Staffing Shortages, Aging Equipment and Other Challenges Can't Keep This Plant From Excelling

A Kentucky clean-water plant team maintains award-winning Performance with aging equipment while awaiting a brand-new facility.

Staffing Shortages, Aging Equipment and Other Challenges Can't Keep This Plant From Excelling

The team at the Ashland Wastewater Treatment Plant includes, front row, from left, Kim Nethercutt, Operator 1; Jeff McFarlin, chief operator; and James Morgan, superintendent. Middle row, Larry McKee, lab director; Mark Anderson, lab technician; and Jeff Adkins, Operator 4. Back row, Dave Krueger, maintenance director; and Rick Morrison, Operator 2.

For proof that there’s no keeping a good plant down, look to Ashland, Kentucky.

In February, a truck loaded with landfill leachate broke through the concrete slab over the main electrical conduit, shutting off power to the plant and the biosolids building for three days.

And that was followed by a staffing shortage, issues with sludge tubes in the rectangular clarifiers, aging equipment including a rotor aerator blade and the dewatering belt press, and a control system that dates to the 1980s and reminds the staff of something from the TV series, Lost in Space.

But through it all, the Ashland Wastewater Treatment Plant maintained compliance and received the 2019 Plant Operations Award from the Kentucky-Tennessee Clean Water Professionals organization — an honor the plant also won in 2009 and 2018.

“We had to do more than the job description called for,” says James Morgan, plant superintendent. Adds Jeff “Mac” McFarlin, chief operator, “Our guys really stepped up.”

Old but functional

Ashland’s is an extended aeration plant designed for an average daily flow of 11 mgd, with a hydraulic capacity of 18-20 mgd. Average flow is in the range of 5 to 6 mgd. The system serves the City of Ashland and several portions of Boyd County, near the West Virginia border.

After a headworks that includes grit screens and manually raked bar screens, the flow passes to a carousel ditch system (Ovivo), equipped with rotor aerators. Treated water settles in rectangular clarifiers; it is disinfected with chlorine and dechlorinated with sulfur dioxide before discharge to the Ohio River, which flows alongside the property.

Moyno pumps (NOV) move biosolids to aerobic digestion and thickening before dewatering on Andritz Separation belt presses. Cake at about 16.5% solids is hauled to composting or to landfill. The plant is due for a complete upgrade, now being planned and due for completion in stages between 2022 and 2025.

Meeting challenges

While serious, the collapsed pavement, damaged wiring, and power outage were just part of a series of challenges faced by the Ashland operations team in the last couple of years. Morgan says equipment issues have been the major headache; much of the treatment gear at least 30 years old.

Specifically, the staff had to deal with a broken aerator rotor on one of its two oxidation ditches. At the same time, another aerator malfunctioned, leaving the plant operating at half capacity, on just one basin. Luckily, the damage occurred during the summer when flows were low.

“We were down to half a plant,” says McFarlin. “We were stressed but didn’t violate our permit.” Ultimately, a new rotor was purchased and a crane brought in to install it. In addition, the team has started adding variable-frequency drives to the aeration basins to enable better control over flow and power usage.

Solids handling has been another issue, specifically the sludge suction tubes in the rectangular clarifiers and the hard-working but aging dewatering equipment. Pinhole leaks in the tubes prevented them from holding their prime for more than a few hours. That led to frequent repriming, plus abnormally high mixed liquor suspended solids. “Normally, we like to keep it around 3,000 ppm, and it was getting up to 4,000 to 5,000,” says Morgan.

Since these issues surfaced, the Ashland team has purchased new suction tubes (Pro-Fit) and McFarlin says they have “helped tremendously.” More replacement tubes are in the budget.

Pressing matter

The belt presses are another issue. “They’ve served us well for over 18 years, but they’re really too old to keep fixing,” says Morgan. “The rollers are getting so old that the screen won’t stay on.”

McFarlin adds, “Seems like all we’re doing is patch and patch and patch.” But there is a bright light here, and it’s Dave Krueger, maintenance director. “He’s an absolute beast,” says McFarlin.

Krueger is a whiz in the shop, able to fabricate just about everything and saving the plant a ton of money in the process. His welding abilities have helped keep the old belt presses operating. “In one case, the bearings were not machined correctly,” says Morgan. “They weren’t big enough for the housing.” Krueger machined a new housing to keep the bearings in place.

In another case, the plastic part that holds a fuse was broken. “This is not something you can just go down to the electrical shop and buy,” says Morgan. Instead, Krueger took pieces off spare electrical equipment and made a new fuse holder. Krueger is a Navy veteran and could retire soon. “We’ll hate to lose him,” says McFarlin. “He MacGyvers everything for us.”

Staffing challenges

That brings up staffing, which may have been the most pressing issue at Ashland. “We’re fully staffed at 13 full-time positions, and we operate on site 24/7,” Morgan says.

But cutbacks caused by the COVID-19 virus have reduced the staff to 12.  Plus, budget cuts cost the facility two seasonal employees who were responsible for groundskeeping and other maintenance. On top of that, the plant superintendent moved up to utilities director, the laboratory director retired, another lead operator left to take a position in private industry, and the staff experienced a number of sick leaves.

It was necessary to dip into the operations staff to fill the superintendent, chief operator and laboratory positions. “That left us short three operators,” says Morgan. “We were short-handed much of the year.” Then last August, Mark Anderson, laboratory director, died.  

“This was yet another tough transition within our family here as we looked to somehow fill his shoes, absent of his years of service, all his years of curmudgeonry, his years of old Air Force stories, and his years of friendship,” says McFarlin.

How did they cope? Everyone pitched in. Morgan says the smaller staff had to do more frequent plant checks, and do its best to stay on top of everything. “Obviously, we had overtime,” says Morgan. “But some of us just had to do things that were more than the original job description called for. Supervisors had to do some manual labor. We just did what we had to do.”

Looking up

Better days should be ahead. Ashland has replaced the three operator positions; the new hires are in training for their Class 1 licenses. Besides Morgan, McFarlin and Krueger, the staff includes Kevin Cassidy, pretreatment administrator; Jeff Adkins, Operator 4; Larry McKee, new lab director; Rick Morrison and Claude Wright, Operator 2; and Kim Nethercutt, Patrick Ewing and Forrest Moore, Operator 1.

The new plant is on the horizon. “We’ll create good water as we build,” says Morgan. “Our people should learn as they see the new equipment being installed. Our maintenance issues should be better.”

Considering their experience and the coming improvements, it’s a good bet that more operational excellence awards are in the future for Ashland. 


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