A Kansas Operator Has a Simple Purpose: Treating Wastewater to the Best of His Ability

It’s no exaggeration to say Scott Milholland lives and breathes his career in wastewater. His William D. Hatfield Award is a testament to his dedication.

A Kansas Operator Has a Simple Purpose: Treating Wastewater to the Best of His Ability

From left, Steve Duke, Scott Millholland and David Birzer are part of a team that routinely meets operating challenges.

It didn’t take long for Scott Millholland to choose his life’s work.

It happened not long after he joined the team at the wastewater treatment plant in Gardner, Kansas. “Ever since I started working at the plant in 2000, the process of biologically cleaning wastewater without using chemicals has just fascinated me,” says Millholland. “As soon as I was exposed to it, I thought to myself, ‘This is where I want to go with my career.’”

For the past 10 years, he has been plant superintendent at the Kill Creek Water Resource Recovery Facility. A team member with the City of Gardner since 1998, Millholland is a friendly, intelligent man with a true passion in his work life: Treating wastewater to the very best of his ability.

In 2020, the Kansas Water Environment Association recognized his performance with the William D. Hatfield Award. “I was pretty excited to receive it, to be honest with you,” he says. “There have been so many great wastewater operators I’ve been privileged to work with, and I’ve had some great teachers and mentors along the way. But a ton of the credit goes to my fantastic staff. They just go above and beyond every single day, working with me to build a better community for generations to come.”

Hard work is in his blood

Millholland was born in Kansas City in 1972. He and his sister grew up in a family where the will to work hard was instilled from an early age: “My grandma is still alive at age 95, and she only retired a few years ago.”

After attending high school in Kansas City and community colleges in Fort Scott and Johnson County where he got degrees in applied science and environmental technology, Millholland worked for the Kansas cities of Prairie Village and Lenexa. At age 26 he joined the Public Works and Streets Division in Gardner, today a city of 24,000.

“The City of Gardner was pretty small back then, at around 6,900 people,” he recalls. “So we pretty much did everything on an on-call basis. That included checking the water and wastewater plants, water breaks, turning meters on and off, and anything else that needed to be done.”

When city leaders decided to break Public Works into separate departments in 2000, Millholland opted to go with wastewater. In doing so, he didn’t just take on a job.

“I started taking classes at Fort Scott Community College and then the University of Kansas to get my accreditations and upgrade my skills,” he says. “I worked my way up the ranks at the Kill Creek plant, eventually earning my Class 4 Wastewater Operator certificate in 2004. Then I became a lead operator, and then superintendent in 2011 when my boss retired. I’ve been here ever since.” 

Serious about wastewater

In his current position, Millholland manages a team of five: Steve Duke, chief operator, Class 4; Matt Solorio, operator, Class 3; and David Birzer, Dale Rittinghouse and James Allen, operators, Class 2.

“Steve’s my chief operator: He’s been here as long as I have,” says Millholland. “All the other guys have been with me at least five years. All are constantly taking training opportunities and upgrading their skills. Due to COVID, they’re doing a lot of that training online.”

Together, these men keep the Kill Creek facility clean, well serviced and running at peak efficiency. Seven times the facility has won the KWEA Wastewater Treatment Plant of the Year in Class 4, which includes plants that process wastewater so that the effluent can be reused or safely returned to the natural water cycle.

As superintendent, Millholland oversees the entire facility, but that’s not all he does: As needed, he serves as an operator, mechanic/engineer, office worker managing the books, leader, mentor to his staff, and even janitor.

“My No. 1 job is to stay up to speed on my plant’s operations,” says Millholland. “In this position, you must communicate with all staff to see what needs or issues need to be addressed. And you can’t do that behind a desk: You have to get out there and look over your plant daily.”

In addition to his superintendent duties, Millholland develops capital improvements projects to enhance wastewater treatment and improve lift stations and collections. He also serves on the city’s Safety Community. “Safety is huge within the city, as it should be,” he says. “We have seen significant savings with worker’s compensation and insurance cost since our Safety Community first formed in 2007.” (Note: The Kill Creek facility just won the 2021 KWEA WWTP Safety Program Award of the Year.)

Millholland is also a compliance officer: “We have not had a permit volition in over 17 years.”  And he serves as a teacher: “I love to educate young and old on the importance of wastewater treatment and its importance to our overall health and environment.”

Then there is his role as a talent scout. “Pay is always an issue. Gardner is located just outside of Kansas City. Trying to compete with the bigger cities and intermodal facilities is getting tough.”

Recycling water

Millholland began his wastewater career at Gardner’s Bull Creek Treatment Plant; he moved to the Kill Creek facility after it was built in 2001. “This is a Kruger Bio-Denitro phased oxidation ditch technology plant,” he says. “It is designed to serve a population of 25,000 with a processing capacity of 2.5 mgd. We’re running about 1.7 mgd right now with room to expand to 7.5 mgd.”

The Kill Creek facility is equipped with four Fairbanks Nijhuis submersible pumps that send wastewater to the headworks, which houses two step screens and wash presses (Keith Huber (Hol-Mac Corporation)), followed by two Mectan grit chambers and a grit screw (both John Meunier).

