A Maryland Operator Rallied His Team and Led With Conviction Through a Challenging Time

Justin Myers walked into a new job at a plant in the middle of a major upgrade. With his team, he saw it to completion and a record of exemplary performance.

A Maryland Operator Rallied His Team and Led With Conviction Through a Challenging Time

Justin Myers, right, operations superintendent, and operator Kylin Mayberry, at the Little Patuxent Water Reclamation Plant, check parameters on the odor-control panel in the dryer building (BIOREM Technologies).

Imagine you buy a house and on the day you’re to move in it is half finished and teeming with construction workers.

That’s a bit like what Justin Myers experienced in 2017 when he stepped in as operations superintendent at the Little Patuxent Water Reclamation Plant in Howard County, Maryland.

“They were building a whole new Class A biosolids facility,” he recalls. “They were literally just putting the walls up for the digesters. I came in at the beginning of that three-year project.” It’s not as if he didn’t see the challenge coming; he envisioned his new role as a learning experience and a chance to lead a large facility after 17 years operating and overseeing smaller plants.

Consulting closely with his team of supervisors, Myers led the operations team through a host of trying events while helping them get trained up on the new process and equipment. In the end, the project received an Envision Silver Award from the Institute for Sustainable Infrastructure. Through it all the plant continuously met strict permit limits with ample room to spare.

“There were weekly meetings with the construction and design engineers, at the same time I had to introduce myself to the staff and all the operators,” says Myers, a 2021 winner of the William D. Hatfield Award from the Chesapeake Water Environment Association. “I had a lot of help from our supervisors. It was a team effort.”

Starting small

Myers’ clean-water career began in 2000 after high school in Reisterstown, Maryland, when he became an apprentice with Maryland Environmental Service, a state-affiliated agency whose functions include operating small-community water and wastewater treatment facilities.

As an apprentice, Myers was stationed at the 2 mgd (design) Freedom District Wastewater Treatment Plant serving Eldersburg and Sykesville. While there he earned his Class 5A Wastewater Treatment Operator license and took night classes to earn a general associate degree from the Community College of Baltimore County.

“There were times I would get off work, take a shower at work, and head straight to school until 9 or 10 at night,” he says. He went on to earn bachelor’s and master’s degrees in environmental management at the University of Maryland Global Campus.

After five years at the Freedom District he worked two years for MES as an environmental systems supervisor for the central region, and then 10 years as an assistant regional supervisor for MES, with operations, process control, performance monitoring and other responsibilities in overseeing multiple community treatment plants.

Then he found the opportunity at Little Patuxent (29 mgd design, 18 mgd average): “I was looking for new experiences,” says Myers. “I had been with MES for a good bit, and I always wondered what it would be like working at a larger facility. The largest one I worked at before Little Patuxent was the Freedom District plant where I started as an apprentice.”

Work in progress

Myers counts his work during the biosolids project as his proudest career accomplishment so far. It included new anaerobic digesters, new gravity belt thickeners (Alfa Laval), a MagPrex struvite removal process (Centrisys/CNP), centrifuge control upgrades (Alfa Laval), belt dryers (Haarslev Industries) and biogas utilization for the drying process and digester heating (Unison Solutions).

“It was the biggest addition the plant has had,” Myers says. “I had to learn and run the plant while getting up to speed with the new project.” He leaned heavily on key members of the team, including Robert Hindt, plant administrative manager; Bruce Taylor, maintenance superintendent; Johnny Good, maintenance supervisor; Sonya Williams and Angela Gruenfelder, engineering support and lab operations; and Mark Ratliff, Charles Heine, Lewis Lockhart and Timothy McFarland, operations supervisors.

At the same time, smaller projects were in progress, including the rebuild of a denitrification filter, and installation of four new influent pumps (Flygt). Among the challenges were numerous shutdowns of equipment so the new lines and equipment could be tied into the process.

“There were countless shutdowns, countless samples to be taken and numerous meetings to organize everything,” Myers says. “There was a tremendous amount of coordination between the operations staff and the engineers. I would get the supervisors together to go over the shutdown requests. We walked the plant, they showed me around, and I signed off on them.

“There was one shutdown we called the blitz. They were replacing our only conveyor carrying biosolids from the centrifuges. We had 48 hours to get the new conveyor in before our storage tanks were full. There was very little room for error. Those were some really stressful times.”

