Consultations and Culture Change Help Lab Team Win Statewide Award

Extensive consultations help the lab team in a small northern Wisconsin community improve operations and win a statewide award for lab excellence.

Consultations and Culture Change Help Lab Team Win Statewide Award

Daryl Rutkowski, left, and John Amorose display an award plaque presented to the plant by the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources for the utility’s lab work.

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It took only three years for the new leadership at Eagle River Wastewater Treatment Plant to earn the Laboratory of the Year award from the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources.

Labs are nominated by five auditors who travel to 196 registered labs every three years. After taking over lab operations three years ago, shortly before that round of audits reached their utility, Daryl Rutkowski and John Amorose sought the help of their DNR auditor, Brandy Maker-Munich, to begin improvements.

“When I first got here, she did the audit the next year, and we had a few errors. But then this year she came and we were down to basically nothing,” says Rutkowski, treatment plant supervisor. “She had scheduled a whole morning for us, and we were done in about 2 1/2 hours. We got quite a bit of help from our lab auditor on getting our lab straightened around.”

That wasn’t the only help they sought: They also reached out to the Wisconsin Rural Water Association and the neighboring Rhinelander utility, which had received the lab excellence award two years before.

In making the award presentation, Steve Geis, DNR chief of certification services, observes, “This year’s award could be called a most improved lab award. Daryl and John took over and brought with them a change in culture. They bring a proactive approach to problem-solving. They reached out to others for advice. It’s that sort of ‘we’re in this together’ attitude that the Lab Certification Program is trying to nurture. Hopefully Daryl and John will have an opportunity to pay it forward to the next lab seeking advice.”

Making changes

The changes at Eagle River brought more than organizational benefits. The treatment plant had been taking in leachate from a landfill; the large volume of leachate tinted the effluent, making UV disinfection less effective. Careful monitoring enabled the plant to optimize the volume of leachate while keeping coliform in check. It’s a win-win, helping the landfill maintain operations while providing revenue for the treatment plant.

Eagle River is a small community (population 1,500), but it’s not without challenges. The city sees an influx of summer tourists, making reliable lab results paramount. Permit levels aren’t dramatic (BOD and TSS at 30 mg/L, phosphorus of 1.0 mg/L and coliform at 400 CFUs per 100 mL).

“In summer, we usually run single-digit numbers for BOD and TSS,” Rutkowski says. “Our influent varies. Right now, we’ve been getting so much rain, but I’d say the average influent is probably around 280 to 300 mg/L.” The plant’s design capacity is 0.62 mgd; average flow is 0.25 mgd. The challenge has been to maintain consistency in the effluent.

“The lab has been the same for the last 20 years, since I’ve been here,” Rutkowski says. “We changed a lot of the ways we did the lab work. It’s more of a major reorganization in the recordkeeping and standard operating procedures: We rewrote all of them, changed them and just kept better records, better detail.”

Starting from scratch

After the lead analyst retired, the Eagle River team struggled with outdated BOD testing methods and unreliable phosphorus removal. Working with the DNR auditor, Rutkowski and Amorose made quick strides. They established new SOPs and quality control best practices, ultimately leading to the excellence award.

“It just wasn’t clearly written, and some of the procedures were outdated and never updated,” Rutkowski says. “None of the protocols were set up. Some items, like seed preparation and how to prepare the dilution water, were never really spelled out.” The new SOPs were retrofitted from a DNR template the auditor recommended. Changes to the BOD test procedure, cleaning procedures and phosphorus equipment calibrations were among the top changes.

Before the change in management, phosphorus calibration was a daily procedure. The team has moved instead to a more comprehensive seven-point (versus three-point) calibration about every 10 months. “It was a lot of work,” Rutkowski says. “If the calibration were wrong, then we had to start all over and redo it. So we got rid of that, and it was a huge thing. It was a money saver, too, because it gets expensive when you’re using more chemicals for those calibrations.”

Fully digitizing the bench sheet was another major step in standardizing the recordkeeping. They added several new categories, including pH and temperature. “We were missing quite a bit of information on what the control limits were, such as minimum and maximum depletion,” Rutkowski says. “We have results we can trace back now. Some of our results were not that traceable before. It helps us see how the plant is running and get more reliable results quicker. It helps us control things.”

Another important, yet simple step was a new cleaning cycle on the sample collection carboys. Now they are cleaned daily, and the effluent containers are rinsed with hydrochloric acid for good measure. “We strive for consistency and repeatability,” Rutkowski says. “It’s a lot of little things. It seems difficult at first, but once you get used to doing them every day, it becomes part of the routine. We try to get everything in a good routine, so it’s done the same all the time, no matter what operator is here. That has really helped us.”

The right help

Another boon to the lab’s rebirth was the experience of Rutkowski’s lab partner, operator Amorose. Before Eagle River, Amorose worked at a cheese plant wastewater facility in southern Wisconsin. The strict requirements of commercial treatment left him well prepared to steer the Eagle River lab in the right direction. “They did lab work seven days a week, so he came with a lot of hands-on experience, and he helped tremendously,” Rutkowski says.

The DNR award is meant to highlight labs that produce high-quality data and improvement over time. Perhaps more important, it shows the importance of operational excellence. “I’m always interested in the added value that labs bring to the treatment plant,” observes Geis from the DNR. “Each year we lose a handful of wastewater labs due to tight municipal budgets, or retirements. We know these labs, with the right leadership, do more than run their compliance samples.”

A note from Austin Griesbach, the DNR’s local basin engineer who worked with Rutkowski and Amorose, summed up Eagle River’s award: “The staff of the Eagle River Wastewater Treatment Plant consistently provides reliable laboratory data that helps to ensure the dependable operation of their facility. Through their work, the Wisconsin River is protected even from its headwaters. I would like to thank them for their commitment to protecting the waters of the state.”

Keeping it pristine

Wastewater treatment is often considered a factor in economic stability. For Eagle River, Wisconsin, an area heavily reliant on summer tourism, it’s especially important.

“It’s just a part of being up in the North Woods,” says Daryl Rutkowski, treatment plan supervisor. “People come here to get back to nature, so we try to keep it pristine. Because of the pressure that it gets, from the boating and recreation, it’s important to make sure that everything’s going good.”

The updated standard operating procedures in the Eagle River lab help the operators stay ahead of water-quality issues. “We discharge right into the Eagle River Chain of Lakes, which is a very busy place in summer,” Rutkowski says. “We have a lot of tourists — people swimming in it, fishing in it. We don’t want to be part of the problem. We want to be part of the solution.”


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