This Pennsylvania Operator Has Learned the Value of a Fully Trained, Team-Oriented Staff

Michael Sedon excels in plant operations. He takes pride in helping his colleagues and others achieve their own brands of excellence.

This Pennsylvania Operator Has Learned the Value of a Fully Trained, Team-Oriented Staff

Michael Sedon (right), shown catching up with operators Frank Houser (left) and Brian Flanary in the main control room, has developed an effective in-house training regimen.

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Michael Sedon has seen a great deal in 34 years with Cranberry Township in western Pennsylvania.

Perhaps most important of all, he has seen the value of fully trained, team-oriented staff members. In 20 years as manager of the township’s Brush Creek Water Pollution Control Facility, he has helped many operators build productive careers, as a community college instructor, in volunteer work with state associations, and through training programs at his own facility.

He has reaped many rewards, both intrinsic and practical: Good mentorship has helped foster staff longevity at the Brush Creek plant. “If people have a decent supervisor and like their work, they’re going to stick around for a while,” Sedon says. “We don’t see a lot of people moving other than for age. In the past 20 years, we have hired maybe two people who have moved on, and one of those was because his wife took her dream job down south.”

For his multiple efforts to help operators advance in certifications and professional success, Sedon received the 2021 Mentorship Award from the Water Environment Federation. “I think teaching, paying things forward, is pretty important,” he says. “Someone nominated me for this mentorship award; they must think I’m doing something right.”

Hometown success

Sedon grew up in Cranberry Township, about 20 minutes north of Pittsburgh. A rural community until the early 1980s, it has grown to a population of 40,000 because of easy access to the city by way of the Pennsylvania Turnpike and I-79.

Sedon was a Boy Scout, working his way up to the rank of Eagle Scout and for a couple of summers serving as a camp counselor. That brought out his passion for the outdoors and, quite possibly, his talent for leading and mentoring.

After high school, Sedon attended Clarion University and earned a degree in biology, “a really good fit for a wastewater treatment plant,” he observes. During college he worked summers at the Brush Creek plant. After college, in 1988, he took a job at the plant as lab supervisor; he later became assistant plant manager and, for the past 20 years, plant manager.

 Plant evolution

The Brush Creek facility was built in 1973 as a 0.5 mgd activated sludge plant. It was upgraded in 1979 to 3 mgd with rotating biological contactors; in 1999 it was converted back to activated sludge. The latest upgrade in 2020 involved a switched to membrane bioreactors.

“We’ve seen a lot of technology changes over the years,” Sedon says. “We’re currently designed for 6 mgd; our average daily flow is about 3.4 mgd, and we have a peak wet-weather flow of 23 mgd. The attractiveness of the MBR process was being able to put the technology in a very small footprint, because we’re landlocked where we are.”

Wastewater enters a newly constructed influent pump station with a bar screen (Duperon) and Sulzer pumps. After three Jeta Grit chambers (Ovivo), the water flows to four primary clarifiers where ferric chloride is fed for phosphorus removal.

The flow then passes through two fine screens (Hydro-Dyne) and three aeration basins (the staff calls them bioreactors) configured for the Modified Ludzack-Ettinger process. “We remove nitrogen,” Sedon says. “We don’t have it in our permit yet, but we wanted be a little forward-thinking and add that on the front end of the construction.”

From the bioreactors the water proceeds to six MBR trains (SUEZ) with 10 cassettes per train. After chlorine contact and a re-aeration/dechlorination tank, the effluent discharges to Brush Creek. 

Learning to give back

The Brush Creek plant’s 12-member team also handles operation and maintenance of three lift stations, three potable water storage tanks and a potable water booster station. Besides Sedon, the team includes Joe Corraini, crew leader; Larissa Hoover, lab supervisor; and operators Jim McConnell, Jack Lewis, Frank Houser, Brett Lester, Mike Ervin, Mark Zaleski, Pete Trkula, Clint Jenny, Brian Flanary and Joe Brown.

Sedon learned the importance of mentorship early in his tenure: “I was fortunate to work for this township and have a manager, Jerry Andree, who understood the value of volunteering with industry organizations. The Pennsylvania Water Environment Association has three sections, the Western, Central and Eastern Wastewater Operator Associations. Those sections roll up to the PWEA, which is a WEF Member Association.”

Early on, Sedon attended association activities like plant tours and conferences. He took a seat on the board of the Western section and moved up through the chairs, ultimately becoming president. He then did the same within the PWEA, serving as president in 2015.

When Pennsylvania started its operator certification program, Sedon saw the value of teaching classes as a way to help operators earn their licenses and secure the continuing education hours — 30 every three years — needed to maintain them. He taught classes for the state Department of Environmental Protection and later for a private training company, PH Environmental. He has also been an instructor at area community colleges.

