Diana Heimbach Started Her Wastewater Career by Working in the Laboratory. Now She's a Project Manager.

Diana Heimbach and her team make sure the Lehigh County Authority sends high-quality pretreated water down the pipeline for final treatment.

Diana Heimbach Started Her Wastewater Career by Working in the Laboratory. Now She's a Project Manager.

Diana Heimbach

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If Diana Heimbach needs a break from work, she can always head out to her parents’ farm and tend the dairy goats.

But that doesn’t happen often. She loves her job as project manager for JACOBS, the firm responsible for operating the Lehigh County Authority Wastewater Pretreament Facility in Fogelsville, Pennsylvania.

“I like what I do,” she says. “Wastewater is not luxurious, but you’re helping the environment and your community. Our client, the Lehigh County Authority is very nice to work with. We communicate well.”

Heimbach started her wastewater career by working in the laboratory. After six years, she moved up to assistant project manager. Then, at age 29, she was named project manager, responsible for the Lehigh County plant — a 5.75 mgd (design) pure oxygen facility — and for staff supervision and relationships with area industrial dischargers and some 70 waste haulers.

Her rise to that position doesn’t surprise colleague Tracey Sherwood, administrative specialist: “From day one, she’s been our go-to person. She never ceases to amaze me with her ability to pick things up. She multitasks better than anyone I’ve ever seen. She’s extremely bright, yet a good people-person.”


Heimbach is from Slatington. She graduated from Cedar Crest College in Allentown with a degree in chemistry and math, and she came out of school looking for a job in industry, possibly food processing.

But when the opportunity to work in the lab at the pretreatment plant came up, she took it, eager to fill a role in environmental protection. Her facility treats industrial and hauler waste to the point where it can be sent via the Western Lehigh Interceptor to Allentown’s main wastewater treatment plant on Kline Island. 

By contract, the pretreatment facility must deliver wastewater with less than 25 mg/L BOD and TSS. It handles waste from industrial accounts including food and beverage companies, along with some residential customers and about 200,000 gpd of waste from haulers. The wastewater is collected in a wet well and then pumped up to a pair of automated bar screens, followed by grit removal and primary settling.

Growth on the way

The Air Products pure oxygen system follows. “We generate the oxygen on site,” Heimbach says. “It is the most complex system at our plant.” Two large compressors liquefy and distill air and separate oxygen gas. At 98% to 99% purity, the oxygen is mixed into the wastewater in the aeration deck of the closed tanks, accelerating biological treatment.

The treated water flows to final clarifiers and then to the interceptor for delivery to Kline Island. There is no disinfection, and the plant has no discharge permit. Primary sludge, scum and secondary sludge are pumped into two primary aerobic digesters that flow into a third secondary digester before dewatering on belt presses (Alfa Laval). The resulting Class B cake is land-applied.

Odor control is a high priority. The staff operates chlorine scrubbers, and all tanks but the final clarifiers are enclosed. A plant upgrade with a new SCADA system and capacity expansion is in the future.

“We need to balance our processes with economic growth in the area,” Heimbach says. “We have lots of space to expand. Some of the piping is already in place.” The area expects continued commercial and industrial growth along the main highway corridor. In addition, the groundwater table is high, and the trend toward increased rainfall is expected to add flow.

Esprit de corps

Heimbach supervises a staff of 11 that includes:  

  • Dean Vermeulen, assistant project manager
  • Harry Siegel, operator; Joseph Figueroa and Chris Harding, operators in training
  • Dave Barnhart, lab supervisor, and Andrew Burcaw, lab analyst
  • Tim Deturk, hauler administrator
  • Tom Elias, maintenance clerk; Kristopher Kromer, maintenance specialist; and Jeremy Binder, mechanic
  • Tracey Sherwood, administrative specialist

Heimbach says everyone works well as a team; her earlier experience on the staff helps her understand the challenges they face. “I didn’t have a lot of experience with things like finances or the budget,” she says. “But having been part of the staff, I know how hard the team works and what needs to be done.”

She welcomes staff members to come to her with issues. The esprit de corps is maintained through weekly staff meetings, where team members talk about the treatment process, recent problems, lab issues and changes in industrial sample collection. “It’s a group effort,” Heimbach says. “From lab to administration and operations, we deal with everything.”

In addition to the weekly meetings, the team holds a monthly meeting devoted to safety and team building: “We’re in constant communication. Rarely does a day go by when we aren’t in touch with each other.”

Revamping a program

The relationship with haulers is an example of Heimbach’s skills and dedication, according to Sherwood, who has administrative responsibility for the program. Permitted haulers deliver grease, septage and other liquids, some once a day and some several times a day. While the program has existed for 20 years, one of Heimbach’s first tasks as project manager was to revamp and improve it.

Heimbach addressed weaknesses in the program by forming a team consisting of staff and management, and the haulers themselves. “The perspective of the haulers really helped a lot,” Sherwood says. “The old program was simply outdated. We rewrote the permits, revamped our testing and identified risk factors.”

The team also addressed market conditions, especially competitive practices, rates and limits on wastes to be treated. As a result, revenue and profits have increased. The overhaul has helped the company, clients and community, Sherwood says.

It has also been a factor in the success of the JACOBS operation and maintenance contract with Lehigh County Authority. JACOBS has been operating the pretreatment plant since 1995. The contract was recently renewed for another 10 years.

Heimbach and her staff make sure members of the public know what they’re doing: “We hold tours of the facility every year. One of the teachers comes out at least three times a year.”

Excellence noted

The hard work of the staff and the excellent performance haven’t gone unnoticed. For 2018, Heimbach received the Pennsylvania Water Environment Association’s Mark B. Hannum Award for Large Plant Operator of the Year.

She stresses that the recognition belongs to everyone at the plant: “We applied for the award, and my name was on the entry form.” She also received the Employee of the Year award in 2017 from JACOBS and the Lehigh County Authority.

Heimbach’s work ethic, humility and sense of responsibility could well stem from her upbringing on a farm still owned and operated by her parents. “It’s hard to own a farm today, and it’s nice to have a place to go,” she says.

She helps with the breeding and showing of the livestock and often takes her 3-year-old son to the farm: “He loves it.” It’s obvious that his mom does, too.

Doing it right

Diana Heimbach has opinions on all the current issues in water management, but one that’s especially nettlesome is the backlash against land application of biosolids.

She wishes critics of the practice could see what the Lehigh County Authority is doing: “We’re not just throwing biosolids on the ground. I don’t feel we’re causing any harm, and frankly I sometimes think they’re just making assumptions about what we are doing and how we are doing it without knowing all the facts.”

Heimbach points out that her plant and other biosolids producers have to meet environmental parameters controlling the quality of the material being applied. “We are well below the limits of our permit,” she says. 

Heimbach considered a career in the chemical industry earlier in life, but backed away because of issues with some of the products being made and distributed. She chose the environmental field instead: “I like the idea of reusing biosolids as a resource. We follow the letter of the law to ensure it is safe for the environment.”


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