At 15 Daniel Wurst Was Running a Wastewater Treatment Plant. It Was a Door That Opened After His Parents Died.

From the humblest of beginnings, Daniel Wurst built a long, successful and award-winning career in the clean-water business.

At 15 Daniel Wurst Was Running a Wastewater Treatment Plant. It Was a Door That Opened After His Parents Died.

The team at the Telford Borough Authority includes, from left, Warren Harris, collections foreman; Gary Yoder, public works director; William Mattson, operator; Daniel Wurst, wastewater superintendent; and William McCue, operator.

Daniel Wurst was young when he started his career. At 15 he was running a wastewater treatment plant. It was a door that opened because his parents died.

“I was the youngest in my family,” he says. “I had a brother who was in his 30s when my parents died. All my cousins were out of the house. My aunts and uncles weren’t ready to get back into raising a teenager. But God opens doors.”

His door was Christ’s Home orphanage in Warminister, Pennsylvania, where Wurst went to live at age 13. “I was the only true orphan there. Most of the kids at least had one parent alive, but there were issues like drug addict parents or drunks. If I hadn’t been at Christ’s Home, I probably wouldn’t have been in wastewater. I never thought of it as a career. I thought of it as, oh, I get out of the dorm for an hour. And I was always wanting to learn something new.”

Wurst eventually moved on to much bigger things. Today he is wastewater superintendent at the Telford (Pennsylvania) Borough Authority, and the contract operator of several small treatment facilities in his general area.

He’s also the recipient of the Eastern Pennsylvania Water Pollution Control Operators Association’s 2020 Daniel H. Treat Memorial Supervisory Award (facilities less than 2 mgd) for sharing his knowledge of the industry. In 2013 he received the association’s the A.E. “Bud” Fricker Individual Service Award.

Starting small

The orphanage where Wurst grew up was served by a small treatment plant built in 1933. “It was an Imhoff tank, which most people have never heard of,” Wurst says. “There are still some around, but they were popular back in the day.”

Wastewater came into a central compartment, and sludge built up on the walls of a surrounding compartment. A fixed-nozzle trickling filter doused a bed of rocks. That was followed by chlorination and discharge to a small stream.

Unlike other students, Wurst didn’t take technical school training: “I think my house parent saw that and said, ‘Let’s get him in and see if he’d be interested in wastewater.’ So my job every day was to go down and clean the bar rack, do some quick testing — pH and dissolved oxygen.

“I was the daily man who did the grunt work. Fifteen years old, I was changing 150-pound chlorine cylinders. It’s unreal the stuff I did that you couldn’t do today. But back in the 1970s and early ’80s, that wasn’t an issue.”

His house parent held a state wastewater license. A worker from a nearby plant took samples and filled out state reports. But twice a year, when the county inspectors came around, Wurst had time off school to show them the plant. In his senior year of high school, the orphanage sent him to nighttime licensing classes. He finished the classes but never took the license exam.

Building a career

When he graduated from school at the orphanage, he still didn’t know what he wanted to do. There was a road crew job open at the Chalfont-New Britain Township Sewer Authority in Doylestown, and he had a cousin who was married to the brother of a township official. “I’m sure he put in a good word for me,” Wurst says.

He was up against two men with much more experience, but he asked for less money and got the job. He started work in 1980 and did everything: helped set up equipment to televise lines, cleaned manholes, cleaned out debris, helped repair leaks. About two years later, he got a job in the wastewater treatment plant.

“I just saw no advancement at the road crew level,” he says. “I knew eventually I wanted to be a leader. I didn’t know how high I would get, but in those days, you didn’t need all the college.”

He worked at the activated sludge plant from 1984-89. At 3.5 mgd (design), it was larger than other plants in his past, and he learned a great deal.

Then he heard that nearby Buckingham Township was starting a sequencing batch reactor plant, the first in the area. At age 24, Wurst got a position there. It was great experience because the plant was still being built. Wurst sat with the contractor and wrote a few change orders.

