A Third-Generation Operator Reflects on His Career — and Looks Forward to Generation Four

An operator who followed his grandfather and father into the clean-water profession reflects on his career and the state of the industry.

A Third-Generation Operator Reflects on His Career — and Looks Forward to Generation Four

John O’Brien

Wastewater treatment is a relatively new profession that began in earnest with the Clean Water Act of 1972.

This means there are few multiple-generation operators working in the field. One of those is John O’Brien, a third-generation operator at the PGA Regional Water Reclamation Facility, owned by the Seacoast Utility Authority in Palm Beach Gardens, Florida.

O’Brien holds a Class A Wastewater Operator license (highest) and is also a licensed drinking water treatment plant operator. In his spare time, he is an adjunct instructor in water and wastewater for Palm Beach State College.

His grandfather, the late Patrick O’Brien Jr., worked as an operator of the Fremont (Ohio) Water Pollution Control Center from 1964 until he retired in 1986; his father, John O’Brien, was a certified wastewater operator and wastewater lab technician at the same facility for 27 years until he retired in 2003.  

O’Brien’s personal experience and his family background give him interesting perspectives on the clean-water industry. He shared his story in an interview with Treatment Plant Operator.

How did your grandfather get his start in the profession?

O’Brien: His dad was a career Army guy, and his last duty station after World War I was Camp Perry in Ohio. My grandfather was born in Port Clinton, the city next to Camp Perry, on Lake Erie. He dropped out of high school to fight in World War II. He lost two brothers in the war; one was strafed by a Nazi plane in Germany; another was a victim of the Bataan Death March.

He married my grandma and they moved to Fremont, where she was from. He went to work for a company that made automotive tools. The company moved and he lost his job. He had a wife and four kids. He lined up a job in Chicago. Then a friend told him, “Pat, you don’t have to move. I’ll give you a job with the city at the sewer plant.” He was about 40 years old at the time.

What was the treatment plant like in his early days at Fremont?

O’Brien: They had primary clarifiers and some secondary treatment, but obviously it was pre-Clean Water Act and didn’t meet today’s secondary standards. For a small city, about 20,000, population at the time, they had a lot of manufacturing. They were limited on holding sludge, so they were still discharging partially or untreated sludge into the Sandusky River.

What was your father’s career like?

O’Brien: At 20 years old he got a job at the Fremont facility. He started as a treatment plant operator and in 1983 became a wastewater lab technician, which was a higher position. He kept his operator license and worked overtime on holidays and weekends. Part of his job was in pretreatment. He would go to Heinz ketchup, Pioneer Sugar, Ginsu knife, Crown Battery and other industries to collect samples. Then he would take a boat in the Sandusky River and take samples there. He would bring everything back to the lab, run the analyses.

What does the Fremont facility look like today?

O’Brien: They discharge dechlorinated secondary effluent into the Sandusky River, which flows into Lake Erie. They do some reclaim water for crop irrigation, but it’s almost all to secondary effluent standards. They produce Class A biosolids for land application on farms.  

How did you become involved in the clean-water field?

O’Brien: At six years old I went to my grandfather’s retirement party. For my whole life I remember going to the treatment plant and visiting my dad. He had the city van for collecting samples, and he let me ride along. My dad and grandpa worked together at the plant from 1976-86. At 25 years old I was living in Florida. The economy was good, but I wanted job security. I’d just got married and my wife was pregnant. So I got a job in maintenance with Palm Beach County government, and I ended up at the Southern Region Water Reclamation Facility.

Did your family history lead you to seek a clean-water career?

O’Brien: I didn’t think, “I want to work at the sewer plant,” even though my dad and grandpa worked there. I ended up there out of necessity, for the job security and stability. Being older now, I understand what we really do for the environment. It’s the same water from the beginning of time and we’re stewards of that.

How did you make the transition from maintenance to being an operator?

