A Massachusetts Operator Didn't Shy Away From a Challenge to Take on a New Career Role

Paula Ely started her career as a lab technician but now divides her time between lab tests and plant operations in the town of Great Barrington.

A Massachusetts Operator Didn't Shy Away From a Challenge to Take on a New Career Role

Paula Ely relies on lab test results as a key indicator of how the treatment plant is functioning.

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Paula Ely was surprised a couple of decades ago when her clean-water plant superintendent took her aside and said, “I want you to become an operator.”

Surprised because she was perfectly happy working in the lab at the Pittsfield (Massachusetts) Wastewater Treatment Plant. “I don’t want you to stay in the lab,” Tom Landry, her boss, told her. “One day you’re going to run this plant.”

Despite some misgivings, Ely took the courses needed to pass her Grade 4 license exam. She has no regrets. Today she doubles as the assistant operator and lab technician for the Town of Great Barrington Wastewater Treatment Facility. Last year she received an Operator of the Year award from the U.S. EPA New England office.

Bill Ingram, wastewater superintendent, observes, “Paula generates the numbers we operate the plant by. When I give school tours, I take them to the lab, introduce them to Paula and tell them she is the glue that holds this plant together. She’s very accurate and precise and really cares about her job. She has been a fantastic asset to the Town of Great Barrington.”

Surprising appeal

Ely grew up in Dalton and earned a bachelor’s degree in psychology from Worcester State University. After that, she worked for brief spells as a shoe store manager and certified nursing assistant: “You need a master’s degree to do anything in psychology.”

While working in a nursing home, she cared for a man whose son, a frequent visitor, happened to be an operator at the Pittsfield treatment plant. Ely recalls him saying, “You have a bachelor’s degree. Why are you working here? There’s an opening at the wastewater treatment plant in the lab.”

That was in 1993. Ely got the Pittsfield job: “I really enjoyed it. I was surprised. I didn’t realize how detailed the work was, how accurate you had to be and how much the job entailed. I found it mentally stimulating.

“I liked the fact that the tests we ran in the lab indicated how the plant was running. As a lab person, I could tell the operators: ‘This is what’s going on in the digester. The volatiles are up.’ I thought it was pretty neat that we could determine how the whole plant ran just by grabbing samples throughout the process.”

Moving on

Her mentor at Pittsfield was the late Joel Gordon, a chemist: “He was a very smart man.” It was a few years later that Landry tapped her to study for her operations license. By 1998 she had her Grade 5 license (Grade 7 is highest) and was working the night shift at the plant, a 17 mgd (design) facility with an activated sludge process and trickling filters. That schedule enabled her to be home with her two children by day.

Then in summer 2004 she took her current job at Great Barrington. By that time, her children were in school and into sports; working the day shift and fewer weekends fit better with their schedules. In addition, “I had the opportunity to come back into the lab. The job met all my needs at the time and still does.”

The Great Barrington plant (3.2 mgd design, 2.0 mgd average) received a 2016 U.S. EPA Regional Wastewater Treatment Plant Excellence Award. It was built in 1974 and has been through various upgrades, most recently in 2014 and 2016.

Influent passes through a FlexRake bar screen (Duperon) and then a Grit King grit removal system (Hydro International). The flow then enters two primary clarifiers, followed by two secondary treatment basins with surface aerators (Clow Corp.). Typically, at any given time only one secondary basin is operating. Ferric chloride is added for phosphorus removal at the point where return activated sludge enters the basin.

From secondary treatment, the flow enters either two clarifiers or one Envirex clariflocculator (Evoqua Water Technologies). Clarifier effluent passes to a chlorine contact chamber; sodium bisulfite is added for dechlorination before discharge to the Housatonic River.

Primary and waste activated sludges are pumped to a gravity thickener and dewatered on two belt filter presses (BDP Industries). Contractor Synagro picks up the dewatered materials and hauls it offsite for incineration.

Dividing time

Ely spends the majority of her time in the lab but makes routine daily checks to ensure the plant is operating as it should. “The plant sort of runs itself,” Ely says. “Teamwork is what makes the plant run nicely the way it does.” Besides Ely and Ingram, the team includes David Soules, chief operator; Jerry Morey, mechanic; John Malumphy, equipment operator; and Lee Soules and Ryan Shimmon, collections system operators.

In morning rounds, Ely checks that the surface aerators are turning and in general looks carefully for any sign of trouble. “One of the main things I do is be very, very observant,” she says. “If I see a wet spot on the floor in the basement, I’m asking, ‘Why is it wet there? Is there a pipe leaking?’

