Here's How Three Trailblazing Women Rose Through the Ranks in the Wastewater Profession

Three women at the Richmond Department of Public Utilities have made their mark through determination and consistent excellence on the job.

Here's How Three Trailblazing Women Rose Through the Ranks in the Wastewater Profession

Jewel Minor, Barbara Jackson and Vernia Hawthorne look out over the James River toward the main wastewater treatment plant. The retention basin is on the banks of the James. The treatment plant is on the opposite side of the river.

Barbara Jackson, Vernia Hawthorne and Jewel Minor entered the wastewater profession from different areas, but they had one thing in common: determination to succeed.

It wasn’t always easy. There were few women at the utility where they worked, and those who were there didn’t stay. The three stayed with it and now have many years to show for it. Today, they operate the Shockoe Retention Basin for the Richmond (Virginia) Department of Public Utilities.

The 35 mgd basin captures stormwater during heavy rains and can prevent untreated water from entering the James River. If there is a flow surge, the retention basin teams have to monitor and regulate the flow with pump controls and gate closures.

All three women are certified wastewater operators. Jackson supervises the staff and oversees day-to-day operations. Hawthorne and Minor operate and maintain. They work as a team to maximize basin performance and efficiency. Challenges include highly variable weather and the occasional hurricane. The swing shift schedule also takes its toll, as does working outdoors in all weather.

Jackson’s achievements have been recognized with honors that include the William D. Hatfield Award. The women’s supervisor, Ed Edmondson, utility operations superintendent, observes, “They have the know-how and persistence to get the job done, day to day and year to year.”

Controlling the flow

The Shockoe Retention Basin was built in 1983 to capture the initial surge (first flush) of runoff from a rainstorm. It lies 5 miles from Richmond’s wastewater treatment plant, built in 1958.

This activated sludge secondary treatment plant with tertiary sand filters is the largest of its kind in Virginia and serves more than 200,000 people. It has a design dry-weather capacity of 45 mgd and wet-weather capacity of 75 mgd. It takes in flows from 1,500 miles of sanitary sewer, 38 miles of interceptor sewers and the Shockoe basin. Effluent is discharged to the James River.

The Richmond Department of Public Utilities collections system can store 50 million gallons. The retention basin is one of three storage facilities; the others are the 7-million-gallon McCloy Tunnel and diversion structures with 2-million-gallon capacity. The remaining storage is in the collections system and sewer interceptors.

The retention basin provides flow control to the wastewater treatment plant along with flood control. Flow to the plant is regulated by sluice gates and pumps in the diversion structures, and by drain gates at the basin. In dry weather, operator control is critical. “Dry-weather overflows are prohibited by the discharge permit, so the wastewater treatment operators must make sure that no overflows occur,” Edmondson says.

Handling peaks

During wet weather, the storage structures fill. The first flush contains the highest concentration of bacteria, solids, carbon and nutrients. When the diversion structures and retention basin are full, the treatment plant works at maximum capacity. Flows beyond that exit the combined sewer overflows. About 80 percent of the collections system’s wet-weather flow exits the Shockoe combined sewer outfall structure.

The Shockoe facility also protects low-lying areas of downtown Richmond when the James River rises above flood stage. Gates keep the river from entering the combined sewer system, and one-way valves allow flows to be pumped to the wastewater treatment plant. “When the wastewater plant needs to increase the flow, they notify Shockoe basin staff, who immediately open the sluice gates so the flow goes to the treatment plant,” Edmondson says.

Jackson and her colleagues do far more than open and close gates. “They have to develop relationships with the wastewater plant operators, and it takes a lot of effort to make sure they coordinate as a group,” Edmondson says. “Their preventive maintenance, preparation for annual U.S. Army Corps of Engineers floodwall inspections, and equipment exercises are just as essential as wet-weather operations.”

Varied backgrounds

Jackson has been with Richmond for 41 years. She began as a temporary employee in the Department of Public Works in leaf collection. When her supervisor recommended that she apply for an operator position at the wastewater plant, she saw an opportunity. Jackson ultimately earned wastewater operator certification and an associate of applied science degree with an environmental science major from Mountain Empire Community College.

After 29 years in operations, she was promoted to biosolids supervisor at the plant, where she was in charge of the environmental management system. In 2012, Jackson was promoted to utility operations supervisor at the Shockoe site. There she oversees the operation and maintenance of five gatehouses and floodwall gates.

She also plans, organizes, and supervises the operations staff; assigns and coordinates facility maintenance; submits performance appraisals; offers input on the budget; and oversees consultant contract compliance. “I’m also responsible for floodwall exercises,” she says. “Every August, the Army Corps of Engineers visits and makes sure the floodwall gates are operating properly, so we can close them if necessary.”      

Hawthorne began with the city 28 years ago as an entry-level wastewater treatment plant operator and ultimately earned her wastewater certification: “The city provided me with all the training and resources I needed to obtain my license.” She went to work at the retention basin in 2006; her duties include collecting grab samples during wet-weather events, recording data, monitoring the gatehouses, submitting monthly water reports, monitoring conditions at the diversion structures, and coordinating operations with the treatment plant.

