From the Lab to the Treatment Process: A Longtime Professional Makes a Successful Transition

Jane Leatherland took a big step from a long career in the laboratory to become operator in responsible charge to two treatment facilities.

From the Lab to the Treatment Process: A Longtime Professional Makes a Successful Transition

Jane Leatherland looks over blueprints for new water plants slated to be built in the coming years.

Jane Leatherland worked in labs for most of her professional career. But when the chance came to take over operations of the wastewater and water treatment plants in her Tennessee community, she was ready to make the leap.

Leatherland is supervisor of wastewater and water treatment with Humboldt (Tennessee) Utilities, about 90 miles northeast of Elvis Presley’s Graceland mansion in Memphis. As operator in responsible charge of a 2.6 mgd wastewater treatment facility and a 1.5 mgd drinking water plant, she oversees services for nearly 10,000 people.

Advancing from the lab to her current role meant taking a leap of faith and pursuing a crash course for the needed certifications. She found the time to study, passed the exams, and has done — according to her peers and community leaders — an exemplary job not just running the two treatment plants, but improving their performance.

Now she’s deeply involved in the design of a new sequencing batch reactor wastewater treatment plant for the community. For her efforts, she earned a 2018 William D. Hatfield Award from the Kentucky-Tennessee Water Environment Association.

Hopping the pond

Leatherland’s journey has been a long one, professionally and geographically. She describes herself as “British by birth, American by choice.” She developed an interest in science in school and especially enjoyed her biology and chemistry classes at Queen Elizabeth’s Grammar School for Girls in Mansfield, England.

She completed advanced studies in science there in 1973. After that, she got a job as a lab technician with the Coal Board Regional Laboratories in Mansfield Woodhouse where, she says, “The theoretical became practical, and I really enjoyed it.”

She performed a wide range of analyses related to mine safety and coal quality, working there from 1973 until 1986 when the opportunity arose for her, her son and her fiancé to move to Denver where her father was already working with a coal company. “I sold everything I had in England, gave up my job and was fortunate to get a job with the Metropolitan Denver Sewage Disposal District No. 1,” Leatherland says. That utility became the Metro Wastewater Reclamation District in 1990.

Leatherland remained with Denver Metro for 16 years, doing work similar to what she had done with the Coal Board and typical of a large wastewater lab. She mastered a number of analyses and learned about operations, too.

On to Tennessee

Then her husband’s job changed and they moved to Michigan, where she became a farmer: “I bred horses and also had cattle, geese, ducks and chickens.” She enjoyed the work, except in winter. “Even in the barn, the water would freeze all the way through the trough, not just on the surface. Getting that solid block of ice out of the trough was tough.”

In 2006, she moved to Tennessee and again set about raising horses. In 2010, while working for the U.S. Census Bureau, she was checking at Humboldt Utilities on whether certain houses were occupied. One thing led to another, and she learned that the utility had an opening at the wastewater treatment plant for a part-time lab technician.

“I figured I could handle that,” she says. “I dusted off my resume and dropped it off.” She started work there in October 2010. After just two months, Leatherland (who professes to be “passionate about what I do”) had improved quality assurance in the lab, and the utilities board was happy with her work.

About then, the board began planning to take wastewater treatment plant operations back in-house after a period of contract operation. The general manager asked her to take the wastewater operator exam so she could become the operator in responsible charge.

That meant she had six months to take and pass Tennessee’s Grade IV (highest) wastewater operator exam. “I had to study like crazy,” Leatherland says. “I attended every class I could leading up to the certification exam.” She studied three to four hours a night at home, worked through the Sacramento course books and did all the math problems: “When I left school, I thought I’d never use algebra again. But I did.”

She took an exam cram course through the Tennessee Association of Utility Districts, passed the Grade IV exam in May 2011 and became operator in responsible charge in October 2011. Since then, she has steadily improved the plant’s performance. The state Department of Environmental Conservation recognized her efforts in the latest permit by cutting back on the number of required lab analyses.

