James Dean Constantly Infuses Team Members With a Passion for Continuous Improvement

James Dean constantly finds ways to improve his plants’ performance and infuses team members with a passion for continuous improvement.

James Dean Constantly Infuses Team Members With a Passion for Continuous Improvement

The team at North Baldwin Utilities includes, from right, James Dean, manager; Ray Powell, water operator; Daryl Long, lead water operator; and James Godwin, wastewater operator.

James Dean may be the Mr. Efficiency of wastewater treatment. As manager of wastewater treatment facilities for North Baldwin Utilities in Bay Minette, Alabama, Dean sees things not as they are, but as they could be: more efficient, less costly, easier to operate.

Since he took over operation of the wastewater operation 13 years ago, he has installed upgrades that saved the utility millions of dollars by avoiding the need to build a new treatment facility. It’s a record of achievement that earned him the Alabama Rural Water Association Wastewater Operator of the Year award in 2017.

“Streamlining the process, improving effluent, cutting costs — it’s all I know,” says Dean, who had dedicated 27 years to the clean-water profession. “There are so many areas for savings.” He finds that it pays to simply write ideas down, so they won’t be lost.

Steep sludge reduction

Dean is responsible for the 2 mgd (design) Harry B. Still Plant and the 0.5 mgd Westside Treatment Plant. Together, they serve about 3,000 sewer customers in North Baldwin County, northeast of Mobile Bay. Both plants are equipped with circular traveling bridge activated sludge-clarifier systems (Schreiber).

The Still plant, built in 1984, received a massive upgrade in 2011, about six years after Dean came on board. “When I got here, I saw things needed to be changed,” he says. “We made those changes, and we’re still making changes. We increased the available capacity by improving process control.”

The upgrade also saved operating costs, and the mixed liquor suspended solids, or MLSS, level was the key. “We used to run with about 2,000 ppm of MLSS,” Dean says. “But now we’re able to run with extended sludge age using endogenous respiration, where the bugs feed upon themselves, almost like an aerobic digester.” MLSS is as high as 8,000 ppm.

The process includes lime addition to maintain positive alkalinity and close monitoring of oxygen levels. That has reduced waste sludge from 200 tons to 8-10 tons per year, saving $26,000 per year in transportation fuel costs alone. “We pump it into an aeration pond onsite,” Dean says. “There’s basically nothing left.”

The endogenous respiration protocol is also practiced at the Westside plant, with similar reductions in sludge and handling costs. “We have a permanent answer for our sludge issue,” Dean says. “We anticipate continuous cost savings into the future of up to $200,000 a year.”

Effective removal

Nitrification is complete at the Still plant, and with new blowers and diffusers, oxygen transfer is greatly improved. “Our effluent looks like drinking water,” Dean says. “Ammonia is nondetect.” The plant consistently removes 98-99 percent of monitored pollutants.

Disinfection costs are lower, too, because of improved effluent quality coming off the clarifiers. The process improvements have enabled the plant to change from one-ton chlorine cylinders to 150-pound cylinders: “We’ve cut chlorine costs in half.”

In addition, the plants are better able to handle shock loads and wet weather. A 30-million-gallon equalization basin at the Still facility captures stormwater flow, while at the Westside plant, a pond system once used for sludge storage is being converted to serve as an equalization basin for both plants. “Rain, storms and shock loadings have no effect here,” Dean says. “The endogenous mode of operation allows us to operate with wide ranges of organic loadings. We don’t have any issues with our permit.”

An extensive SCADA system, linking the plant with all the lift stations on the collections system, helps with monitoring and control. Terry Pope, a 25-year field service technician with Schreiber, testifies to Dean’s accomplishments: “He’s one of the best operators in south Alabama. In fact, I’d rank him as one of the best in the country.”

Company representatives visit the plant at least once a year for routine maintenance, but Dean calls for help when needed. “If something breaks, he has us come down to fix it,” Pope says. “He’s a pleasure to work with, and I respect him for what he has accomplished.”

Keeping things running

Dean and his staff are meticulous on maintenance, conducting their own proactive program while using the capabilities of equipment manufacturers. “We have developed our own in-house maintenance program,” he says. “We conduct monthly maintenance on all our pumps. We follow the manufacturer recommendations on all the equipment and include some of that in our routine monthly maintenance. Certain things we do; certain things they do.

“We’ve added some improvements, as well, such as variable-frequency drives on our blowers with maximum and minimum speeds.” Before, constant air pressure would blow the socks off the aeration diffusers and affect treatment. Regular maintenance is critical: “If it doesn’t work mechanically, you won’t have process control. The two go hand-in-hand.”

Since Dean also teaches wastewater courses, it’s no surprise that his management style is focused on learning: “It’s always a teaching opportunity, a learning process. We have good staff members here. They do a good job, and they continuously learn. We are never satisfied. There’s always room for improvement. We have to teach that and change the mindset. It’s rewarding to see the improvement in process efficiencies — making a process work the way it is supposed to work and improving the environment.”

Adding value

Dean enables staff members to make decisions and stay involved. “They’re involved in all our decisions about process control,” he says. “They’re a good crew that other utilities recognize for their expertise.”

Jeff Donald, operations manager for North Baldwin Utilities, says Dean runs a tight and efficient plant and is highly valuable to the utility: “He’s very diligent and innovative. He’s very knowledgeable about the wastewater business and is always finding new ways to improve. Plus, he’s a good teacher.”

Dean admits that it’s not easy to maintain a high-quality, well-trained crew. “Right now, the biggest challenge we have is getting operators trained and through the certification process,” he says. “Throughout the state and the industry, we have a shortage of operators.” He makes a special effort to attend job fairs and get high school seniors interested in the profession.

To most, he says, it’s an unknown opportunity.

It was an unknown opportunity for Dean, as well. He graduated from high school with an interest in forestry but ended up in construction before he discovered wastewater. Since then, he has worked his way up from operator trainee to operator, general manager, and plant manager. “I really just stumbled into it,” he says. To his managers, employees, students, and clients, it was a step in the right direction.

Teaching and advising

With experience in wastewater, surface water, groundwater, ponds, activated sludge, wastewater collections, and drinking water distribution, James Dean is the logical person to teach operators at Coastal Alabama Community College and troubleshoot operations for other utilities. And that’s what he has done, for 17 years.

In addition to his Class 4 wastewater and Class 4 water certifications, Dean holds journeyman electrical and cross-connection control management certifications from the University of Florida TREEO Center. 

“At first, we offered courses on site, at the plant,” Dean says. “A year and a half ago, we started offering the classes to the community college.” The courses are designed to attract new operators to the profession and help those already working in the industry, improving their knowledge and skills. On the consulting side, Dean helps neighboring utilities solve problems and operate their plants and processes more effectively.

At Saraland Utilities in Mobile County, Dean teaches operators on Monday and Thursday nights, and his expertise has helped improve the operation of the utility’s 4.5 mgd sequencing batch reactor plant. Chad Hennis, Saraland utilities director, says Dean has helped the plant meet its permit and has developed an in-house laboratory to replace outsourcing.

Before Dean stepped in, the facility had mechanical and process control problems. Hennis credits Dean with helping making decisions on ways to treat wastewater and with having a gift for transferring knowledge to operators working toward certification: “He has a passion for it. He really enjoys it. He’s one of the best teachers I’ve known in water and wastewater.”


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