Minor, with the city for 39 years, started as a lab technician job at the treatment plant. She then moved to a utility operator position, earned her wastewater operator certification, and also took environmental science classes at J. Sargeant Reynolds Community College. In 2014, she transferred to the Shockoe basin. She monitors and controls processes with the SCADA system and observations, performs preventive maintenance at the gatehouses, and assists in floodwall inspections.  

Sticking together

Before Jackson, Hawthorne, and Minor began working at the retention basin, the facility was staffed by maintenance employees only. Jackson explains, “When some of these employees retired, the Department of Public Utilities realized it needed operators as well as maintenance workers. So now, all employees at the retention basin are expected to do both operations and maintenance tasks.”

The city employs 35 operators — 20 at the treatment plant and 13 at the retention basin. The Shockoe facility operates around the clock with four 12-hour rotating shifts. Each shift has at least two operators and one maintenance technician. Jackson fills in at the basin at times when it is short-staffed: “I’m there whenever they need me. We all pitch in and do what needs to be done. I have a real good crew. Each one knows what they have to do and they do it. We’re like a family, and we all get along. When we’re in a crunch, we stick together.”

Hawthorne agrees. “We have a vested interest in being the best team out there.”

They have made Shockoe a home away from home. “I was the first one there between the three of us — and the first female,” Hawthorne says. “Then Barbara and Jewel came in. We looked around and said, ‘This needs to change.’”

They made housekeeping changes that have allowed the basin to operate at peak performance. These included scheduling clean-outs behind the basin drain gates after nearly every rain event to minimize trash buildups. Regular housekeeping inside the basin area allows them to catch small problems before they become larger ones.

“By staying focused on the little things, we ensure timely draining to the wastewater plant in the shortest possible time,” Hawthorne says. “Because storms sometimes happen back to back, our basin needs to operate at peak condition at all times.”

Taking ownership

As supervisor, Jackson stresses working smarter, not harder: “When I moved to the supervisory position, I encouraged teamwork and self-governance. The employees have a say in how things are done because they know their job better than anyone else. This lets them know they are appreciated, and they are willing to take ownership of the facility.”

Edmondson appreciates them as well: “Ms. Jackson and the Shockoe crew are engaged, proactive, and essential members of our team. Their attention to detail and constant communication between the plant and the Shockoe facility ensure that we meet our obligations to the state regulators and the Army Corps.”

The team’s greatest challenge is the weather, Hawthorne says: “It keeps us busy year-round as it changes day to day. But we get ample warning of impending storms that may be troublesome as to how much stormwater to expect.”

Hurricane Gaston, in August 2004, was a bad one. Jackson remembers it well: “Gaston dumped a foot of rain in just a few hours, sending a wall of water raging through the Shockoe Bottom neighborhood and causing severe flooding across the area.” The flooding did not adversely affect the retention basin or main plant.

The threat of storms and floods requires the team to stay on top of the day-to-day maintenance and make sure all pumps and gates are operable. Edmondson says, “Because we keep equipment repaired and operating, we are prepared for wet-weather events and unseen emergencies. This is analogous to what firefighters do. You’re preparing and training and you’ve been at work for eight or nine hours, and here comes a wall of water; you have to make a decision in five minutes.”

Future plans

Edmondson says the utility is planning some upgrades to the Shockoe facility in the next year or so: “We will install new trash screens that remove debris from the bar racks. The Bascule (Rodney Hunt) gates and emergency arch sewer gates will be refurbished by strengthening their structural supports and by replacing the gate operation controls.”

Jackson, Hawthorne and Minor plan to stick around for a while. Jackson says, “I see myself as superintendent I.” Hawthorne says, “I am not a fan of the toll that working a swing shift has taken on my sleep or lack thereof. So, at some point, I may want to explore other positions within wastewater.” Minor plans to stay with the utility until she retires. She likes her work schedule because it gives her more time to enjoy her personal life.

They all say they would choose the same career if they had to do it all over. “I would work in this field because it constantly changes, and that makes it challenging,” Minor says. Jackson likes meeting people at stormwater conferences, exchanging ideas, and then going back to the plant and seeing how it works out.

Hawthorne has appreciated her schedule’s flexibility: “It has allowed me to run errands and go to doctor appointments without having to miss work.”

They all agree it was tough going in the beginning. Hawthorne says, “When I started at the wastewater plant, I was the only female. I was paired with a male operator, and I remember him saying, ‘You won’t last long.’ I saw that as a challenge, and I was determined to stick it out and succeed.”

Jackson adds, “We had to prove ourselves to earn respect. And now they definitely take us seriously!”

Fun with hobbies

Wastewater utility operators Barbara Jackson, Vernia Hawthorne and Jewel Minor enjoy a variety of hobbies when they’re not working at the Shockoe Retention Basin. Jackson likes to take the last two months of the year off and travel with her family. She also collects M&M’s merchandise: “I like things with M&M’s on them, like curtains and other objects.”

Operators Hawthorne and Minor are also collectors — it’s old coins and paper currency for Hawthorne and replicas of lighthouses for Minor, who also loves spending time with her six grandchildren. “There are four boys and two girls, and we go to the park, the beach, or the movies. I also love fishing and being out on the water.”

Hawthorne likes to tinker with projects around the house. She installed new faucets to dress up the bathroom and kitchen and installed an above-the-stove microwave oven, with help from her son: “I just like to see if I can get it done myself rather than paying someone. It’s relaxing, and I love to save money.”


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