Award-Winning Project Manager Mark Houle Tackles Challenges With Experience, Problem-Solving Skills and a Dedicated Team

Award-winning project manager Mark Houle tackles challenges with experience, problem-solving skills and a dedicated team.

Award-Winning Project Manager Mark Houle Tackles Challenges With Experience, Problem-Solving Skills and a Dedicated Team

An upgrade of the plant to fine- bubble aeration (Environmental Dynamics International) has improved operations and saved energy.

Mark Houle’s first job was collecting and analyzing industrial wastewater samples and operating a 53 million-gallon retention basin for the Oakland County (Michigan) Water Resources Commissioner.

The part-time, summer intern position allowed Houle, a chemistry major, to pick up some skills. At the time, he had no idea the clean-water profession would become a lifelong career.

Today, Houle is project manager with SUEZ at the South Huron Valley Utility Authority in Brownstown Township, Michigan. He supervises a staff of 11 and oversees day-to-day operations of the authority’s 24 mgd wastewater treatment plant, including laboratory, industrial pretreatment, and maintenance.

His successes include improving plant efficiency while using less chemicals. Through fine-tuning, the plant reduced ferric chloride use by 50 to 60 percent and saved about $100,000 a year on energy. Houle also recommended and managed a plant upgrade from eight high-horsepower aerator/mixers to a fine-bubble air diffusion system (Environmental Dynamics International) that saves $300,000 a year on electricity costs.

In 2015, Houle received the Michigan Water Environment Association Industrial Pretreatment Program Professional of the Year award. In 2017, he won Michigan Water Environment Association’s Operations Professional of the Year for “remarkable dedication to an employer and to the MWEA.”

A step up

It’s been 29 years since Houle took that intern position. When the job became full time, he continued his college studies in the evening. “It took me seven years, but in 1994 I got my bachelor’s in chemistry from Lawrence Technological University in Southfield, Michigan,” he says.

The five years of experience in wastewater enabled him to get his first wastewater license that same year. He then transferred to the Walled Lake-Novi Wastewater Treatment Plant in Oakland County. There, he operated the plant, collected and analyzed samples, and was responsible for equipment and lift station maintenance and biosolids hauling.

Several other positions followed, as lab technician at the City of Mount Clemens Wastewater Treatment Plant and as operations manager for the South Huron Valley wastewater collections and treatment system. He was promoted to assistant project manager at the authority in 2013 and to project manager in December 2017.

“The Mount Clemens position was a step up since I was responsible for all aspects of laboratory management, process control decisions, some plant supervision as needed, and coordinating the industrial pretreatment program,” he says. He also trained and supervised operators, and that helped prepare him for his current position.

Houle is grateful to his early mentors: “Chuck McKinnon was my first manager, and I worked for him during that summer internship. He took a chance on me and gave me the opportunity to work in this field.” Another mentor was Chuck Bellmore, his manager at Mount Clemens: “He let me figure things out and allowed me to do everything without hesitation so I could learn.”

Welcoming a challenge

Today, Houle continues to welcome challenges. “I’m that guy who usually says yes,” he says. He believes he won the Industrial Pretreatment Program award because of his visibility and involvement on the Michigan Water Environment Association Industrial Pretreatment Program Committee. He has chaired the committee and served as vice chairman and secretary. A vendor who is on the committee nominated him for the award.

Houle oversees a successful industrial pretreatment program at the South Huron Valley treatment plant. “Right now, we have 11 permitted industrial users,” he says. “These include a stamping plant, an electroplating and metal finishing plant, an auto assembly plant and a few landfills.” Industrial flows have increased about 5 percent in the past five years, and another permitted user is to come online in late 2018.

Houle believes he won the operations award because of the plant’s compliance record: “This award is definitely something to be proud of; but, I also take it with a grain of salt because you’re only as good as your performance next week or next month.”

He finds time to teach various wastewater classes for Michigan Water Environment Association a few times a month. “The Great Lakes Water Authority, which now runs the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department, is pushing their operators to be cross-trained, so I’m teaching all aspects of wastewater treatment,” he says.

Handling the flow

Houle’s main challenge is the South Huron Valley facility. Built in 1986, the activated sludge, secondary treatment plant serves about 87,000 people in seven communities.

Raw influent enters the pumping station and flows by gravity through two Duperon bar screens. It enters a sluice collections system and compactor and then the wet well. From there, the flow is pumped to two aerated grit chambers and then a Parshall flume. Under normal conditions, the flow is split into one or two of four Envirex primary clarifiers (Evoqua Water Technologies).

