This New Hampshire Operator Took a Challenging New Job Eyes Wide Open and Made it a Success

Jim Pouliot embarked on a new job determined to restore an aging wastewater treatment facility. The complete rebuild will ultimately include a solar energy array.

This New Hampshire Operator Took a Challenging New Job Eyes Wide Open and Made it a Success

Operator Norm Dionne (foreground) and Jim Pouliot inspect the permeate pump in the process room at the Town of Epping wastewater treatment plant.

Jim Pouliot always liked a challenge. That’s a big reason he signed on four years ago as water and sewer superintendent in the Town of Epping, New Hampshire.

The membrane bioreactor wastewater treatment plant there was aging and in dire need of an upgrade. Working with a supportive water and sewer commission and town council, Pouliot and three team members are rebuilding the plant to state-of-the-art condition with three brand new MBR treatment trains.

The facility also includes an automated septage receiving that enabled the town to vastly increase the volume received from local haulers and generate revenue to support plant improvements. In addition, two old lagoons are being decommissioned; in a few years the site will be home to a 1.5 MW solar energy system.

Pouliot and his team have also found time to oversee construction of a new water treatment plant with greensand filters. It’s no wonder, then, that Pouliot received a 2020 Regional Wastewater Treatment Plant Operator of the Year excellence award from the New England regional office of the U.S. EPA.

Facing violations

Pouliot grew up in Rhode Island. After high school he worked a few years on construction jobs before taking three and a half years of chemistry and biology studies at the University of Rhode Island. He left school after the birth of his second child, a son, and went to work at the Synagro fluidized bed reactor facility in Woonsocket, gaining experience in all phases of the operation.

At the time, his priority was to provide for his wife and kids: “My biggest concern was having a good, stable job, so I wouldn’t have to worry about losing my job if the economy went down.” After four years with Synagro he was hired on at the wastewater treatment plant in East Providence.

Eight years ago he moved to Portsmouth, New Hampshire, as an operator of two wastewater treatment facilities, including a sequencing batch reactor and a chemically enhanced primary treatment plant, one of only a few of its kind in the country. He arrived in Epping, a community of about 8,000 residents in far Southeast New Hampshire, in 2017.

At the time the old unlined lagoons were leaching pollutants including arsenic into the Lamprey River, the treatment plant’s receiving water. There had been more than 100 permit violations in that year for ammonia, phosphorus, pH and other parameters; the plant was under an administrative order from the EPA to take corrective action. The plant equipment was old, maintenance intensive and subject to breakdowns.

Taking charge

Pouliot says, “I knew coming in that biggest question was: Would I have the backing of the elected officials in town?” He needn’t have worried, because from the beginning, the board of selectmen and the water and sewer commission were behind him: “When I came, I was handed the keys and told, ‘Get this plant up to shape.’

“They were willing to invest money down here, get things rolling in the right direction and make sure we did things the right way. There was no simply going with the cheapest bidder. We asked, ‘Is this the correct way of doing it? And is this what the system needs?’ There was no Band-Aiding things together.” Pouliot is especially grateful to Tom Gauthier, commission chair, and Mike Yergeau, the board representative to the water and sewer department.

At the beginning, Pouliot’s sole co-worker was Norm Dionne, a town employee since 1987. “Trying to take care of two departments with two guys was unfeasible,” says Pouliot. “I was able to convince the commission that we needed to hire more people.” The newer team members are Anthony Shea, assistant superintendent, and Gene Doswell, operator.

“The crew I have is phenomenal,” says Pouliot. “I give them a list of what I want done, and without question it will be done by the end of the day. And it will be done the way I expect it to be done, which is, you don’t take shortcuts.”

Getting it done

At the outset, Pouliot’s biggest problem was deciding where to start and what upgrades should get first priority. “Especially since I had never worked in an MBR plant before, it was almost overwhelming,” he says. “The first thing was just getting the process to the point of repair where we weren’t causing so many violations going into the river.

“There were no standard operating procedures here when I started. There was no maintenance program. All of that I had to develop myself. I took a lot of the information I learned from Portsmouth and brought it here to Epping.”

A key to his approach is minimizing maintenance. That means purchasing high-quality equipment that is simple to service and has spare parts readily available: “We’re a small crew, and we deal with both water and sewer. Anything that’s lower maintenance and takes less of our time, that’s the road we’re trying to go down.”