“In 33 years I have some pretty good war stories and some practical advice to pass along to others,” Sedon observes. “Local sections and the PWEA are always looking for instructors to put on courses at the conferences. Operators can come to a three-day conference and get up to 15 contact hours. If they do that every year and only have one license, they are well on their way or ahead of the game.”

Taking it in-house

Another logical step was to bring training into the plant and help the Cranberry Township team advance. The township career ladder includes six pay grades: Utility 1, 2, 3 and 4; Operator; and Advanced Operator. When operators earn a license, they receive a pay raise.

“The value to me as a manager is that if someone takes the exam and passes, I can assume they’ve done some homework and understand the techniques, means and methods that DEP wants in a reputable operator,” Sedon says. “It’s to my advantage to train my operators and get them certified.

“I had courses already prepared for others, so it wasn’t too much of an effort. We try to get two or three people, sit them down and start them on the curriculum. We do one session on math, one on activated sludge, and so on. Then we start with sample questions and practicing for the tests. It has worked out pretty well. Among the last eight or nine who have gone through my courses, all have passed their exams.”

Practical benefits

A well-trained team and a good training program were beneficial during the latest plant upgrade, which in addition to the MBRs included a pump station, new fine screens and rotary drum thickeners (Andritz).

“We were going to upgrade both the dry end and wet end, but to save money we decided to put the solids side on the back burner,” says Sedon. “We’re gearing up for a solids project in 2022-23.” That will include two new centrifuges, two belt filter presses, and two anaerobic digesters to replace the existing auto-thermophilic aerobic digestion process.

“We had five staff members retire during construction of the upgrade. We had five new people come in when this place was like a moon surface. Everything was dug up. They didn’t know what the plant looked like pre-construction, other than by looking at pictures.

“Then there was the technology aspect. We didn’t know anything about MBRs. WEF has an operations manual on MBRs. We turned that into a course. We sat everybody down at lunch time for a couple of turns and gave them a 10,000-foot view of MBRs, so that when the startup team came from SUEZ, we would know the terminology.

“We don’t know a thing about anaerobic digesters, so for the next upgrade the intent is to do the exact same thing. We’ll do Digester 101 six months or so before startup, so everybody has a good idea what to expect when those digesters get installed. We’ve also started doing plant tours of digesters.”

Careful recruiting

When it comes to recruiting, Sedon looks for people who have mechanical skills, initiative and the ability to think on their own: “I want someone who will figure out why something broke and how to fix it, not just tell the next guy it’s broken,” says Sedon. “Maybe we don’t know why the bar screen stopped turning. Is something jammed in the teeth? Did the motor kick out? Is it an electrical issue? It’s the willingness to learn new things.

“People who played on sports teams in high school are good candidates because having a team environment is so important. People who have been on teams understand the roles and responsibilities of a teammate. That’s a culture I try to put forward at our plant.”

Experience in the industry is less important: “Only one of our last five hires had any water or wastewater experience. One of my favorite questions to ask in an interview is: Tell me a time when you had something go wrong, you had to fix it and you didn’t know how to do it. The one who says, ‘I had a 1995 Chevy Capris and I had to change the brakes; I went on YouTube and 10 minutes later I was back on the road’ — that’s what we’re looking for.”

Debt of gratitude

While mentoring his team members and the operators in his various courses, Sedon is thankful for mentors he had along the way. They include Mike Henry, now retired from his last post at the Allegheny Valley wastewater treatment plant; and Michael Kyle, now at the Lancaster Area Sewer Authority.

“They are passionate about education and understanding the mission and vision of the organization,” says Sedon. “I’ve seen them serve on state and local committees, and I saw how they operated their facilities and managed their teams. They were hard chargers. They really understood which end was up.”

Closer to home, Sedon points to former township manager Jerry Andree and the public works directors who were his immediate supervisors. “They always allowed me to participate in water and wastewater activities,” says Sedon.

“Jerry’s vision was to make our township a leader, in traffic, in managing growth and more. He wanted Cranberry Township to be looked upon as a leader in water and wastewater. I try to tell my staff that our job is to be leaders and visionary people.

“Our lab supervisor, Larissa Hoover, developed a lab networking group; lab people from counties all around get together every quarter and talk about lab issues. She also developed wastewater courses for the lab.”

As for his future, Sedon is contemplating one of his most important tasks: mentoring a new plant manager, likely someone already on his staff. “I feel the earliest I can retire is seven years,” he says. “I’ve worked for a utility that has allowed me to grow professionally. I have a great team. Who knows when I’ll hang up the skates? I plan to continue teaching and continue finding the best person to take over my spot.”   


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