This Lab Supervisor Oversaw a Tenfold Workload Increase and Became an Unofficial Consulting Chemist for Her Utility

Anna leRoux’s role with Brunswick County Public Utilities fulfilled a childhood ambition and gave her a rewarding career.

This Lab Supervisor Oversaw a Tenfold Workload Increase and Became an Unofficial Consulting Chemist for Her Utility

The lab team at the West Brunswick Regional Wastewater Treatment Facility includes, from left, Anna leRoux, supervisor; Dana Nelson, technician; and Brian Blanton, technician/pretreatment coordinator.

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As a child Anna leRoux was mesmerized by the laboratories depicted in horror films. She knew instinctively that was her environment, not to create monsters, but to analyze microbes.

She used the microscope in her beginning chemistry set to study organisms growing on neglected food at the back of the refrigerator. She combined her mother’s perfumes in test tubes until a mixture of two exploded with a pop that ejected the stopper.

Following her passion, leRoux worked 15 years in private analytical laboratories and earned a master’s degree in environmental studies. The next 13 years with Brunswick County (North Carolina) Public Utilities unleashed her full potential. She is now laboratory supervisor for the West Brunswick Regional Wastewater Treatment Facility in the city of Supply. Under leRoux’s leadership, the lab’s workload expanded tenfold and received a bacteriological lab certification for water chemistry. In time, leRoux became the county’s unofficial consulting environmental chemist.

“When odd stuff happens, my phone rings,” she says. Callers include many former co-workers and wastewater or water personnel from Brunswick County, neighboring counties, and even private laboratories. In 2019, the North Carolina AWWA-WEA presented leRoux with the Wastewater Laboratory Analyst Excellence Award.

Early days

In 1993, leRoux began her career preparing samples at Environment 1, a private laboratory analyzing mostly drinking water. By the time she advanced to metals analysis, she knew the full range of analytical parameters, and that prepared her to become the microbiology supervisor.

“I was having fun because my true love is microbiology, but I always wanted to do environmental remediation,” says leRoux, in her spare time a scuba diver and kayaker. “When a friend told me that the U.S. Coast Guard Reserve had such a program, I enlisted in September 2000 as a marine science technician.”

On 9/11, leRoux’s dreams of saving otters and seals evaporated as she was instructed in the use of shotguns, 9 mm pistols and rifles. Eventually, she did check water samples for oil and grease and photograph coastlines looking for oil spills, but she never worked with furry sea mammals. Lt. j.g. leRoux mustered out at the end of her five-year tour, having found a new career path.

“I was based in Wilmington, loved the city, and wanted to stay,” leRoux says. Her opportunity arose when local Oxford Laboratories hired her as a chemist in September 2004. Four years later, she was the laboratory supervisor when the business was sold and the new owners consolidated operations in Raleigh.

To stay in the Wilmington area, leRoux took the position of wastewater laboratory supervisor at the West Brunswick plant. Today, the lab serves three water reclamation facilities, four wastewater treatment facilities, and two water treatment plants.

Initiating change

In September 2008, the West Brunswick lab unexpectedly lost its supervisor. Donald Dixon, wastewater superintendent, asked leRoux to start in the lab while finishing her last two weeks at Oxford. “I worked two hours in the morning at Oxford, then until 4 o’clock at the plant, and finished the rest of a long day at Oxford,” leRoux says.

On her first day at the West Brunswick lab, leRoux was stunned to see scant instrumentation on which her predecessor ran only five analytical parameters. A private laboratory processed the remainder. “Its minuscule budget precluded any 20th-century equipment,” says leRoux. “That was unacceptable.”

Working both jobs enabled leRoux to salvage Oxford’s BOD bottles, desiccator cabinets and jars, and Imhoff settling cones destined for the trash and transport them to her new lab. The lab’s outdated equipment included a small distillation unit producing 12 to 15 liters per day.

“This was far too little, and the water had high conductivity,” leRoux says. She convinced the county to purchase a Barnstead deionized water system (Thermo Fisher Scientific) producing 200 L/day of high-quality water. From then on, leRoux was the driving force behind increasing the lab’s annual budget: “My justification is in-house testing saves money; sending out samples costs money.”

LeRoux also saved money by repairing equipment.  She mended most glassware with a propane torch and soldered broken circuits and connection points.

For example, the vibration from the autosampler assembly on the AQ400 discrete analyzer (SEAL Analytical, a Porvair Co. brand) loosened the connections on the conductivity cable and probe. “I spent hours on the telephone with technical support guiding me through those repairs,” says leRoux, who solders stained glass as a hobby.

Steady expansion

As the county brought more wastewater treatment plants under its umbrella, officials wanted faster test results to allow operators to make critical adjustments on the same day the samples were run. LeRoux asked for more money, equipment and help. In 2010, Brian Blanton, a county employee, became her part-time analyst and the pretreatment coordinator with local industries.

“Brian hadn’t been in a lab for years, so bringing him up to speed while expanding parameters was a double challenge,” leRoux says. “I needed him full time, but his work as coordinator is vital to the health of the treatment plants.”