Secondary treatment is accomplished in aeration tanks with a five-stage anoxic/oxic variation of the activated sludge treatment process. Houle explains, “We call these systems biodecks, a term that is fairly unique to the South Huron Valley plant. Two to four biodecks, depending on flow volume, are used in parallel along with a final clarifier for each biodeck. The system achieves biological removal of phosphorus below permit limits without chemical addition under most conditions.”

Additional primary clarifiers and secondary treatment tanks are placed online during prolonged high-flow events. An equalization basin handles short high-flow periods. When flows subside, the equalization basin is dewatered back to the wet well. When the plant hits 100 percent capacity and the equalization basin is full, excess flow can be diverted to a wet-weather bypass. In that event, it is routed around the secondary treatment units to the disinfection tank.

Wet weather keeps the operators on their toes. “Although our average daily flows are 8 to 9 mgd, we’ve seen 60 to 65 mgd four or five times since I’ve been here,” Houle says. Since the plant can bypass during heavy rains, it has had no issues meeting NPDES limits during those events. “We follow very aggressive wet-weather standard operating procedure to minimize the impacts,” he says.

Treated wastewater is disinfected with sodium hypochlorite and dechlorinated with sodium bisulfite. Biosolids are landfilled or land-applied (about 8 million gallons per year at 6 to 9 percent solids). Discharge is to the Detroit River.

Building trust

As project manager, Houle has a heavy workload. He oversees process control, laboratory results, customer and labor relations, environmental compliance, and financials. He submits monitoring and operational reports to the authority and the state. He also oversees personnel scheduling and training.

“We’re a union shop, so technically, I don’t do operations, but I do weekly rounds and stormwater inspections,” he says. “I generally put in 40 to 60 hours a week. I go in on weekends and after hours if needed, but my staff handles all the calls.”

Problem-solving is his greatest strength: “I’m able to see the big picture and present solutions to the authority. They trust my opinion and take my advice.” He has also built trust with his staff: “Without that, we’re not going to be successful.”

Houle holds Class A (highest) wastewater operator certification and Grade II industrial waste inspector certification. He has been with the South Huron Valley plant for almost 10 years and reports to David Carter, senior director of operations. Houle’s team includes:

  • Operations specialists: Lynn Marshner, Matt O’Donnell, Joe Rzeppa, and Eric Shotwell, all Class C; Andre Randall, Class A.
  • Laboratory technicians: Nekeeita Harris and Jesus Medelez, both Class D.
  • Maintenance technicians: Andy Mechel, Demetrius Stembridge, and Kia Thurston.
  • Administrative assistant: Heide Mechel (nine years).

Houle has high praise for his team. “They care about what they do and are self-motivated. I can rely on them to do a good job.”

Making things better

Houle says his greatest accomplishment was recommending and overseeing the plant’s upgrade to a fine-bubble air diffuser system. “It was my idea, and I convinced the authority that the upgrade made both operational and economic sense,” he says. “The old mixers were near the end of their life and were failing.”

A cost analysis by the authority showed it was spending $300,000 a year on electricity that could be saved by converting to the fine-bubble diffuser system. The authority hired an outside engineer and worked with them to design and oversee the project.

Houle says, “We upgraded half the plant in 2017, and the other half will be completed in spring 2018. The new system will use turbo blowers (APG-Neuros) and will be controlled through continuous online dissolved oxygen monitoring.” Besides saving money, the system will improve effluent quality and will make higher flows easier to manage.

His next project is biosolids management. “There are only so many farm fields, and the landfills can only take so much since other municipalities use them,” he says. “Twenty percent of our biosolids are landfilled, and the rest go to farms.”

Houle is looking for other options. “Landfilling costs have gone up, and composting causes odor issues. I’m looking for people who will take biosolids for energy generation, or digesters to convert biosolids to energy that can be used to heat buildings or even provide some electricity.”

Challenges like these, and Houle’s success in meeting them, are the reasons he stays. “There is always room for continuous improvement here, so I see myself staying and making things even better. Sometimes the challenges try me, but when people thank me for keeping their basements dry and the river clean, that makes it all worth it.”


When Mark Houle is off duty from the South Huron Valley Utility Authority, he enjoys playing ice hockey.

“For the past 12 years, I’ve played defense or wing in a men’s league for Bob Maxey Ford in Troy, Michigan,” he says. “We play on Sunday nights; it’s a great bunch of people.” Once a year, the team travels to Lansing for a tournament.

Houle has three sons, ages 15, 17 and 20. The oldest attends Western Michigan University; the two younger ones are also athletes, and Houle supervises preseason practices for their lacrosse team.

Houle also enjoys ice fishing, pingpong, and gazing at his small man-made backyard pond. “It came with the house, and there are turtles, frogs, toads, goldfish,” he says. “Sometimes one of the turtles will walk out and come up to you to get fed. The pond is nice to look at when I’m having my coffee.”


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