Removing nutrients

In the new solids process, waste activated and primary sludges are gravity belt thickened separately (Alfa Laval) and fed to the digesters. Next comes the MagPrex process where salt is added and the material is aerated to precipitate struvite crystals, which remain in the biosolids; this prevents struvite formation in downstream piping and the centrifuges.

The centrifuges dewater the material to about 20% solids; the direct thermal dryer yields a Class A product at 95% solids. Synagro delivers most of the material to farms for application; one local farmer also takes the product.

On the liquid side, septage is received in a Raptor micro-strainer (Lakeside Equipment) that collects and compact solids and sends the liquid on to treatment. Influent passes through bar screens (Mahr), grit settling tanks and a grit classifier (WEMCO) and on to the primary clarifiers.

The secondary biological nutrient removal process uses anaerobic, anoxic and oxic zones. It’s followed by enhanced nutrient removal in seven denitrification filters (Leopold) where methanol is added as food for denitrifying bacteria in the sand-and-gravel media. After UV disinfection (WEDECO), effluent discharges to Little Patuxent River, a Chesapeake Bay tributary.

The plant operates well below permit nutrient limits designed to protect the bay. The county was able last year to sell a portion of its nutrient credits. The permit loading limit for nitrogen is 309,715 pounds per year; actual discharges were 83,228 pounds. Phosphorus discharges were 18,687 pounds against a permit limit of 23,358 pounds per year.

“We take a lot of pride in our phosphorus removal because we don’t use a lot of chemicals, Myers says. “Our influent contains a lot of soluble fatty acids. We believe that’s from the milk and ice cream plants that feed our system. We’re able to get a lot of phosphorus removal naturally in our aeration basins.”

Focus on trailing

It takes a well-trained and experienced team to deliver such results, Myers observes. Operators are encouraged to pursue increasing levels of licensing. “We offer training through Maryland Center for Environmental Training and the California State University, Sacramento, Office of Water Programs,” Myers reports. 

“MCET provides in-person classroom training and online training; the Sacramento program is self-paced with take-home tests. Once new operators pass the exam and have three years of experience, they receive a promotion to operator II.” 

Training was crucial during the transition to the new biosolids process; the focus has since turned to the wet side of the plant. Workdays include a turnover session after every shift so that the shift coming on knows what has happened in the plant previously.

Day by day, Myers relies on the team of supervisors for advice; that was especially true right after his arrival. “Every plant is different,” he says. “When you come into a new facility, you’re not going to know how that plant runs. It’s completely different, even if the theory is the same. Mixed liquor suspended solids at 2,500 mg/L may work at one plant, but at another plant you’ll violate at 2,500; you may need 3,000 or 3,500. You have to listen to the operators and supervisors.”

A separate maintenance division takes care of the water distribution system, the wastewater collection system and scheduled maintenance in the Little Patuxent plant. When operators on rounds find issues, a supervisor visits to assess the problem. If warranted, a work order is issued to the maintenance division with an assigned severity of 1 (needs immediate attention) to 4 (can wait a couple of weeks).

Looking ahead

At present, the GHD engineering firm is working on a facility site plan to cover the plant’s needs for the next 20 years. Meanwhile, several projects are in progress or recently completed. They include repairs to the denitrification filters in sequence, new rock traps for the septage receiving facility, and a sodium hypochlorite disinfection system for plant process water to prevent slime buildup in piping and pump cooling jackets.

Also in process is a pilot study for an automated wasting system for the aeration basins: “We’re having MLSS probes installed in the basins and the return activated sludge line so we can set up a program to waste automatically.”

For his career, Myers looks toward taking on increasing management and leadership responsibility, and he sees his master’s degree program helping. “It really emphasized teamwork,” he says. “In a lot of the classes I’ve taken, the final project had us in groups, all doing our part on a project and piecing it together at the end.”

For now, he enjoys his work situation: “I grew up playing outside most of the time. I’ve always enjoyed being outdoors fishing and hiking. Here, I’m not stuck in the office. I get out in the plant and walk around, and when there’s a problem, I go and check it out.

“No one wants to sit there and be bored at work all day. There’s always something happening. You can’t expect to come to work at a wastewater plant and have it be quiet. That’s not saying it isn’t stressful, but I do enjoy the challenge.”  


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