Quality Staff Begets Quality Performance at Wisconsin Clean-Water Plant

An award-winning superintendent shares credit with her team for a Wisconsin clean-water plant’s consistent quality performance.

Quality Staff Begets Quality Performance at Wisconsin Clean-Water Plant

Mary-Frances Klimek, plant superintendent

The Racine (Wisconsin) Wastewater Treatment Plant has occupied a 21-acre site on the west shore of Lake Michigan since 1937. Plant leaders today face challenges that include finding and training the next generation of operators and dealing with changed influent flows in an old industrial city.

“Our biggest problem is finding qualified people,” says Mary-Frances Klimek, superintendent of the Racine Wastewater Utility. “I didn’t realize the negative connotation wastewater sometimes has and didn’t understand why plants are rebranding themselves.” But she sees it when her help wanted ads draw few or no applicants.

The utility faces tough competition for hiring. Racine is about 35 miles south of Milwaukee and is part of the urban strip that surrounds the southern shore of Lake Michigan, taking in Greater Chicago. Nearby municipalities seek the same people, as do industries such as We Energies, the local electric utility.

Those challenges aside, Klimek is proud of the team she leads and shares with them the credit for her 2019 William D. Hatfield Award from the Central States Water Environment Association. “We’re such a family here,” she says. “I’ll joke that we’re like brothers and sisters. One of the requirements of the award is that your plant is operating the way it’s supposed to and you’re meeting your permit. That is definitely a group effort.”

Conventional process

The Racine plant (36 mgd design, 24 mgd average) was upgraded in the 1970s and again in 1990 with a 2.7 million-gallon equalization basin. A major upgrade in 2005 added another 2.7 million-gallon equalization basin, a digester with a gas-holding cover, a new solids handling building, four more primary clarifiers (for a total of 12), three more final clarifiers (total of nine) and a change from chlorine to UV disinfection (TrojanUV).

Influent passes through bar screens (Vulcan), grit collectors (Smith & Loveless) and the primary clarifiers, where a cationic polymer creates floc and ferric chloride is added to remove phosphorus. Water then moves through a conventional activated sludge process and on to the secondary clarifiers. Disinfected effluent is discharged to a dispersal structure 500 feet offshore in Lake Michigan.

Sludge from the primary and secondary clarifiers goes to four anaerobic digesters. A 40-foot-diameter sphere near the digesters also holds biogas. Three biogas-fueled Waukesha engines (two 426 hp and one 675 hp), which are INNIO products, power the Roots aeration blowers (Howden); biogas also fuels the boilers used for heating. About half of the plant’s energy comes from biogas.

In the biosolids building, a gravity belt thickener and six belt presses (all Alfa Laval) dewater biosolids to about 22% solids, which are land-applied by contractor Synagro Technologies. Another building provides six months of biosolids storage.

The two equalization basins help with the large flows that accompany intense rainstorms. “You would be amazed the number of times we fill those tanks almost to the top but don’t have them overflow,” Klimek says. There are also three smaller storage tanks in the collections system. A diligent maintenance program keeps the collections system reasonably free of FOG.

Meeting the challenge

“The biggest operational challenge we face is the strength of what we receive into the plant,” Klimek says. “If the water going to aeration doesn’t have a high enough concentration of the nutrients that the organisms need, they don’t thrive.”

That problem has existed for about 15 years. Racine is still an industrial city, home to the Case agricultural equipment company and SC Johnson, maker of household products such as Glade air fresheners and Windex window cleaner. But Case has reduced its manufacturing presence and other companies have closed.

That doesn’t explain the entire change: Many companies have cut the volume of their discharges. “And that’s a big deal for industry,” Klimek says. “If they can use less water and discharge less water, or reuse water, then it’s less costly for them.”

Part of the solution to reduced waste strength is a gate that operators can close to shut off the flow to six of the primary clarifiers. Less organic matter settled out in the clarifiers means more food for the microorganisms in the aeration basins.  

A learning group

The Racine team includes:

Keith Haas, general manager, and Mike Gitter, chief of operations

Supervisors Bruce Bartel, Drew Dennerlein, Amanda Kaminski, Dan Mason and Steve Stiles

Operators Emilio Gonzalez, Travis Gonzalez, Joel Gross, Barry Henkel, Robert Johnson, John Hohensee, Warren Nordgren, Mark Salinas, Walter Spurlock and Sebastian Stephens

Operators in training Jeffrey Johnson, Emily Nurmi and Francisco Quiroz

Lab chemists Bobbi Kramerand and Jamie Munizand; lab technicians Demi Fohl and Eric Kamps

Sample crew members Michael Hassenauer, Jamie Rauch and Chris Reinhold

Electrician Ed Emmerling; mechanics Douglas Bohl, Glenn Hansen, Mark Knuth, Edward Muniz, Jake Pfeffer, Wayne Raffelson, Lee Ledeker, H. David Smith and Mark Gable

Sewer maintenance workers David Moten and Owen Van Swol

Buildings and grounds specialists Brian Felton and Kevin Stephens

Administrative assistants Evelin Garcia and Jena Kohlman

To help build a new-generation workforce, the utility established an internship program. Internships last three years; core courses are offered through Moraine Park Technical College, which offers online instruction that is convenient for interns on shifts that don’t match typical college class schedules. Six people have completed internships so far; the utility has hired three.

The utility pays for the required courses despite the uncertainty of getting a new team member out of the arrangement. Klimek observes, “We’ve always said, ‘You aren’t promising us you’ll stay here, and we’re not promising you that when you’re done there will be a position open. We’re going to try really hard because we’re training for ourselves, but sometimes we’re training for the industry.’” 

Seasoned team members benefit as well because interns sometimes ask questions in ways they had not thought of. In addition, being reminded of basic knowledge sometimes helps experienced workers solve problems, Klimek says.

The utility has expanded public relations as part of recruitment. “We need to tell people what we do or otherwise no one understands,” Klimek says. “Until we do that, we will struggle with finding qualified people. None of us ever thought we’d work at the wastewater treatment plant.”

Training up

Plant workers take part in the annual environment fair at Gateway Technical College, and they talk to high school students about water careers. All seventh graders in the local school district used to have tours coupled with a classroom presentation written by two teachers, but that program was a casualty of school budget cuts. Klimek would like to reinstate it.

She also does not discount the value of welcoming people on the spur of the moment. “A couple of days ago, two kids came down the hill from up in the neighborhood — not little kids, maybe 18. I walked out and I said, ‘Hey, what are you guys doing? Would you like a tour?’ One of them wasn’t interested, but the other was.”

On the training front, Klimek believes in a multifaceted approach. “I want people to leave here,” she says. “I don’t mean I want them to go work somewhere else. I mean I want them to take a day and go to a training, go to a conference or learn about something they’re interested in.”

In September 2019, the utility sent a crew to the Water Environment Federation’s Technical Exhibition and Conference on a bus sponsored by the Wisconsin Wastewater Operators’ Association. For a day, they attended technical sessions and wandered the exhibit hall to talk to vendors and learn. “That’s huge — to be able to talk to the person who can actually help you,” Klimek says.

Another learning experience came when the lab acquired an Olympus microscope that can be linked to a laptop computer, allowing groups of people to view images simultaneously. The old microscope was shifted to an outbuilding. On weekends when the lab is closed and the microbiologist is off, operators can still look at sample slides to see what is happening in the plant processes.

Klimek observes, “We are fortunate in that we have a plant that runs really well because we take care of it very well.”    


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