in this industry. Wastewater treatment isn’t going away; we’ll always need clean water in our rivers and streams. We’ve tried to hire people, and it’s been a struggle, so I’m glad to share my knowledge with anyone who’s interested.”

Coles’ schedule will get even busier — if that’s possible — as Topeka moves forward with its plans over the next three years to generate pipeline-quality biogas at the Oakland facility. The $9.5 million investment, with a projected four-year payback, will take solids from the Oakland and North Topeka plants and run it through Oakland digesters. The biosolids will be applied to farms. “It’s an exciting project,” Sylvan Coles says. “For someone like Dustin, it will be yet another opportunity to get involved in a new technology.”

When not working, helping, volunteering, or proctoring, Dustin Coles rides his motorcycle and works on two old Volkswagen Beetles and two other old cars that he occasionally drives to work, “just to get a reaction from my colleagues.” He also plays golf and tennis whenever he can. One son, Timothy, a graduate of Kansas State University, teaches math at Larned (Kansas) Middle School and is the head wrestling and football coach; son Matthew is a heavy-equipment operator for a firm dismantling barracks at the Fort Riley Army base in Junction City, home of the Army’s Big Red One 1st Infantry Division.

As he thinks about all that’s going on, Dustin Coles remembers one more: He’s president of the United Workers of Environmental Trades of Topeka, a position he’s thinking of giving up in the next year or so: “I’ve got enough on my plate; I don’t want to get overloaded.”

Wastewater a ‘family affair’

For Dustin C. Coles, wastewater isn’t just a fulfilling career. It’s practically in his DNA.

Coles remembers coming to work as a youngster on weekends with his father, Sylvan Coles, who in the course of 47 years with the city of Topeka, Kansas, has worked in every area related to wastewater treatment — operations, process control, biosolids and the state-certified laboratory at the Oakland Wastewater Treatment Plant — and learning about the treatment business firsthand. At Sylvan Coles’ urging, Dustin Coles became an operator at the Oakland plant and eventually moved up to lead operator at the North Topeka Wastewater Treatment Plant.

With 60 years’ combined experience, father and son have formed a mutual admiration society. Dustin Coles calls his dad “a great teacher with so much knowledge to share.” Sylvan Coles returns the compliment to his firstborn: “I love that boy to pieces. He’s one of a very few operators I’ve known who has the mechanical knowledge, process knowledge and observational skills to get to the root of a plant-performance problem quickly and find a solution.”

The father and son Coles also share a commitment to the Kansas Water Environment Association. Sylvan Coles has been a member since 1979 — ultimately earning Life Member status — and encouraged Dustin Coles to get involved shortly after the younger Coles came on board as an operator in 1996. They have coordinated conferences and provided hands-on support to the association’s voluntary accreditation program, and they’re mobilizing support to institute a national certification program for treatment plant operators using the Kansas Water Environment Association’s program as a model. Sylvan Coles even got his late wife involved in the association, and when she died in 2003, the organization created the prestigious Shirley Coles Memorial Scholarship in her honor.

Not to be outdone, Dustin Coles’ son, Mathew, worked at the plant in the collections system for about three years, which meant the city had three generations of Coles working in wastewater. Dustin Coles says, “Mathew is of the guys we most want to come back because he worked so hard and did such a good job.” It’s easy to see where he learned.


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