“The wastewater passes through the phased-flow oxidation ditches, which removes BOD and nutrients,” says Millholland. “The water next settles in a pair of rapid sludge removal sedimentations basins made by Ovivo. It is then disinfected using UV light.”

Kill Creek installed a new Glasco UV system in September 2021: “We went with the NONCON option because the old UV had seen its fair share of repairs and used a lot of power.”

At this point, a portion of the recycled nonpotable water is fed to Gardner’s Celebration Park and Sports Complex, using a Grundfos Hydro MPC primary recycled water system. The water is used for irrigation, with the remainder cascading down aeration steps to Kill Creek and ultimately into the Kansas River.

“Our biosolids are now processed with a new FKC screw press and land-applied,” says Millholland. “We replaced the old belt press in hopes to get a drier sludge. We were getting around 14-15% with the press and hope to get around 20% with the new system. We also replaced our old seven-stage blowers with three new Inovair IM Series turbo blowers.”

Savings through teamwork

When managing equipment, Millholland’s goal is to save money wherever he can without compromising treatment quality. “Much of what we’ve got here is about 20 years old,” he says. “To keep it running economically, we do 99% of our own maintenance.” That includes pulling and rebuilding pumps, except for the larger submersibles, which are sent out for service. The work also includes managing 23 lift stations. “Add the cleaning and mopping of the floors, mowing and trimming, we’re always hopping,” Millholland says.

Consistent contact between staff members is the key to staying on top of things: “We’ve got Mission Communications in all of our lift stations, so if a pump has started to run longer than it should or has restarted too many times, we pass the information on to each other pretty quick. We also visit all 23 lift stations every day, so it makes it easy to ensure that we’re getting all of our gallons per day through.”

Teamwork is at the heart of Kill Creek’s success. Millholland and his staff hold tailgate safety meetings every morning where “We figure out what we’re going to do for the day. As well, the guys are constantly upgrading their operator skills. During COVID, they took classes online. And we all pretty much can do everything, so we take turns doing lab work, plant work, fieldwork and whatever else has to be done to process wastewater effectively.”

The result is a plant that runs smoothly and reliably, no matter who’s on shift and whatever is happening. “A lot of our visitors are astonished at how clean the plant is,” says Millholland. “It’s all due to the attitude of the people on our team.

“Everyone is passionate about what we’re doing, and cares deeply about providing our community with the cleanest water possible. Just because it’s a wastewater plant doesn’t mean it has to look like one. I spend 10-12 hours here every workday, and I expect the bathrooms here to be as clean as they are in my home.”

Tackling challenges

Even in the best-run plant, serious challenges occur from time to time. The ways in which operator teams tackle them speak volumes about who they are and what they can do.

For Millholland, three challenges come to mind. “We had one situation where a brush rotor’s end bearing snapped off and fell to the bottom of a full oxidation ditch,” he recalls. “So we put our heads together and came up with a solution where we put and empty Mountain Dew bottle tied to a string and fed through a 20-foot-long one-inch PVC pipe and pushed it around the bottom until we found the brush rotor. We then let the string go and bottle floated to the top. We were then able to hoist it up, rebuild it, and get it back into service.”

Challenge No. 2: “When the plant was built, we never really felt we were getting a good effluent flow reading. After some research, we found that the Parshall flume that was installed originally was too large. We were running around 1.2 mgd and the Parshall flume was designed for 50 mgd.”

Again, the Kill Creek team came up with an innovative solution. They jack-hammered out the old flume and replaced it with a sharp-crested stainless steel weir plate. “After that was constructed, we installed a HydroRanger (Siemens Process Instrumentation) ultrasonic open channel flow monitor up from the weir for more accurate reading. The HydroRanger measures our effluent flow as it goes over our sharp crested weir plate. This was all done in-house with a huge saving to the city, and the results were right on point.”

Moving forward, Kill Creek now has to confront a new challenge: reducing nitrogen and phosphorous outputs in line with new permit parameters. Millholland is undaunted: “I believe with operational process adjustments, and some advice from Grant Weaver of CleanWaterOps, we can make it happen,” he says. “We started the process adjustments a few months ago, and we are already seeing some great results.”

Looking ahead

With over two decades spent in the wastewater industry, Millholland could be expected to be looking to do something else as he enters the second half of his career. Except he isn’t: “I really like what I’m doing now. There’s a lot more that I can do in this career going forward.”

In particular, Gardner’s rapid growth is driving change in the wastewater department. “There’s a real development boom going on,” says Millholland. “We’re growing fast and it looks like Gardner will be building a second wastewater plant in the future. I’d like to be part of that, and hire some more people to run it along with Kill Creek.”

In other words, don’t expect Millholland to hang up his hat anytime soon. He couldn’t imagine doing anything else: “My daily goal is to make sure all team members go home safely to their family every night. Our team goal is to build a better community today for the future generations to provide the very best service to the citizens of Gardner.”   


Comments on this site are submitted by users and are not endorsed by nor do they reflect the views or opinions of COLE Publishing, Inc. Comments are moderated before being posted.