Clayton County Lab Functions as an Integral Part of the Clean-Water Operations Team

The Clayton County Water Authority lab plays a key role in keeping its water reclamation facilities operating in full permit compliance.

Clayton County Lab Functions as an Integral Part of the Clean-Water Operations Team

Jay Patel, senior laboratory analyst, and Jennifer Brandon, environmental compliance manager, set up plant effluent samples for fecal coliform analysis.

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The clean-water plants at the Clayton County Water Authority have an excellent record for meeting effluent permit requirements. That is thanks to an excellent operations team but also to an award-winning laboratory.

In the 2,000-square-foot lab, team members perform regular tests that provide data for discharge monitoring reports to the Georgia Department of Natural Resources Environmental Protection Division, along with information that helps plant operators fine-tune the processes.

Jennifer Brandon, environmental compliance manager, oversees the W.B. Casey Water Reclamation Central Lab, along with the authority’s FOG management and industrial pretreatment programs. Janak “Jay” Patel is the lead lab analyst and Nathan Turner is a lab analyst.

In 2020, the facility received its first Laboratory QA/QC Gold Award for municipal wastewater systems larger than 20 mgd from the Georgia Association of Water Professionals. The team had earned the Lab of the Year award twice before Silver/Gold/Platinum ratings were created. Brandon and Patel are previous winners of the Water Environment Federation Analyst Excellence Award. 

Multiple facilities

The Clayton County Water Authority provides drinking water and wastewater treatment for about 290,000 residents in the Upper Piedmont region of Georgia. The drinking water system includes five reservoirs totaling 1,100 acres and able to produce 42 mgd, along with three award-winning water production facilities.

 On the wastewater side, the authority can treat up to 38.4 mgd at three clean-water plants, the largest being the W.B. Casey Water Resource Recovery Facility (24 mgd design, 15 mgd average). All of the plant’s effluent is reused, and most of it goes to replenish the Pates Creek watershed through an indirect potable reuse system that consists of more than 532 acres of constructed wetlands, fully commissioned in 2010, that provide a final polishing treatment.

The advanced secondary treatment plant allows operators to choose between two operational modes: the Modified Ludzack-Ettinger activated sludge process or the A2/O nutrient removal process from Veolia North America.

Ahead of the biological process, the Casey plant uses preliminary treatment with a pair of fine screens (Parkson) and a grit removal unit (Smith & Loveless), followed by primary clarification in three Envirex Polychem clarifiers (Evoqua Water Technologies). After primary treatment, the effluent flows through the biological reactor basins.

The wastewater then passes through three 160-foot-diameter circular clarifiers (Walker Process) and is disinfected with sodium hypochlorite. Biosolids are pelletized in a facility designed by New England Fertilizer Co. to create a Class A product sold for land application. 

Well equipped

The W.B. Casey lab is a modern facility that includes a DR 6000 spectrophotometer (Hach) for running COD and total phosphorus tests, a Thermo Fisher Orion Versa Star ISA electrode meter for ammonia nitrogen, a Hach LDO meter for BOD analysis, an analytical balance to weigh TSS samples, and membrane filtering apparatus for fecal coliform analysis.

Brandon earned a bachelor’s degree in environmental science from Mercer University and worked for the City of Griffin wastewater lab for about a year before moving to the Clayton County authority. She started out monitoring streams for water-quality parameters, worked as a microbiologist for a few years, and has been in her current role since 2007

Patel earned a degree in dairy science in his native India before immigrating with his wife to the United States. He worked in the dairy industry, served as lab manager in Griffin for 12 years, and assumed his current role in 2012.

The lab serves all three clean-water plants. “Two plants are big, so they have five days of sampling per week; the third plant is smaller, so they have three days of sampling,” Patel says. “Each plant delivers the samples to our lab.

“Basically, we test for ammonia nitrogen, nitrate, BOD, TSS, total phosphorus and COD. There are some tests we do monthly, like mixed liquor for volatile solids.” Testing for metals, TKN, oil and grease are sent to a commercial lab because they are performed too infrequently to justify investment in the needed equipment and reagents.

The lab also tests stormwater samples and analyzes BOD, TSS, ammonia and phosphorus tests for some of the reservoirs to check whether nutrient loadings are reaching the point where algae blooms may be imminent.

Quality first

A quality assurance/quality control (QA/QC) manual stands at the heart of the lab’s operation, says Patel. It includes standard operating procedures as well as requirements for personal protective equipment and adherence to safety protocols.

“The QA/QC manual is really the backbone of any lab,” Brandon observes. “If you don’t have good QA/QC, you can’t really say that your data is legally defensible. That’s especially true when we’re reporting to Environmental Protection Division and analyzing samples to make sure our industries are in compliance with their permits. It’s really important in calculating surcharges, as well.