To the potable side

In 2014, the Humboldt drinking water treatment facility supervisor decided to retire. Leatherland passed the Water Operator Grade II exam in 2015; in 2016 she became operator in responsible charge of the utility’s 1.5 mgd water plant, which pumps, treats and distributes groundwater.

The wastewater treatment plant has five significant industrial users, so Leatherland has added certified pretreatment coordinator Level I to her qualifications. On the drinking water side, she added a cross-connection and backflow prevention certification.

She has successfully educated her board on what is facing the plant in nutrient removal. “Eighteen months ago I persuaded the board that we needed to upgrade the wastewater plant because nutrient limits were coming at us like a freight train,” she says. “We decided to build a 3 mgd SBR plant.

“We did the cost analysis, and it was within about a million dollars whether we would upgrade this plant, which still would not be able to do denitrification and phosphorus removal, or build a brand-new SBR. We are currently a 2.6 mgd Frankenplant. That’s the best way I can describe it.”

The original plant was built as a trickling filter in 1964. In 1985, because the plant could not meet permit consistently, an aeration basin was added. Under a Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation Commissioner’s Order in 1995, a 3.25-acre, 17-foot-deep equalization basin was added to help address inflow and infiltration problems. “They found the only way they could operate the plant was by sending everything into this lagoon and back out again,” Leatherland observes.

Data points and bugs

Despite the difficulties of operating an aging plant cobbled together over time, Leatherland used her understanding of key data points, wastewater biology and the impact of seasonal conditions to get the facility under control. Under her deft touch, the plant experienced fewer and fewer permit violations.

Leatherland is adamant that while she received the William D. Hatfield Award, “It’s not about me, but we.” She acknowledged the key roles of the other three people in the operations group: Brett Walrup, laboratory technician, and Fred Glenn and Clayton Cooper, maintenance technicians.

While awaiting final design of Humboldt’s new plant, Leatherland has begun modernizing utility facilities through grants. Some $22 million in new wastewater treatment facility work is now in place, along with $7 million in water treatment plant upgrades. A major food processor recently contacted Humboldt Utilities about sending 2 mgd from a new $320 million chicken-processing plant. Capacity for that wastewater and its BOD load is being factored into the new facility design.

Leatherland’s plans for the future include training a lab technician for the wastewater treatment plant and an operator for the water treatment plant. Meanwhile, she’s happy to have made the leap from the lab to operations — another step on a long and productive career journey.

Horsing around

Jane Leatherland has a lifelong involvement with horses: “My mother used to ride, so it was passed down. I came by it honestly.”

She got her first horse in 1997 while living in Colorado. “I rode both days every weekend, and in the summertime I rode most evenings as well,” Leatherland says. As a member of a group that rode in parades, she took part in the Cheyenne Frontier Days parade, the granddaddy of Western rodeo parades.

She also got her husband, Steve, involved: “We bought him a show horse that we showed in Wyoming and Colorado.” Then Steve’s job took him to Michigan in 2002. There Jane Leatherland became a breeder, with a stallion, broodmares and riding stock. They didn’t ride the stallion: “He had one purpose only.”

From 2002 to 2006, the stallion and her broodmares produced eight foals. Then Steve’s job moved them to Tennessee, and the property there wasn’t suited to raising horses. So she sold the stallion and began downsizing.

In 2014, Leatherland and a group of friends heard about 57 Missouri Fox Trotter mares that were to be auctioned off. They expected kill houses to buy them, so Leatherland and 53 horse-lover friends got together and bought them. “I came home with one and she was in foal,” Leatherland says. Soon she had two more horses.

When the colt turned 5 months old, she gave him to a friend. Leatherland donated her remaining two horses to a therapy riding center in 2016. “They now help people who are physically or mentally challenged,” she says. The patients range in age from 4 to 85. Riding horses helps them with everything from improving core body strength to building self-confidence.

Never one to sit still, Leatherland has morphed from horse rescue to dog rescue. She has two rescue pooches of her own. She and three other people formed a nonprofit group to build a dog rescue shelter for Humboldt.


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