The plant upgrades proceeded step by step. All equipment in headworks is new. The HVAC and electrical systems have been redone. Most components in the original UV disinfection system (Trojan Technologies) have been replaced with new TrojanUV components. Three sample-type turbidity meters have been replaced by one probe-type unit (Hach) in the UV channel. The office/lab building is renovated to into separate lab and office spaces, reducing the risk of sample contamination.

Most significant, the original MBR membranes and related instrumentation are being replaced with lower-maintenance AQQA flat-panel submerged membranes (Weise Water). The first of three new membranes went in last spring on a pilot basis; state regulators wanted the technology to be tested in colder and warmer months. The remaining membranes were to be installed before the end of this year.

Treating the water

The treatment process begins as a single pump station delivers the wastewater to a gravity-feed line. In the headworks the water goes through a 6 mm step screen (Claro Environmental Technologies) and into a grit chamber. A Watson Marlow hose pump delivers the grit to a classifier (Claro).

After the grit chamber, chopper pumps (Vaughan) send the wastewater back to the headworks to a 2 mm screen (Claro). The flow then enters the MBR trains. After biological treatment, Boerger rotary lobe pumps pull the permeate through the membranes and send it to the UV system. From there it proceeds down a cascade falls to the Lamprey River.

The new MBR units have no air compressors or vacuum pumps; only one valve on each membrane train needs to be operated. Redundancy is built into the system so that if one permeate pump fails, the flow can be diverted to a fourth pump, ensuring that all three MBRs can continue to operate.

Biosolids are dewatered to 35-40% solids on a screw press (FKC); about 30 to 36 wet tons of material per week is sent to landfill.

Handling septage

Septage receiving is essential to the process because it’s the source of about half the treatment plant’s revenue. “Because we’re on a membrane system, we were only going to be able to take in about 6,300 gpd because of the BOD loading,” says Pouliot. “The biggest obstacle was figuring out how to take in more septage without killing the process or causing violations.”

The answer, worked out with Dave Mercier of Underwood Engineers, was to dewater the septage to remove much of the BOD: “Once we ran the numbers on that, we saw that were able to take on more septage haulers and grow that portion of the budget. We’re now taking 50,000 to 60,000 gpd and sometimes up to 80,000, probably four or five time a year, mostly during the fall. We take in almost 10 million gallons of septage per year.”

Haulers arriving at the plant swipe a card on the control panel of the receiving station (Claro) to open an air-actuated valve. The septage is transferred at about 300 gpm. It goes through an automated rock catcher and a step screen and then into one of two 12,000-gallon holding tanks.

Submersible pumps then send the material to the dewatering unit; the FKC screw press is fed a mix of 20 to 30 gallons of waste activated sludge to about 80 gallons of septage. The solids are conveyed to a 30-cubic-yard dump container. The filtrate is sent to the headworks.

Leading the team

With the upgraded plant and the expanded staff, there is ample time to maintain the system. That includes performing planned maintenance on a schedule in spring and fall. Pouliot prefers to lead with a light hand on the helm.

“I basically leave them alone. They need very little supervision. That gives me the time to concentrate on all the paperwork and the administrative side of things. But when they need my help, I’m out there getting dirty with them. I’ve always said that I will never ask them to do something that I won’t do myself.

“Every Friday they start at headworks and work their way through the whole plant, mopping floors, sweeping, removing cobwebs. Once a month they wipe down all the equipment so there’s not a lot of dust buildup. Whenever we do work, we mop after we’re done. Outside, everything is mowed and manicured, so anybody who comes here can see that we take pride in our plant. Just because it’s a wastewater plant doesn’t mean it has to look like one.”

Pouliot has Grade 4 Wastewater Operator certification, the highest; his colleagues all have Grade 2. Pouliot helped train the newer members up by sharing what he learned in previous jobs and by sending them to classes including courses offered by the state Department of Environmental Services. “I also take them to other plants to show them the different ways in which plants do things,” Pouliot says. 

The next few years will bring a big change in decommissioning the plant’s old lagoons and activating the solar energy system: “That’s going to make this facility state of the art. It’s going to create a very economically feasible plant that will be easy to maintain.”

Pouliot concludes, “I’ve always liked a challenge. This has been a good challenge. We’ve been able to accomplish a lot here.”  


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