“We split our samples with the industries. They send their samples to a contract lab, and so that’s a good checkpoint for us because we see that our results are lining up with those of a lab that’s NELAP certified. Also, every year we are responsible for analyzing samples for proficiency testing by an outside vendor certified by the EPA and EPD.

“The performance samples evaluate the lab’s analytical ability to perform self-monitoring analysis required by the NPDES permit. We submit those numbers to the contract company, who lets us know if we meet the acceptance limits for each permit parameter. We also have to submit the results to EPA and EPD.”

Brandon brought her experience with the authority’s NELAP-certified drinking water lab to the Casey facility. That gave her a foundation on which to update and enhance the QA/QC manual, based on review of other utilities’ manuals and GAWP guidelines.

In addition, Patel notes, “We have a training program. We continuously send people to conferences, and the water authority has our own in-house training program.  We are part of the GAWP Laboratory Committee, so once a month people from different counties in Georgia meet and discuss anything new, or any problems someone may be having with quality control in their lab. We discuss those things and make sure they don’t happen to us.”

In tune with operations

Lab testing verifies compliance with the facilities’ NPDES permits but also provides guidance to the operations team. “We interact every day with the operators, and we make a great team,” Brandon says. “We run their compliance samples every day, and we of course let them know if we see an issue.

“The operators run their own controls, so they know how to tweak the processes and make changes. But, for example, for phosphorus, they’ll just run a simple test looking at orthophosphate.

“We look at total phosphorus, so when we see the numbers start climbing, before they get to the point where we’re getting nervous about it, we let the operators know. We say, ‘Hey, this is what’s going on; look at your plant and see if any processes need to be changed.

“The testing also lets us know on the pretreatment side if we’ve had a slug come in from an industry. If we’ve had a change in the pH coming into the plant, do we need to go out into the collection system and look at our industrial customers to make sure no one is dumping anything on us? It’s really a good thing for us to let the operators know: ‘When we see a change, you need to make sure nothing is going on out in the collection system that can affect the treatment process.’”

Brandon and Patel welcome operators seeking their Class 2 state license to work in the lab to meet one of the requirements for that level of licensing. “And if we want to learn more about a process in the plant, operators will say, ‘Come along with us and we’ll show you what we do.’ That way we all know each other’s side and can work well as a team.”

Eye on industry

Thirteen industrial customers send wastewater to the authority’s facilities under pretreatment permits. The authority serves businesses that include salad washing, poultry processing, household chemical production, and biomedical waste management. “It keeps us on our toes,” says Brandon.

Josh Wood, industrial compliance specialist, leads the pretreatment program. Most industries are sampled once per quarter; a few that have minimal impact on the treatment plants are sampled twice per year. Each facility has to meet permit parameters for BOD, TSS, ammonia and phosphorus; a few also have limits for EPA category pollutants such as heavy metals.

“We sample the facilities to make sure they’re in compliance with their permit,” Brandon says. “When they’re not, they get written a notice of violation, which can escalate to enforcement action. If they’re having issues, they may need to go on a schedule of compliance to develop and design pretreatment equipment to get their facility back into compliance.

“It’s a framework where we give them a timeline and milestones to meet, because of course it can be very expensive to design and install pretreatment. We also surcharge our industries if they’re giving us wastewater that’s more concentrated than from an average household.”

Meanwhile, the FOG program is led by Troy Usry, environmental compliance inspector, who monitors grease traps at about 700 restaurants, cafeterias, grocery stores, gas station mini-marts, nursing homes, senior centers and other facilities.

Usry can order businesses to resize their grease traps, such as when a new owner takes over a restaurant and the trap is found to be undersized. “We follow EPA grease trap sizing guidelines,” Brandon says. “We also make sure they adhere to their pumpout schedule. The big restaurants that have an outside trap are usually on a three-month schedule; restaurants like sandwich shops that have smaller inside traps are required to pump out monthly.

“We keep track of that in a database. When they don’t pump, we have to write violations, and there can be an escalation to administrative fines or, as a last resort, turning their water off.” The authority won the FOG Program of the Year award in 2011, 2012, 2014 and 2016 from the Southeastern FOG Alliance.

It’s about the team

In Brandon’s view, it’s teamwork that sets the Casey lab apart. “We like to help our internal and external customers,” she says. “If someone is out sick or to get stream samples, then I or someone else will fill in. We have good communication. We talk about how certain things affect the whole, not just our own little pigeonhole. How does it affect the bigger picture?”

The lab team draws on the relationships built through the GAWP: “We’re able to discuss with one another issues, problems and successes,” Brandon says. “It makes our lab team feel a part of something bigger, that we’re not just there analyzing tests every day.”

For the future, the authority expects a new permit requiring a limit on TKN; that could require the lab to invest in the necessary equipment and supplies to perform that test in-house. “The regulations of course drive the permit, which drives what we do in the lab,” Brandon says.

“We have a great time. I have to say we’re like family. It’s important to like your job, but when the people make it like family, that makes work life even better.”   


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