Blanton works with businesses to make changes needed to maintain their discharge limits and protect treatment plant processes. For example, a maker of starch-based pulp fiber cup carriers washed refuse into the sewers. “The biodegradable fiber broke down into what looked like mashed potatoes and gummed up the plant,” leRoux says. “Brian persuaded the owners to put rejected carriers and scraps into the recycle bin.”

By 2017, leRoux had increased in-house parameters from five (fewer than 200 samples monthly) to 15 (650 samples monthly). “I’m extremely proud of the accomplishment,” she says. “Now operators have data practically on the same day the tests are run. Previously, it could take more than two weeks before they had the results.”

The workload was almost overwhelming for one and a half people. Then the hammer dropped: John Nichols, Public Utilities deputy director, told leRoux to establish a drinking water laboratory.

Safe to drink

Why? Because Supply is in the center of the county. When a waterline breaks, almost always at night, it can introduce microbial contaminants such as E. coli into the distribution system. Consequently, residents are asked to boil water before consuming it.

“After the line is repaired, one of three Public Utilities workers must collect bacteriological samples from access points closest to the break and upstream and downstream from it,” leRoux says. “It takes more than an hour to drive from the farthest borders south to our drinking water lab in Northwest. Supply is a 30-minute drive for everyone.”

It took two weeks to outfit the lab with the proper new equipment, two more weeks to run the required two sets of unknown samples and get the results, and another two weeks for the state to certify the lab. Then leRoux trained the utility workers to test the samples for bacteria using the IDEXX Colilert-18 method, ensuring that the result would be ready when she arrived the next morning. The 18 indicates the hours needed for the test hours.

“Previously, the result could take 24 to 48 hours when we used m-ENDO media and vacuum filtration,” leRoux says. “Now communities know within 18 hours if it is safe to rescind the boil water advisory.”

The additional work required another part-time assistant; Dana Nelson arrived in 2017. “She was right out of school and didn’t have laboratory experience, so I trained her on top of everything else,” leRoux says. Nelson was promoted to full-time technician a year later.

Sherlock Holmes of water

LeRoux’s technical and operational expertise has made her the go-to person for people seeking advice, checking protocols, or identifying unexpected microbes. “Even if we’re not certified for some tests, I can still give operators process-knowledge-only results to help them better understand what they’re up against,” she says.

Her most recent case was identifying the source of waves of zinc washing through the West Brunswick plant. “Science is mostly eliminating hypotheses,” leRoux says. “We eliminated the zinc oxide powder in medical gloves and an iron bacteria that uptakes zinc.”

After a thorough investigation, Dixon stated: “Although we never reached a limit violation, we ran samples for each lift station, each septage truck, and our influent over several months. We have concluded that a one-time septage dump containing high zinc levels made its way through the plant and into the autothermal thermophilic aerobic digestion tanks.”

Meanwhile, flows at the Northeast Brunswick Regional WWTP in Leland increased so rapidly that sampling went from three to five days per week. “That strained us further, because many tests have only a two-day holding time,” leRoux says. However, her ultimate challenge lay just around the bend.

By Thanksgiving 2018, leRoux was too exhausted to eat or walk across the parking lot to her car without resting. She saw her doctor. “On Dec. 13, I was told to pack an overnight bag and head to the hospital emergency room in Chapel Hill,” leRoux says. “I anticipated returning to work on Monday, but stayed 10 months undergoing treatments for leukemia.”

Innovative trio

Blanton took over the lab with Nelson assisting, but both needed leRoux to answer questions and review data. Initially, Blanton would text, email and send photos and data when leRoux wasn’t impaired by chemotherapy brain fog, but the three needed real-time communications.

Enter Anna 2.0, a scarecrow frame wearing Anna’s lab coat and outfitted with a puppy camera beneath the head of a stuffed toy dog. “The nursing staff set it up in my private room, then later at home, enabling me to see, hear and speak directly to Brian and Dana at any time,” leRoux says. “They kept me informed and acted as my liaison with the state Environmental Quality Division while we worked to increase our number of certification methods.”

To accelerate the sorting and organizing of data, the team gave each test a different colored bench sheet. Their third innovation was setting up the rAPID-T Discrete Analyzer (Astoria-Pacific) in the afternoon and letting it run overnight, making the data available in the morning. Throughout all of this and months of sheltering in place, leRoux studied online to earn her doctorate degree in environmental microbiology from Appalachian State University.

Now back with her test tubes and samples, leRoux, 53, wants to:

-Make the lab completely self-sufficient by adding metals analysis

-Implement a new laboratory information management system that incorporates waterproof tablets to upload bench sheets for immediate review and data entry

-Add a second Hach DR3900 spectrophotometer to run different Test-n-Tube sets simultaneously

“I have no plans to retire. Ever,” leRoux says. “That’s what happens when you truly love your career. I have the greatest job, the most amazing team, and it is a pure joy to come to work each day.”   


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