Surprised by Recognition: This Operator's Unassuming Style Includes Building Great Rapport With His Team

Jeff LeMay builds a winning culture and sustains high performance by working closely with staff, regulators and his industry association

Surprised by Recognition: This Operator's Unassuming Style Includes Building Great Rapport With His Team

The team at the Joseph J. Carino Water Pollution Control Facility includes, from left, Wilfredo Garcia and Mike Wood, operators; Robert Butler, lead operator, process control; Tim Cronin, operator; Jeff LeMay, water pollution control facility supervisor; Tom Bjorkland, lead operator, maintenance; Mike Romejko, operator; Jared DeNardis, Daniel Kruger and Jim Kavanaugh, operators; and Jacob Plona, lead operator, collection system.

When Jeff LeMay got the call that he’d been named 2021 Regional Wastewater Operator of the Year by the U.S. EPA, “I kind of thought it was a joke,” he recalls.

“I get a call in my office and I pick up, and it’s somebody telling me they’re from the EPA. I’m like, okay. Your heart goes in your throat a little bit. Did something happen that I wasn’t aware of? Did something go wrong, or is this somebody messing with me?

“It was a gentleman telling me I won the award,” says LeMay, plant supervisor and Grade 4 operator at the South Windsor (Connecticut) Water Pollution Control Facility. He was nominated by the state Department of Energy & Environmental Protection , although he’s not sure by whom exactly. LeMay felt honored and humbled by the nomination: “I think how that happened is, I have very good rapport with a number of people down there.”

He believes that rapport comes from, among other things, working with the department on getting his operators certified at higher levels, and asking questions about the proper way to fill out bypass reports.

“If something goes wrong, it’s not enough to just fill out the Discharge Monitoring Report and attach something saying, ‘Hey, I’m sorry. We got a bad number this month.’ I call them and say, ‘This is what happened. We’ve done an internal review. We think this is why. How do you want me to handle that?’ Because the reality is, mistakes are made. Nobody is perfect, and you want to just be transparent.”

LeMay feels that rapport, along with excellent treatment numbers, probably led to the nomination. South Windsor consistently removes 98-99% of TSS and BOD and has nitrogen numbers that also fall well under permit.

LeMay collaborates with DEEP through the Connecticut Water Environment Association, for whom he serves as vice president and chair of the Legislative Committee: “We’re all trying to do the same thing; we all want to reach the same goal.” DEEP officials reached out to the organization after it was formed, looking to have regular meetings to determine how treatment plants across the state might best be helped in meeting their goals.

Plant and procedures

The South Windsor treatment plant’s headworks includes a bar screen and Muffin Monster grinder (JWC Environmental). A JWC bar rack removes rags, followed by a JWC wash press. The wastewater then moves into two aerated grit chambers.

After grit removal the stream flows to an influent wet well, powered by three 40 hp Flowserve pumps, each rated at 5.5 million gpd. Under normal conditions, any one pump can easily handle the flow. When brief flows over that 5.5 mgd occur, the other pumps rotate duty. The pumps convey the wastewater to three circular primary clarifiers (AMWELL).

When flows are very low, the plant can run on just two primaries, allowing more BOD to get through and giving the tank bacteria “a little extra food.” Hayward Gordon pumps move the primary sludge to two covered gravity thickeners, where it settles out to about 5% solids. It is then pumped to three holding tanks.

The primary effluent goes to a collection box and then into the anoxic zones in the two aeration basins. After aeration, mixed liquor not returned to the front of the anoxic zone goes to the secondary clarifiers. Nearly 100% of return activated sludge is also pumped back into the anoxic zone collection box.

“That’s where the bacteria and its food are all meeting each other,” LeMay says. “We are an MLE activated sludge process, but that process starts in our anoxic zones. It goes from there into the aeration basins, each of which have 1,300 fine-bubble diffusers.

“The internal recycle pumps at the end of aeration return at a four-to-one flow, back to our anoxic zones. Altogether, we’re running at about a five-to-one ratio of return between what we’re doing in internal recycle and with our RAS pumps. Whatever they’re not returning is getting wasted to a gravity belt thickener.’

Crews run a low three-day solids retention time, especially during summer. “Sometimes we’ll go down to a 2.7 and that seems really light,” LeMay says. “But especially in the summer, we don’t really need to carry a lot more inventory than that to get good treatment. Our anoxic tanks handle about 700,000 gallons, and our aeration basins are 600,000 gallons each. For about half the year, we only need to run one aeration basin.” Three 100 hp APG-Neuros turbo blowers satisfy one basin’s aeration demand.

Sludge wasted from secondary clarifiers goes to a gravity belt thickener where it is mixed with polymer and dewatered to 5-6% solids. That material is pumped to storage tanks separate from the primary sludge. During permit-required disinfection, May through September, flows run through a TrojanUV system. Effluent is discharged to the Connecticut River.

One issue is how to reduce biosolids volume, both in process and as a byproduct. “Down the line, it’s going to be a major challenge,” says LeMay. “Will we have to deal with PFAS in a permit somewhere? I’m sure at the very least we’ll need to be cognizant of what we have and how we’re going to manage it.” South Windsor’s biosolids hauling costs have gone up 35-40%.

