Utah Professional Operator Finds Balance in Life and Career Satisfaction as a Small-Community Operator

Operator of the Year Tom Herbert takes care of treatment for a turkey plant and its small Utah city. He also finds time to indulge a passion for flying.

Utah Professional Operator Finds Balance in Life and Career Satisfaction as a Small-Community Operator

Tom Herbert assembles a new Hach turbidity meter system at the Moroni wastewater treatment plant.

Tom Herbert had a career working on large projects, but after that, and after serving in the military, he has found a balance of work and life at a small wastewater treatment plant in Utah. 

Herbert is director of wastewater treatment for Pitman Family Farms, owner of a large turkey processing plant in Moroni, Utah, about 100 miles south of Salt Lake City. Pitman also holds the contract to operate the city’s wastewater treatment plant, which treats wastewater from both the turkey plant and the city. Herbert and co-worker Jay Jackson ensure that the wastewater is treated 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. 

“I take a shift and do everything from taking samples and running the belt press and managing the chemical additions — and mowing the grass,” Herbert says. He came to Moroni in a roundabout way, including a detour into a different field for a year. 

Family service

Herbert was born at the naval hospital in Portsmouth, Virginia, where his father was stationed. Military service is a theme with his family. His father was on active duty for 28 years. “I attended 21 different schools before I graduated from high school,” Herbert says. That was in Idaho Falls, Idaho. 

Other members of his family have served, too. “But it’s really strong with my dad, my brother, myself and my nephews. Between all of us, there are eight who have served in the military. We cover all the branches — Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines.”

Herbert accounts for two of those. In 1982 he enlisted in the Army and served in counterintelligence for 15 years as a reservist. After the Berlin Wall fell in November 1989, military funding was reduced, as was the need for intelligence officers. So Herbert transferred to the Air Force. Because they didn’t need his counterintelligence experience either, he brought his civilian career to bear and worked as an environmental engineer. 

After the terrorist attack of Sept. 11, 2001, Herbert volunteered for active duty for a time and was stationed at Hill Air Force Base near Ogden, Utah, managing environmental issues for the base. He retired with the rank of major in 2004 as military forces were being reduced.

His civilian career began with an engineering degree from Utah State University. Fresh out of college, he went to work in aerospace. At Thiokol he was part of the team building boosters for the space shuttle. 

Then the shuttle Challenger blew up on Jan. 28, 1986. Within a couple of years, there were large layoffs, and Herbert was out of a job. “After bouncing around in aerospace and learning that layoffs were pretty standard, I decided I didn’t want to go through that on a regular basis,” he says. 

Changing course

A friend called who worked in the food industry and needed an environmental engineer. He had watched Herbert’s career and believed he could learn the work. “For good or bad, I’m a little altruistic, and it seems as if doing a job of value for society like producing food, that’s a noble cause,” Herbert says. It didn’t hurt that the industry was stable.  

For a time he did energy conservation engineering for water and wastewater plants around the West; along the way he picked up a master’s degree in engineering technology and education from Utah State University. After a break to try a flying career, which didn’t work out, he looked for another job. An ad connected him to Moroni. “This plant had struggled for years to obtain and maintain compliance,” Herbert says. 

The town is small and remote, not the kind of location attractive to many operators with the necessary Level 4 credentials. But Herbert liked remote places, and from his previous jobs he knew about food processing. For his work at the Moroni plant, he was recognized as Wastewater Operator of the Year in 2020 by the Rural Water Association of Utah. 

“When I first got here, without painting too gloomy a picture, the train was off the tracks,” he says. “We worked really, really, really hard, and we got the equipment that we had functioning as it should.” 

Three treatments

The Moroni wastewater plant uses three treatment processes that were added in sections. Before 1976 (the date of the oldest drawings he has) there was a mechanical treatment system. About 2005, a pair of membrane bioreactors (Kubota) were added. In 2015, an anaerobic lagoon was added upstream of the mechanical plant to equalize the large slugs of BOD generated by cleaning at the factory. 

