A Texas Operator Turned a Love of a Sport Into a Home Run of a Professional Life

Injury derailed Lance Phillips’ career as a pitcher and catcher, but he brings athletic-style energy and dedication to his wastewater career.

A Texas Operator Turned a Love of a Sport Into a Home Run of a Professional Life

Phillips (left) is a big believer in training, both in the classroom and hands-on in the plant. He’s shown with Larry Middleton, shift supervisor and training coordinator, and Richard Britton, special projects supervisor, at the Central plant outfall.

As a youngster, Lance Phillips played baseball at W.W. Samuell High School in Dallas. Like many boys, he dreamed of playing in the major leagues.

His performance as a catcher and pitcher won him a scholarship to Navarro Junior College, a North Texas school known for sending players to the big leagues. He majored in business and played ball in 1987-88. Injuries derailed his baseball career, but not his ambition to succeed.

Summers found Phillips working as a pipe fitter with his two older brothers. He worked one job in 1987 and 1988 installing pipe at the 110 mgd Southside Wastewater Treatment Plant in Dallas. That experience showed him what the pipes were for and gave him the idea of working in wastewater treatment.

After pipe fitting, he worked at several other jobs, including at a steel mill and for an electrical contractor. Eventually he applied for work in wastewater with the City of Dallas, but a hiring freeze was in effect. Finally, a year and a half later, he got an interview. He started work at the city’s Central Wastewater Treatment Plant on Feb. 19, 1992.

It turned out to be a great move; he’s still with the plant, now operations manager III, and in 2019 he received a William D. Hatfield Award from the Water Environment Association of Texas.

Apprentice at work

Phillips’ first job at the Central plant was as an apprentice operator. “Like everyone else, I had six months to get my Class D license and then a year to get my Class C license,” he says. He worked hard, learned plant and treatment operations, and was promoted in 1995 to plant operator.

He kept climbing the career ladder, and along the way, he earned his Class B and Class A wastewater licenses. In 2010 he moved up to shift supervisor, and in 2013 he was promoted to interim assistant plant manager and section supervisor. His promotion to his current position came in February 2016. And, as he says, “I’m not done yet.”

Training has always been important in Phillips’ work life. “When I first started, we had a training program at the plant,” he says. “Within a couple of years that went away, but the city certified five trainers through the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, and they can set up continuing education hours as needed.

“On-site training is a big addition to our plant, especially the ability to schedule training classes. Other plants can send people here for training, too. It costs me a little in overtime, but overall it saves the city money.”

The trainers at the Central plant do substantial hands-on instruction that doesn’t count toward classroom hours, but it helps team members just the same: “You can teach in the classroom all you want, but if you’re not doing hands-on training, are your people really learning it?”

Open concept

While emphasizing training, Phillips stresses communication and data-based decision-making. “I believe in an open concept, in being able to get information from everyone,” he says. “I’ve worked in the past with people who didn’t work well with others. When I was an operator, nobody ever asked me what I thought. Now it’s more of an open door, and we collaborate.”

Phillips gets operators and maintenance people together weekly to discuss what’s going on. Information as mundane as birthdays and as important as a major piece of equipment being taken out of service comes up regularly. “There’s so much equipment here that it’s easy to miss something,” he says. “This way, we at least catch up on the major items.”

Decision-making data come from all over. Sometimes it’s informal, but sometimes a more formal setting is used to gather information and troubleshoot problems. Sophisticated techniques such as fishbone diagrams can be used. To help solve problems using data, Phillips and other team members have earned the Lean Six Sigma Green Belt certification.

Not every issue needs such intense exploration: “One of the biggest things is making myself available. I believe in the open door. Sometimes I stand out front at the end of the shift or sit on the tailgate of a truck and just talk.”

Peer recognition

Phillips’ professional colleagues have recognized his dedication to data-driven decisions and continuous improvement. In 2019, the Water Environment Association of Texas nominated him for Operator of the Year. As the awards committee read through his nomination package, they decided he had earned the William D. Hatfield Award, the Water Environment Federation’s highest honor for operators.

“I’ve spent my whole career in wastewater, and sometimes it’s nice getting a little bonus like that,” Phillips says. “They don’t give that award every year, so it’s special to me.”

The Central plant is huge and is more than 100 years old. It came online in about 1917 with just primary clarifiers and a discharge pipe to the Trinity River. Additional treatment processes were added over the years. The activated sludge process was added when the Clean Water Act took effect in the early 1970s.

The plant has three sections: the Dallas plant, White Rock plant and activated sludge plant. Flows from throughout the service area wind up at the Dallas or White Rock plant. Each has a lift station, bar screens, grit removal, trickling filters and secondary basins.

Reusing water

The flows come together at activated sludge influent pump stations installed in 1986. The station effluent is pumped to two activated sludge plants (Complex A and Complex B), secondary clarifiers and then to gaseous chlorination contact chambers for disinfection.

Since 2012, the Central plant has delivered chlorinated reuse water to two nearby golf courses and a city park. To meet Texas Commission on Environmental Quality requirements, “Chlorine residual is 1.0 ppm leaving the plant,” Phillips says. “The chlorine dissipates pretty quickly.” Effluent not diverted to reuse is gravity filtered, treated with sulfur dioxide to dechlorinate and discharged to the Trinity River.

The nearest golf course irrigating with reuse water is about half a mile away; the other is about 6 miles. A tank at one course and a pond at the other provide temporary storage for the water before it is used. Signs tell golfers their course is irrigated with reuse water. “In eight years, I haven’t had one phone call,” or other complaint, Phillips says.

Over the past several years, North Texas saw a big push toward water reuse because of drought. The drought broke in 2015, and when it did, the rain brought flooding. “We treated over 500 million gallons one day,” Phillips says. “Things moved fast. Sometimes we stored it, and sometimes we let it go. Operators made decisions on the spot.”

Operators made store-or-release decisions because there was no time to run ideas up the supervisory chain and wait for a determination: “They couldn’t wait for me to decide whether to store it or process and release it. You can’t micromanage in this position. If you do, you’ll run yourself into the ground.”

Ready for change

There has been plenty of rain since 2015. Lakes are full, and the reuse push has subsided as a priority. “We have major changes coming in the next few years,” Phillips says, but it’s hard to see with a murky crystal ball what changes will come. “We went to 60% design for biological nutrient removal, but that project was put on hold because we didn’t get the phosphorus limit we were expecting in our permit.”

Their phosphorus performance is now at about 2.6 mg/L, against no specific limit. Phillips estimates it would cost about $30 million to change to biological nutrient removal. “There was a huge push to get to BNR, but that push has slowed down now that PFAS removal is getting so much attention. It’s become the constituent of major concern.”

And the next chapter is yet to be written.   


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