They’re Not Making Any More Water. This Operator Is Intent on Seeing That What We Have Is Protected.

Operator James Hembree looks upon his dedication to cleaning and recycling wastewater as an article of faith.

They’re Not Making Any More Water. This Operator Is Intent on Seeing That What We Have Is Protected.

Tertiary filters at one of the Hallsdale-Powell Utility District’s two wastewater treatment plants.

The Lord God is not making any more water. It’s all being recycled. So we need to keep his water clean, and use the resources that he has given us wisely.”

This sums up James “Jim” Hembree’s take on wastewater treatment. A Grade IV operator with the Hallsdale-Powell (Tennessee) Utility District and its two wastewater treatment plants, Hembree has devoted his career to clean water. Since starting work in 1977, “I have just stuck to it and just tried to do my best to keep the water coming from our facilities clean and safe,” he says.

The fruits of Hembree’s labors were recognized with the 2021 Wastewater Operator of the Year award from the Tennessee Association of Utility Districts.


Born in 1956, Hembree grew up in the Knoxville neighborhood of Fountain City. Public service runs in the family. “My father was the manager of the First Utility District of Knox County, my mother was a medical staff coordinator at a Knoxville hospital, and my sister was a supervisor for Knox County Schools,” Hembree says.

He attended Harrison-Chilhowee Baptist Academy in Seymour, Tennessee, from 1972-75. “After graduating high school, I went to work for the Tennessee Valley Authority as a forestry aide,” he says. There he surveyed logging trails and roads, worked on tree-cutting plots, and served as a fishery, wildlife and biologist assistant.

In 1977, federal budget cuts hit the TVA. “The program I was in ran out of money, so I went looking for a new job,” says Hembree. “That brought him to his current place of employment.


In four and a half decades with the district, Hembree has worked his way up the ranks, gaining the practical experience and formal training to become a Grade IV operator, the highest level in the state. “When I started, the Beaver Creek Wastewater Treatment Plant only handled 2 mgd which meant the operator was very much a jack-of-all-trades,” he says. “I did the maintenance work, the repairs and pretty much whatever needed to be done.”

Since then the Beaver Creek plant has been expanded and upgraded to process up to 9.7 mgd. A second facility, the Raccoon Valley Wastewater Treatment Plant, opened in 1974 and was renovated in 2013. It can process up to 300,000 gpd. Hembree is assisted in his work by a small but able staff. “They all call me ‘The Operator,’ because I’ve been here the longest,” he says. “But we all work together to do the job.”

His team includes James Callaway, Grade IV operator, and John Carroll, Grade II operator, plus Jason Beil and Glen Hagerman. “Todd Dykes is our superintendent,” says Hembree. “He’s very knowledgeable because he has a microbiology degree. Our chief operator is Scott Hewitt, who has also done a lot of courses and has become very knowledgeable. We also have a lab crew that handles testing for both our water and wastewater plants.”


The district’s wastewater system is a complex combination of manholes, pipes, pumps and treatment facilities that serve some 22,000 customers. The district has more than 480 miles of sewer mains buried below its 146-square-mile service area. It also has 22 lift stations, 21 wastewater pumping stations, 9,753 manholes, and one storage tank.

The Beaver Creek plant processes the lion’s share of wastewater. Built in the 1960s, its liquid treatment facilities were upgraded in 2011, and the solids process was upgraded three years later by CTI Engineers. The upgrade included sludge thickening, which improved the aerobic digesters’ effectiveness while shortening run times for downstream dewatering processes.

This plant has gone from belt filter presses to dewatering centrifuges (Andritz) that produce cake at about 25% solids, reducing hauling and landfill costs. A drum thickener (Parkson Corp.) is used to dewater the digesters before the material is centrifuged.

The Beaver Creek plant is gravity fed, with an assist from Flygt pumps. “We have a Huber Technology screening system that removes solids, and then the wastewater is stored in our main tank before being sent to oxidation ditches,” Hembree says. “Sludge is sent to the digesters. When they are full, we aerate them, then extract the material, centrifuge it, and send it to landfill.” Beaver Creek also uses Kaeser blowers, and Wedeco UV disinfection systems (a Xylem brand).

The Raccoon Creek plant also uses aerobic digestion. A 2013 upgrade enabled it to handle more flow and still meet U.S. EPA and Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation requirements. Screened wastewater is trucked from Raccoon Creek to the Beaver Creek plant for final processing.

“We have changed a lot at our plants over the years,” Hembree says. “For instance, our oxidation ditches used to have brush aerators, but now we use a Parkson waterjet aeration system. It sends smaller bubbles from the bottom of our storage tank to improve aeration and the overall flow.

“We have also improved our screening process and frequently come out on top when our effluent is compared to those produced by other wastewater plants in eastern Tennessee.” Both plants have received multiple awards from the National Association of Clean Water Agencies and the Kentucky/Tennessee Water Environment Association.


Hembree has overcome a variety of challenges, including dyslexia. Now after 45 years in the wastewater business, he has pretty much seen it all, but when it comes to career highlights, one stands out: winning the Wastewater Operator of the Year award.

“To me, that’s a big deal because that shows how I have tried to do my best, even though I have failed from time to time,” he says. “So winning this award and getting to talk to so many people about my passion for clean water means a lot to me. It’s probably the biggest thing in this east Tennessee country boy’s work life!”

Hembree credits his faith for his success in life, along with the love of nature he first embraced while working at the TVA.

“I am a conservationist,” he says. “That’s just something that I’ve learned when I started working at TVA.” As for the future, “I plan to just keep doing what is right, and just praying that I can work until I’m 70. What keeps me going is the challenge of producing the cleanest water in all situations here in Powell, Tennessee.”  


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