Andrew Wendell's Meticulous Nature Helped Him Win a 2020 Laboratory Analyst Excellence Award

Data drives Andrew Wendell in his leadership role at ClearWater Laboratory. It’s what provides credibility with regulators and treatment facility operators.

Andrew Wendell's Meticulous Nature Helped Him Win a 2020 Laboratory Analyst Excellence Award

Although not involved in operating treatment plants, Andrew Wendell earned a certification as a wastewater operator early in his career as a way to gain credibility when advising on treatment plant problems.

Andrew Wendell loves to keep track of data. That includes data about his own laboratory.

Wendell is the senior chemist and quality assurance/quality control officer for ClearWater Laboratory in Newport, Maine, “One of the things I actually enjoy the most, and one of the things I get the most kudos for from my accreditors, is control charts,” Wendell says.

“It’s my way of tracking data — the quality control data, blanks, duplicates, standards, spikes. I get the most pleasure when I see that the laboratory is in control with the data that we generate on a daily basis.”

For Wendell, in control means the result is within an acceptable statistical range. “It’s a very geeky pleasure to take this data, put it in, and see how it plays out in real time,” he says. “Every day you generate a new data point. Everything to the left is yesterday or last week or last month or last year. You see how good or bad the lab is doing previously.

“To the right, it’s a blank page because you haven’t written the data, so you don’t know yet. Every day, that is the Zen moment: Here is today’s data. If it is in control, that is a good day. My job as a QA officer is to keep it in control.”

His meticulous nature surely helped him on the way to earning the 2020 Laboratory Analyst Excellence Award from the New England Water Environment Association.

At home in the lab

Wendell has always been attracted to laboratories. “I volunteered as a lab assistant when I was in high school,” he says. “Even then I had an affinity for laboratory work.”

He grew up in a Philadelphia suburb but always had a connection to Maine because his family had a vacation home on a pond there. He attributes his early interest in science to his parents. His father was a chemist who became a computer programmer, and his mother was a volunteer ecology teacher.

During high school, while they were on vacation at the camp, his parents took him to visit the University of Maine, where he had an interview. On the way back, his mother asked him if he wanted to also visit Unity College, since it was on the way, and it had an environmental program. Wendell loved it right away.

“There was a large cement block building that was the gym and classrooms,” Wendell recalls. “The dorms were former chicken barns. It was like night and day compared to the University of Maine. I said, this is where I want to go. Instantly I knew.”

While at Unity he applied for a summer job as a lab technician at Acheron Engineering: “The fellow who interviewed me was going to be my boss. I asked if he thought I had a shot at the job. He said, ‘Oh you have the job. I just want to make sure you want it.’” The rest is history.

Wearing many hats

Thirty-two years later, Wendell still works for the same company. It formed ClearWater Laboratory as a subsidiary when it started testing drinking water. The company does toxicity and compliance testing and does consulting for drinking water systems and municipal or industrial wastewater treatment plants. The lab has two part-time and eight full-time employees.

“It’s satisfying because of wearing many hats,” says Wendell. “Every day the job is a little different and a little interesting.” He lives in Solon, Maine, with his wife, Annie Stillwater Gray, a writer and former radio announcer. He describes Solon as a small town in the woods past the last Walmart.

Although ClearWater does not operate wastewater treatment plants, Wendell earned a certification as a wastewater operator early in his career. “In 1996, I’d been working full time for six years, and I got my Grade 2 license,” he says. “Five years later I got my Grade 3 license. One reason I got myself licensed was to educate myself and to lend credibility to my advice regarding treatment plant problems.”

In the 1990s, treatment plants tended to have problems with toxic materials from industrial sources. ClearWater Laboratory did toxicity testing to identify the problem materials, which usually led to identifying the sources. Then the lab team could recommend remedies. Most of the testing is routine, but sometimes the lab encounters unusual samples or situations.

“In the drinking water business, people can come up with funny samples,” Wendell says. “We had somebody show up with a really nasty looking water sample. It was foamy, and it smelled like cinders. He said it came from his well. It turned out that his barn had burned down, and the firemen had used foam to put out the fire. That surely had ruined his well.

“In the wastewater business, sometimes you get surprised by samples that are not what you expect. Every now and then someone says there is something red or some other color coming into the plant and turning the lagoon a different color. Then you try to figure out where that came from and what is it, and do they have to worry about it.”

ClearWater has clients all over Maine, and Wendell travels as necessary: “I still do field sampling. We set up samplers to collect stuff for people, monitoring well sampling or field notes. “We document that they are doing it the right way. That’s part of being accredited. It’s knowing that you’re good at dotting I’s and crossing T’s. That’s a good part of our business.”

Sometimes Wendell has to update quality assurance manuals and standard operating procedure documents or an operations and maintenance manual for a treatment plant. Many people find that kind of technical writing to be tedious and difficult, but Wendell enjoys it.

“To me, it’s creative, because you are always trying to figure out how to say something in a better way that is more accurate with fewer words and less confusing,” he says. “It’s something I can do, but it doesn’t happen quickly. I re-read things three or four times to make sure I have it polished properly. It’s a lot of polishing.”

Data integrity

ClearWater contracts some testing to outside laboratories. In-house procedures include microbiological tests that need to be done within a short time after the samples are collected, such as total coliform, E. coli and fecal coliform tests.

The lab uses an IDEXX Colilert system and incubates the tests in either a Lab Line air incubator or a Precision water incubator. It also uses spectrophotometers (Hach) for tests for nitrite, phosphorus or chlorine. Most testing for metals and other substances is outsourced.

“Our laboratory is set up for the shorter-holding-time tests,” Wendell says. “We let other labs do the oil and grease, and organics like PCBs and pesticides, for example.”  

His job also entails documentation of training, equipment, maintenance and other areas, all necessary for the accreditation inspections the lab has to go through. The lab is accredited through the Maine Laboratory Accreditation Program, which confers authority and credibility with clients and regulatory agencies.

Wendell spreads that message statewide through his work as chair of the lab committee for the Maine WEA. His vision for that committee is to provide current information, training resources and moral support to the state’s lab professionals and to act as a bridge between the regulated community and the regulators who make the policy decisions.

“You have an accreditation program to ensure there is integrity in the data,” Wendell says. “We have to be believed by the client who is paying us money. We may tell them they have to spend some money to fix something, and we have to report to the regulators, the DEP or the drinking water program.

“The regulators have to believe us if we tell them that the client doesn’t have a problem. It is of the utmost importance that we as a laboratory, and as a professional organization, maintain credibility with both the regulated community and the regulators.”   


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