On the Basketball Court or in the Treatment Plant, Damon Forney Has Always Believed in Team Play

Damon Forney loves his job. His passion for excellence shows up in staff excellence, high morale, and exemplary facility performance.

On the Basketball Court or in the Treatment Plant, Damon Forney Has Always Believed in Team Play

Forney (right) talks with Ricky Thomas (mechanic/operator) in the control room at Western Wake Regional Water Reclamation Facility.

In the minds of most people, the “greatest place on earth” might be a hammock on a south sea island or a campsite at a spectacular mountaintop.

But to Damon Forney, it’s right where he is: working at the Western Wake Regional Water Reclamation Facility in Apex, North Carolina. “This is the greatest place on earth,” he says. “No amount of money could get me to go somewhere else.”

As the operator in charge, he’s been at the facility since its construction in 2012. “We’ve been good from the first drop since we came online in 2014,” he says. “I get great satisfaction just being here every day. I do my best and never give up.”

Forney communicates that attitude to his staff and transfers the same zeal for perfection as they operate and monitor this exceptional-quality effluent plant, serving Cary, Morrisville, Apex, and Wake County Research Triangle Park. The facility has had no effluent violations for more than six years and has earned the Platinum Peak Performance Award from the National Association of Clean Water Agencies.

Focused on environment

Forney came to Western Wake just as contractors started digging the foundations for the facility.

Before that, he was the plant manager at the Orange Water and Sewer Authority (OWASA) in Carrboro/Chapel Hill, starting there in 2007.

Although wastewater work was new to him, environmental issues were not. Before joining the staff at Orange, he worked in environmental positions in private industry: “I worked at a chemical plant for 15 years. I learned all about environmental issues — stormwater, hazardous waste and more. “When the economy started to falter in 2007, I looked around and saw the opportunity at OWASA.”

He remembers coming to Western Wake and working out of a construction trailer, but he relishes the experience. “How many times can you watch a new plant being built and then be in charge of it?” he asks.

Jamie Revels, utilities director, says Forney didn’t just watch: “His input was critical to the success of the construction project. And he was on the front lines going door to door to keep citizens informed about the new plant.”

Top flight performance

The plant is designed for a capacity of 18 mgd (7 mgd average) and serves a population of 98,500. It is staffed by Cary municipal employees. Western Wake refers to the western portion of Wake County. Forney supervises 18 team members, including eight operators, two per shift. The team includes:

-Chris Andres, operations supervisor, and team members Ricky Stroud, Kevin Fannin, Ronnie Locklear, Richard Cullens, Marvin Berryman, Ricky Thomas, Don Daniel and Scott Lewis

-Tim Thomas, maintenance supervisor, and staff members David Parker, Steven Sugg, Zack Van Hoy, Glenn Ross and David Camacho

-Penny Rosser, laboratory supervisor and staff member Amy Holden

-Deborah Puccia, administrative assistant

Wastewater enters the plant through two parallel pipelines. Treatment starts at the preliminary stage, where debris is removed with bar screens (JWC Environmental) and a grit removal system (Westech Engineering).

As a biological nutrient removal facility, the plant has no primary clarifiers. Instead, flow goes directly to a series of four bioreactor basins, each containing nine cells operated in a variety of anaerobic, anoxic and aerobic conditions to remove nitrogen and phosphorus.

Forney explains that the operation is slightly modified so that influent is directed to the third cell; the first two cells are devoted to fermentation and anoxic recycle flows and additional treatment phases. Polychem rectangular clarifiers follow, designed to save space on the small plant footprint. Kruger cloth disc filters remove remaining suspended solids, and a UV unit (TrojanUV) disinfects the effluent. The unit has three channels, one a backup.  

“Some of our highly treated effluent water is reclaimed and returned to the plant,” Forney says. “We use it for condenser cooling water and other applications.” A portion of the reclaimed water is available free of charge to area landscapers, who are eager to get it.

The plant and laboratory are monitored and controlled by a SCADA system linked to a Hach laboratory Information Management System (LIMS). Data is stored in the cloud, and operators access it through iPads.

Biosolids are dewatered on belt filter presses (Ashbrook Simon-Hartley), dried to 90% solids in a Kruger dryer, and processed further in a CPM pelletizer. A local vendor purchases the Class A exceptional quality material and sells it to the agricultural industry. A BIOREM biofilter and carbon scrubber controls odors.

Leading the team

Forney’s expansive duties include maintaining certifications, meeting effluent permit requirements and managing the biosolids dryer facility, the biosolids compliance program and marketing of the final product. He also develops long-range goals and policies related to plant growth, asset management, process optimization, long-range staffing and budget.

Anyone talking with Forney quickly realizes he could write a book on leadership and team building. Perhaps remembering his days on the college basketball court (see sidebar), he insists that his crew must have “respect for everything.” He warns against becoming complacent yet points with pride to accomplishments. “It’s good to say, ‘We did this,’” he believes.

Revels wrote the nomination letter for Forney’s 2019 William D. Hatfield Award. “Damon brings great leadership, passion and professionalism to the field of wastewater treatment in so many ways,” he says. “He has created a culture of excellence and motivates the staff to be the best they can be each day.”

Revels notes Forney’s community work: He frequently gives talks, teaches classes, leads tours and has even hosted a community cookout on the treatment plant grounds. “He’s our ambassador in the community,” Revels says.

Revels also credits Forney for coaching and mentoring: “He hired the entire staff and adopted the town’s career ladder program to help train and promote employees. It has helped staff members upgrade their certifications, build experience, develop plans and promote their careers.”

 Firm commitment

Teamwork is in Forney’s DNA. “Doing nothing is not an option,” he says. “We stress consistently doing the right things well. You’ve got to give a lot to get a little bit, but it’s worth it.”

Working with others must be sincere and enduring in Forney’s eyes. “We build team cohesiveness through monthly team meeting, staff cookouts with fried chicken and celebrating Earth Days,” he says. Much of that was been postponed by the pandemic, but Forney uses plain old conversation to communicate and motivate just as well.

“How you doing?” might be the three most important words in Forney’s vocabulary. “Just talking to people shows that you care about them,” he says. And he pushes his people to be their best. “You can come into this field at the lowest level and rise to the top,” he says. “No matter your position or title, hold yourself to a higher standard. Do more than your job description.”

Facing tough times

Not that there aren’t challenges. “There are days when I feel pretty beat up, and then the next day I’m walking on a cloud,” he says. “After all, we are stewards of the environment, for our kids and their kids.”

And he’s not afraid to get his hands dirty. Relying on brick-laying skills he learned as a youngster, he personally repaired a brick wall along one of the plant’s walkways. “He’s just a super guy, a great leader, a great mentor and a good friend,” says Revels. “I really can’t say enough good things about him.”

So, if the Western Wake Regional Water Reclamation Facility really is the greatest place on earth, it’s quite likely Damon Forney made it that way.


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