LeMay says part of addressing this and other issues is looking at different solutions: “It’s a collaborative process, and some of that is working with regulators.” The South Windsor facility is also working with Eversource and Enel X on a demand response program. During periods of high electrical demand, plant runs on generator power for up to 25 hours per year, easing demand on the electrical grid. In return the utility provides up to $20,000 per year in incentives.

People matter

LeMay’s collaborative approach to plant operation extends to his management style. He’s a proud and unapologetic cheerleader for the industry, and that enthusiasm drives his every move as a manager: “For anybody thinking about entering the field, it just feels limitless. There’s so much to it.”

South Windsor has had great success hiring people skilled in other disciplines, people he describes as “just really sharp, good personality, problem solvers.” His appreciation of such colleagues began with Tom Bjorkland, who functions as lead operator in maintenance.

Having served in the Coast Guard as a chief machinery technician for 20 years, Bjorkland took every new team member under his wing. “He really wanted to make sure people understood the machinery, but also why it was important,” recalls LeMay. “Where is this material going? Where is it coming from? Why is it going there? What looks normal? What doesn’t?”

Another team member with a construction background, Robert Butler, came to South Windsor with no wastewater experience. Plant staff taught him wastewater operations specific to the facility, while leveraging the strengths he brought to the job. Eight years after being hired, he is now lead process control operator.

The team also includes Jacob Plona, lead collection system operator; Kathryn Foley, lab analyst; operators Tim Cronin, Jared DeNardis, Rico Garcia, Jim Kavanaugh, Mike Romejko and Mike Wood; and Tony Manfre, operator and pollution control superintendent.

“They’ve become phenomenal operators,” LeMay says. “It can be very fast-paced and dynamic,” LeMay says. “There are always new challenges. No two days are the same, and if you come in with a skill set that could benefit a facility, it’s just worth so much. Whether it’s electrical experience, whatever it might be, you can find a place for yourself in wastewater.”

The place to be

On top of that, “It’s just so rewarding. It’s so easy to go home and hang your hat every night on what you’re ultimately doing for the environment. There’s just so much job satisfaction. The jobs pay well, they’re very secure, and it’s a very exciting field. That’s what I would tell people who think they might want to get into the industry.”

Much of LeMay’s enthusiasm comes from working with the people in his new management class: “When we ask these folks about the best and worst leaders they’ve ever had, the worst ones are people who just stick you in one spot, leave you there and there’s no training. There’s no value to your opinion. There’s no real engagement.”

What the class stresses is the importance of people, and that’s what he tries to incorporate into his management style: “If you have people interested in different components of what you’re doing, encourage that. If they want to learn something new, teach them. If they want to get training in something new, give them the training.

“If there’s an opportunity to create slots where their license and performance, tied together, can lead into a higher position and ultimately more money, give them the opportunity to do that because that keeps people engaged.”

The first rule he goes by is the importance of truly listening. “Don’t make a crew meeting something where you’re just telling your folks what’s going on, and then you get up and leave,” he says. “You need people to feel they have a voice; that if they give an opinion, they’re going to be heard.”

It doesn’t mean he will implement all suggestions, “but nine times out of 10, I do end up going with an idea that one of them has, because they’re out there in the field. They’re the ones doing the work. If you hire the right people and the right personalities, and you keep them upbeat and positive and feeling like they’re making a difference, they’re going to perform for you.”

Encouraging initiative

LeMay’s management approach also includes a balance of accountability and indulgence. He recalls a piece of equipment in South Windsor’s grit elevators that wasn’t working properly. An operator brought it to his attention. LeMay asked whether the work could be handled in-house. The operator replied, “Let me get a couple other guys on it. We’ll go through the manual. I think we can do it.”

The crew buttoned everything up and told LeMay everything was working well, but a little while later an off-shift alarm came in. Something had gone wrong. The crew came back in and found and corrected a couple of small things they had overlooked.

The next day the operator who had expressed confidence in the in-house fix apologized to LeMay, visibly contrite. “There shouldn’t have been a callout,” he said. “I told you it was all set.” LeMay realized it would serve no purpose to pile on blame and guilt.

“I’m not going to hammer you over that,” he replied. “It would have cost an arm and a leg to hire a contractor to fix that problem. Instead, our guys figured it out. Did it go exactly how you planned? No. Did it take a little bit more time than you thought it would? Yeah. But ultimately, you fixed it. Now we know we can do that ourselves.”

He knows that some managers might look at that situation and come down on the operator: Look what you did. You cost us extra money! There was more overtime involved. What were you doing? LeMay plays the long game.

“How many times do you do that to somebody, before they never go above and beyond again?” he asks. “At some point they just say, ‘This is all I’m going to do. I’m not going to hang myself out there.’ You need to foster an environment where people are willing to try new things, and you need to not destroy them over their mistakes.”

LeMay’s approach weaves a teacher’s patient temperament with a hands-on style that makes every member of the team feel appreciated and motivated. They know it all matters, and they’re not invisible in the process.


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