Von Eggers Is Always Ready for a Tough Task — But No One Asks Him on April 1

Von Eggers is not afraid to tackle any assignment that comes his way. Still, he was shocked upon being named Operator of the Year.

Von Eggers Is Always Ready for a Tough Task — But No One Asks Him on April 1

Eggers never shies away from hard days, which typically involve 12-hour shifts.

There’s a joke going around the Richland Department of Public Works: Von Eggers is not allowed to work on April 1 because every time he does, something disastrous happens to the city’s water system.

Nineteen years ago, Eggers was pulling the graveyard shift when he went to inspect the Washington city’s 10 million-gallon reservoir. He noticed that it was losing water, a lot of water, and it wasn’t the ordinary pull that typically takes place. No, this was something different, and it was serious.

“I had a few choice words,” admits Eggers. “Thankfully, we got things shut down and switched to our 5 million-gallon reservoir, so no one was ever without water. It took us a year and a half to rebuild the failed underdrain and bring the reservoir back online.”

Apparently someone didn’t get the memo. Once again, in 2018, Eggers was working on April 1 backwashing the No. 6 filter when he discovered a bad filter: “I saw a green nozzle flash up through the filter media and said, ‘OMG, the filter just blew up.’ I isolated it and took it out of service before it affected the rest of plant. Turns out the concrete delaminated in the bottom of the filter. It took us a year running on seven filters before that was fixed.”

It’s a good thing Eggers doesn’t mind tackling tough assignments — but no one schedules him for duty on April 1 anymore. 

Circuitous route

Water treatment was not Eggers’ first career choice. A native of Kennewick, Washington, he started working for the world’s largest crane company, Lampson International, while in high school. After five years of traveling the country to clean and paint cranes, he joined his family’s construction business. He then hired on with Battelle PNNL in Richland for seven-plus years, where he earned his commercial driver’s license hauling lab equipment and hazardous materials.

Wanting a change, Eggers applied for a job with the Richland Public Works Department in 1995: “I saw an opportunity to do something more with my career. What’s more important than clean water?”

The only thing standing between Eggers and his desired job as a treatment plant operator was another person. Fortunately, that person was planning to retire; in the meantime, Eggers had to start from the bottom and work his way up. And that meant starting in water maintenance.

“At the time, Public Works averaged 300 main leaks a year,” he recalls. “Most of the city’s pipes were from the 1940s — thin-walled steel pipes that had seen better days. I had to hand dig those pipes to fix them. I was digging in people’s yards, under dog runs, beneath patios. I got really good with a shovel. My family said I was the best digger they knew.”

Eggers kept at it for a full year until the fellow in front of him finally retired. It was finally time for Eggers to hang up his shovel. 

Vintage plant, modern challenges

What Eggers didn’t know was treatment plant operators never truly hang up their shovels, especially when their facilities are decidedly vintage. The Richland Water Plant was built in 1963 as a direct filtration facility with four filters and a 30 mgd capacity. In 1995 some upgrades were made including the addition of four more filters. However, much of the systems piping is original and so are some pumps and motors.

In addition to the water treatment plant, a 12 mgd wellfield with a slow sand filter and UV disinfection pumps water from the Columbia River to regenerate the aquifer.

The population of Richland has grown by nearly 20% over the last decade (to 56,000), placing more pressure on the facility and the operators. The plant is running at the top end of its capacity, and more redundancy is being added to process water.

Current projects include upgrading the capacity of the onsite generator for making sodium hypochlorite and adding an additional variable frequency drive pump to improve the flow of finished water. These improvements are key to keeping the plant online. “We’re lucky that we haven’t been knocked offline for an extended period of time,” Eggers says.

When Eggers started with the plant, chlorine gas was the disinfectant; his CDL with HAZMAT endorsement came in handy, as he was responsible for hauling one-ton chlorine gas cylinders to the plant. In February 2016, the plant switched to the safer hypochlorite.

As the plant and the water treatment industry modernize, and as the state Department of Health and the U.S. EPA impose stricter requirements, Eggers is pursuing more certifications to make sure his technical expertise meets industry demands.

“Our direct filtration system is effective but antiquated, and reverse osmosis and membranes are becoming the standard for filtering influent,” he says. “We’re changing big-time, and water has to be cleaner and cleaner. So I’m changing with it.”

Proving his mettle

Eggers has never shied away from a hard day’s work — and work as a treatment plant operator can be “really weird,” he says. “We work eight days straight and then have six days off. It’s like having a vacation every other week.

“But when you’re on, it can be stressful, as our shifts are 12 hours long, seven to seven. You would think the graveyard shifts would be quiet, but that’s when we’re cranking, making as much water as we can.”

The Richland team, which also includes Dave Trotter, Pete Fateley, Chris Snell, Darryl Mayfield and Anthony Ortiz, is responsible for checking the reservoirs, reading meters, and monitoring production and consumption throughout the night. The heaviest pull on the system, for irrigation, begins at 10 p.m. and goes for several hours.

“It’s amazing to watch,” Eggers says. “Our reservoir drops like someone pouring a bucket of water out. This summer we’ve seen record-breaking consumption. In July, we had 1.04 billion gallons of water consumed. Consumption was averaging 33.8 mgd. During the winter, it’s just 8 to 9 mgd. Weather is a big factor; we had multiple days of 100 degree days.”

The thirsty summer also made the Richland team nervous in light of its aging equipment. “We’ve had three pumps go down this year, so we’ve been scrambling to keep producing,” Eggers says. Normally this wouldn’t be a problem but because of COVID, it can take six months to get parts.”

Brent Andrews, Eggers’ supervisor, is not quite as stressed. “Von does not sit still. He’s always throwing out ideas, looking for a better way to do things,” he says. “It seems as though he has his finger on the collective pulse of the water treatment plant and distribution system, and he always knows what to do.” 

New responsibilities

Eggers’ work ethic, something he attributes to his parents, has earned him the respect of co-workers, and also new responsibilities. Specifically, he is a one-man talent development expert. Over the last year, Richland has had to replace three members of its five-person water plant team. Seeing Eggers patience when working with people, Andrews tapped him to train and develop the new team members. As millennials, their approach to work is different than the old guard of baby boomers.

Says Andrews, “I put them under Von. He’s amazing. He knows how to talk with them, not at them, so they learn and take his words to heart. Our newest operators quickly became assets.”

Eggers is both humble and pragmatic in the face of praise: “We’re a small team, so it’s important we work together. We check our egos at the door and get to work making water.”

Another invaluable practice Eggers helped spearhead is a 30-minute overlap of team members during shift changes to relay important information about the plant. This ensures that everyone has the best information going into the shift, and that there are no time bombs.

Eggers also goes above and beyond to make himself available to the team during his days off. He’s always reachable by phone and ready to answer questions. He doesn’t shy from getting calls in the middle of the night, since he knows too well that’s when the biggest issues typically arise, whether it’s April 1 or some other date. His motivation is knowing that shared knowledge is the key to the best outcomes.

“Anything I can do to help our team through the day I am happy to do,” he says. “It’s up to all of us to show up and do our jobs, as the public depends on us for safe water.” 

About that award

Without Eggers’ knowledge, co-worker and shift partner, Dave Trotter nominated him for the 2021 Operator of the Year award from the state Department of Health, Office of Drinking Water. When he learned that he’d won, he first thought it was a big joke. But on receiving the blue glass trophy at the presentation ceremony last May, he was visibly humbled by the words of his supervisor, Andrews: “Von is a valuable asset for the city.”

Not that he’s letting it go to his head. He’s got water to make.   


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