O’Brien: In maintenance I worked the first shift Monday through Friday, changing pumps and motors and doing a lot of labor. Then I saw what the operators did. It was physically an easier job, they got paid overtime, they made more money and I started to think about how cool it was that they were cleaning and recycling the water. It took me five years to get a license and become a certified wastewater operator in 2010.

What were your responsibilities in your first job in operations?

O’Brien: I stayed with the county for a few years, and I did the shift work, basically split in half between the liquid and solids sides. The focus with Palm Beach County was water reuse, and often we did more than 100% reuse, because we had supplemental wells that we pulled from, mostly for golf course irrigation.

Where did you go after Palm Beach County?

O’Brien: I went to the Loxahatchee River District in Jupiter and got a shift lead position. They do 100% reuse water. They have seven golf courses, and they also supply irrigation for Roger Dean Stadium, where the Miami Marlins and St. Louis Cardinals have spring training. It used to be a pure oxygen plant, but now it’s conventional treatment. After that I got my Class A license and went to Miami-Dade County as a supervisor at Virginia Key. Then I came back up north a little bit and took a job with the city of Sunrise, where they were building a new reuse plant; I helped out with that. After 39 months there I ended up here at Seacoast Utility Authority.

How do people in the profession react on finding out that you are a third-generation operator?

O’Brien: People want to know, did you want to be like your dad? Did you want to be like your grandpa? It seems everybody I’ve worked for liked the fact they had hired a third-generation operator. My grandfather was very happy to see me enter the profession. My dad, too.

What has been involved in the instructional side of your career?

O’Brien: I met a gentleman named Richard Dillon who was the plant manager for a reuse plant in Miramar. He retired and moved to Palm Beach County and started teaching here. I developed a relationship with him. Palm Beach State College got a federal grant to teach water and wastewater at the local state prison, Sago Palm Re-Entry Center, and they needed an instructor. They called Richard; he declined, and then he told them, “Call John O’Brien.” They hired me as an adjunct instructor.

What did teaching at the prison include?

O’Brien: It’s a re-entry prison; everybody is getting out in three years. I taught two 160-hour classes and helped the inmates got certified. I helped a couple of the lighter offenders get jobs, and they’re working in the industry. The funding for the program ended, but I stayed as an employee with the college. I’m dual-licensed, so I can teach both water and wastewater courses.

What does your family history do for your perspectives on the industry?

O’Brien: It gives me a lot of gratitude for knowing the type of treatment we used to do in this country. We are taking much better care of the environment by treating the water to the standards that we are. People who don’t have that background personally might not fully understand that it hasn’t always been like this.

What would you say to a young person about the benefits of a water career?

O’Brien: At least in south Florida, you can invest in 160 hours of education, get a year’s experience and start out making a decent wage, plus overtime, full benefits and job security. You’re not going to get that anywhere else for the same amount of experience and education. And there isn’t anything more rewarding or fulfilling that I know of than helping to sustain the earth by cleaning the water resources we have.

Is there a fourth-generation operator in the wings?

O’Brien: My wife’s 24-year-old son, Carl Pierce, manages a pool store in our area. He thought that would be a good start, working with chemicals, small filters and pumps. He got a job at the pool store and worked his way up to managing. He has completed the wastewater course, and his next step is to become an operator. His goal is to sit for the exam, pass it and then start applying for positions.

What do you see ahead for yourself in the clean-water profession?

O’Brien: For as long as I’m going to work, I see myself staying in wastewater treatment operations while remaining active on the education, training and certification process.

As a third-generation operator, do you find more inspiration to attract a new generation of operators to the industry?

O’Brien: I’m very passionate about that because I understand the history of where we’ve come in this country since the Clean Water Act, how sophisticated the processes are and what a good job we do with recycling and reusing the water, while producing Class A biosolids. It’s cleaning the water, but also recovering the resources in the water. If young people understood how significant and how beneficial our profession is for the environment and how personally rewarding it can be, the industry would be flooded with people trying to get in.   


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