“When I go down into the return sludge pump room, I listen to the motors. A wobbling noise might tell me a coupling is going. If something sounds like it’s straining, the bearings might not be OK. I listen and look at things and bring issues to the superintendent, head operator and mechanic. ‘This doesn’t sound right. Can you come and check it with me?’

“That’s a lot of what we all do. We walk around making sure everything is functioning properly. Because we’re on top of it so much and constantly doing planned maintenance, we really don’t find a lot of problems.

“We’re not staffed 24 hours, so we want to make sure everything is good when we leave. We don’t want to find that the primary sludge pumps stopped working overnight. I check the chemical feed pumps and keep an eye on chemical levels to make sure we order them at the appropriate times.”

Data at work

As for lab work, Ely takes grab samples throughout the plant: the raw influent, the flow entering and leaving the primary clarifiers, the flow leaving the aeration basin and the final effluent before discharge to the river. “We chlorinate and dechlorinate April 1 to Oct. 31,” Ely says. “During those times, there’s more testing because we have to make sure we have a high enough chlorine residual to kill the bacteria.”

With samples in hand, Ely goes to the lab, calibrates her instruments and runs both compliance and process control testing: “It all basically coincides, be- cause if you don’t have good process control, then you will be out of compliance.

“I do an analysis to quantify the mixed liquor suspended solids so I know we have enough bugs to treat the BOD that’s coming in. Through calculations, I determine how much to waste. I set up BOD tests three days a week. I test TSS three days a week for the primary and final effluent and five days a week for the influent.

“We have to maintain a certain percent removal for BOD and TSS. BOD is a five-day test, so we find out what happened five days ago. But after working here for so many years, I know that if our TSS is X, then our BOD is going to be Y.” She runs a total phosphorus test on the final effluent once a week.

Ely likes to “number-crunch” on the computer. “Our flow changes due to rain events,” she says. “I made a program up where I can enter in the maximum flow for the day, the rain for the day and the average flow, so we can track it over time and see if I&I (inflow and infiltration) is an issue. If all of a sudden we got an inch of rain, did our flow spike up?

“I do that just for information, to help us keep track of the weather. If we know in advance that a storm event if coming, there are different things we can do. For example, we can put the Duperon screen on manual instead of a timer and say, ‘We’re going to run this continuously just in case.’”

Influent from Great Barrington (population 7,750) is mostly domestic wastewater, plus about 2.4 million gallons of septage per year. Haulers discharge septage at a receiving station at the head end of the plant. “It’s a little bit like taking plug loads because we don’t have a holding tank where we can slowly trickle it in,” Ely says. “We see a little spike in the flow, but it hasn’t created any issues, and the revenue is helpful.” 

Promoting the profession

Ely enjoys the camaraderie on her team: “There’s a sense of purpose in what we do because we’re working to keep the environment healthy and people healthy.”

Plant tours for community members and groups from schools and colleges are part of life at the facility. “I like it when people come here and see what we do,” Ely says. “I don’t think most people have a concept of what it takes to keep a place like this running and complying with the permit. There’s a saying that if what you’re doing looks easy, it’s because you know what you’re doing. We make it look easy because everybody here knows what they need to do. Everybody.

“Wastewater treatment plant personnel are underrated, and I’m glad we can let the general public know that it’s not an easy feat we achieve each day — to put out clean effluent and leave the environment in better shape than if we weren’t here.”

Under the scope

Part of Paula Ely’s job is to make sure the bugs are happy. She does that in part by regularly putting them under the microscope.

“Twice a week, or more if necessary, I put a slide on and take a look,” Ely says. Most of the time, the process and its microbiology are stable, but a few issues come into play. For example, in winter, ice can build up on top of the I-beams that hold the surface aerators in the secondary treatment basins.

That means the operators have to shut the aerators down long enough to go out and knock the ice off because chunks of ice that fall off on their own can damage or break the aerator paddles. “When that happens, we seem to get an increase in a filament called Sphaerotilus natans, which looks like a tree under the microscope,” Ely says. “It impedes settling of the sludge and can create bulking. Then we could lose our sludge if there’s a rain event.”

To combat the filaments, operators add a low dose of sodium hypochlorite to the basin. “Then I put a slide on and I can see little blank spots in the filaments. That tells me the hypochlorite is working.” She also measures the sludge volume index as an indicator of filament growth.

Changes in the weather can also bring about changes in the microbial populations: “For example, in summer we see more crawlers, such as Aspidisca and Euplotes. We also see numerous types of rotifers, such as Epiphanes, Philodina and Proales. They are fun to watch under the microscope, and they are the hardest workers at the plant.

“In general, we have really healthy sludge.”


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