“I’m pretty well versed in different types of treatment, and I like lagoons,” Herbert says. “They’re pretty inexpensive mechanisms to treat BOD.” 

Treatment starts with wastewater from the factory flowing into the lagoon. Influent BOD to the lagoon is typically 1,200 to 1,500 ppm. Effluent at about 250 ppm flows to the mechanical plant headworks where it is blended with wastewater flowing in from the city. 

A primary clarifier starts the next treatment chain; aluminum sulfate is added to pull out phosphorus. An anoxic chamber and aeration basin come next, and effluent from that step flows to the MBRs. UV disinfection (TrojanUV) is the final step. The Sand Pitch River receives the treated water. “By Midwest and East Coast standards, it’s a creek,” Herbert says, and chuckles, “but here they call it a river.”

From time to time, plant effluent has been land applied, and while that is not currently done, some similar use may return in the future: “Water’s pretty scarce here in the West, and so if you’ve got good, clean water, some people may want to look at that more directly.” 

A pair of anaerobic digesters, built in the 1970s, function primarily as holding tanks from which solids are fed to a pair of belt presses (Alfa Laval Ashbrook Simon-Hartley). Cake from the presses is hauled to the Nutri-Mulch composting facility, also run by Pitman Farms; the compost is land-applied.  

The plant is now near capacity and is limited by having only two MBR basins.

Operational struggles

When he arrived in Moroni, Herbert found a plant that was not functioning at all because of decisions made by previous managers. “The chemical cleaning procedure they enacted basically killed all the biology in the plant,” he says.

The procedure had been intended to clean the bioreactor membranes, but then the solution was circulated through the anoxic and aeration basins, too: “We had to re-establish all of the biology through bio-flora injection.” That took about 60 days.

There were also mechanical repairs, such as rebuilding the diffusers in the aeration basin.

“There were diffusers that had ruptured, pipes that had become disconnected,” Herbert says. “The parts in the bottom of the basin were original equipment, and they were falling apart.” 

Previous managers had replaced some membranes, but Herbert and his team had to replace the rest and rebuild all of the cassettes: “They had pushed the crew so hard and fast that the membrane cassettes were not installed correctly. There were bolts missing, parts not tightened, pipes that were not connected, tubes that were cracked and not replaced.” 

Enlisting aid

Because of the size of the membrane repair, Herbert found help. Once a membrane basin was drained, he enlisted workers from the turkey factory. “There were many afternoons when one other guy and I would do as much as we could,” he says. “Then we’d get the others, and we’d pick up the pace a little.”

In the UV system, lamps had burned out, some controllers had failed, and the sleeves around the lamps had not been cleaned since installation. The wastewater entry into the UV system had been redone as well to increase the flow rate.

“They had put the UV system at the end of the original chlorine contact basin,” Herbert says. “And the problem was, by keeping that large flow of slow-moving water coming into the UV system, they had created another biological system, because it was all full of slime and algae.”

The next challenge will be phosphorus. For 2020 the Moroni plant had an interim limit of 10.0 mg/L. As of Jan. 1, 2021, that became 1.0 mg/L. While alum has the phosphorus under control, there are better ways to address the problem, Herbert says. He’s working with company and city managers on a solution.

Up in the air

When not running the treatment plants, Herbert indulges his passion for flying.

He teaches and has his own flight school, based at the airport in Ephraim, Utah, about 13 miles south of Moroni. He is also building a side business, True North Flight Adventures, around his passion for backcountry flying, landing at remote airstrips, and hiking into canyons. He wants to introduce others to that form of recreation. 

Herbert and his wife Kate have seven children, the youngest a college sophomore studying to be a forensic anthropologist. The others are a musician, computer game designer, mechanical engineer, general contractor, business manager and nutrition consultant.

“They’ve all been slowly showing some interest in aviation, so I’m still working on them,” Herbert observes. He’s busy with all that and rejects the notion of retirement. “Hopefully,” he says, “I’ll become so busy flying that I’ll tell my boss, ‘Sorry, I can’t come to work.’”   


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