Finding a home

After the plant started, he wanted to move to a larger operation. So he sent out résumés and received three calls. Telford was first: “I went in for the interview. They threw me a set of keys.” It was 50 cents more per hour and much closer to home. That was Jan. 8, 1990, and Wurst has been at Telford ever since.

At Telford, Wurst at first helped out in the water department, too. He and his colleagues would read wells, monitor the interconnection with another town, and pass the information on to the water division staff. State regulations tightened starting in the mid-1990s, and the state became interested in inflow and infiltration. The borough created more full-time water department jobs to handle increased state demands, and that meant Wurst and his colleagues stayed in the wastewater plant.

The Telford plant (1.23 mgd design, .550 mgd average) uses an oxidation ditch. As wastewater enters, a pair of comminuters (JWC Environmental) chop up debris. Next are two primary settling tanks. Pumps (Chicago) send water into the three-ring ditch.

If flows are heavy, such as during a rain, influent can be added in either of the outer two rings, usually the second, to provide as much treatment as possible. Two final clarifiers precede a pair of chlorine contact tanks, which are followed by sodium bisulfate for dechlorination. The final effluent discharges to Indian Creek.

Meeting the permit

The permit monthly average for chlorine is 0.01 mg/L, and the instantaneous reading cannot exceed 0.03 mg/L. “Basically, we have to chlorinate it and then discharge it with no chlorine in the water,” he says. The permit limits for BOD and TSS are 30 mg/L.

“Even during rain events we still meet permit,” says Wurst. “You could go to our effluent tanks right now, and they’re clear enough. They’re about 8 feet deep. You could drop a quarter in, and if you have good eyesight, you could pick whether it’s heads or tails.”

Wurst’s team consists of operators William Mattson and William McCue. “I have a very conscientious crew here,” he says. “We’re like parents. We make sure the bugs have a good home, a good food source, and good air. They do the work, so I can’t take credit.”

Sludge is aerobically digested; the biosolids are then fed to a centrifuge (Alfa Laval) protected by another comminuter (Boerger). Timers periodically shut off air to the digesters, allowing the solids to settle. Penn Valley Double Disc pumps return decant liquid to the headworks.

When Wurst came to Telford, the plant accepted septage from haulers. That stopped after haulers from outside the area brought contaminated loads. “We have no industry in town, and then we started getting heavy metals in our sludge,” he says. 

Being neighborly

Subdivisions grew around the plant, and there are occasional odor complaints. Minimizing those means paying strict attention to plant operation. When workers come in after the digesters have been decanting, they turn on blowers as soon as possible to reduce odors. Some odor complains likely come not from the pant but from pump stations in the subdivisions.

“The only time it’s really big is spring and fall when it gets cool at night and hot during the day,” Wurst says. “Then, even if we have the air on, we still have odors. And all plants have that. There’s no way around it.”

Wurst enjoys sharing information about the plant with community members. Among them are

Boy Scouts who come in for merit badge requirements. In one case, a neighbor was cutting grass one day to create a bike path for his children. He and Wurst talked, and Wurst invited him for a tour.

“About a month later, here come three housewives with four kids,” Wurst recalls. “I took them for a tour. They were like, ‘Wow, this is really interesting.’” He took the opportunity to explain that wastewater treatment plants keep people safe. Wurst has also trained people who needed experience credits for their state licenses, inviting them in on weekends to work with him.

On the road

When not working, Wurst enjoys driving. He is on his third Corvette, first a 1997, then a 2001, and now a lime rock green 2014 model he found through a Colorado dealership; he had always wanted a car in that color.

He and wife Maureen have driven the Corvette to Michigan to see a leader dog training center supported by Wurst’s Lions Club, and they have driven to the Outer Banks in North Carolina.

Wurst has already given the borough his retirement date in 2025. At that point he’ll have 35 years of service. “I don’t know why I find this so satisfying,” he says. “I love my job.”   


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