Even COVID Couldn’t Upset This Award-Winning Clean-Water Plant Operations Team

A top-performing team in Georgia’s Clayton County adds a Plant of the Year Award to a long list of honors at the Northeast Water Reclamation Facility

Even COVID Couldn’t Upset This Award-Winning Clean-Water Plant Operations Team

The team at the Northeast Water Reclamation Facility includes, from left, Keith Kiblinger, chief operator; Carmen Burns, operator; Kentson Parks, plant worker; and Herlon Fayard, plant manager.

Whether it’s biosolids, safety, or overall plant performance, the Northeast Water Reclamation Facility staff gets the job done. 

Even the COVID pandemic couldn’t upset the award-winning operation, which Herlon Fayard Jr., manager of the plant in Clayton County, Georgia, describes as a team effort. “Everybody here does everything,” he says. “There’s nothing we won’t do. We work well together. You could say we’re a triple crown winner.” 

Smooth operation 

Located in the unincorporated area of Rex, Georgia, the Northeast facility is designed to handle 10 mgd, with a peak capacity of 25 mgd. Average flow is 4 mgd. The facility serves about 18,000 sewer connections in northern Clayton County, about 20 miles south of Atlanta.   

Influent enters the plant through a raw-water pumping station, powered by six pumps (Flygt, a Xylem brand), and then passes to two preliminary influent structures with fine screens (Parkson Corp.). A PISTA grit system (Smith & Loveless) follows.

The flow bypasses the primary clarifiers so that, given the low flow relative to design, adequate nutrients are fed to the biological nutrient removal process. The water enters an anaerobic and anoxic basin, and then passes into aeration basins with Schreiber diffusers (Parkson). The treated water flows through a mixed liquor return station into circular secondary clarifiers. Tow Bro sweepers (Ovivo) remove solids. 

The water then is pumped to a flocculation tank and is drawn off to a battery of Fuzzy Filter compressible media filters (Parkson). It is disinfected in a UV system (Wedeco - a Xylem Brand) before discharge to Panther Creek. 

Biosolids are pumped to centrifuges (Andritz) The ERTH Products composting firm picks up about 20 dry tons of dewatered cake per week. With housing developments advancing to within 1,000 yards of the plant perimeter, BIOREM odor-control systems have been installed. A SCADA system (MR Systems) automates and monitors plant functions. Fiber optics link 24 remote access points. 

Recognized for excellence 

The Northeast plant was built in 1971 as a treatment pond with drying beds for solids. It was upgraded to secondary treatment four years later and expanded in 2007 before the recession of 2008. “The planned community growth didn’t happen, and we’re basically running half the plant,” Fayard says. “The anticipated growth has been pushed out to 2052.” 

The facility’s outstanding performance and efficient operation have earned it numerous awards.

Perhaps the most prestigious is 2020-21 Plant of the Year (category for plants between 6.0 and 9.9 mgd) from the Georgia Association of Water Professionals. Fayard is proud of the accolade, pointing to the facility’s cleanliness, consistent permit compliance and the safety. 

“Grading you against other people head-to-head makes it fun,” Fayard says. “It’s a 32-page questionnaire and you get to see how you’re doing. We’ve been number one on a couple of occasions in the past, and it makes me feel good that we’re carrying on that tradition.” 

No less significant, the facility won the George W. Burke Jr. Safety Award from the Georgia Water Environment Association and GAWP in 2021. “I’m a bear on safety,” Fayard says. “We do fire drills, inventory personal protective equipment, and test this and that on a continuous basis.” As of late 2022, the facility’s last lost-time accident was in 2016. 

Biosolids awards have come from GAWP and the U.S. EPA, both for recycling of the dewatered material. Before contracting with ERTH Products, the plant maintained its own composting facility on the grounds. 

Quality team 

As usual, it’s the staff that makes the facility tick and achieve such high performance. The facility is staffed 24/7, with two operators, the plant manager and chief operator, a plant worker on the day and afternoon shifts and two operators on the midnight shift. 

The crew uses JD Edwards/Oracle, a daily, weekly, and monthly work order system that keeps everything and everyone up to date. Keith Kiblinger is chief operator, serving under Fayard. “You couldn’t ask for a better chief operator, “says Fayard. “He’s beyond dedicated and passionate about what he does. He facilitates all the preventive and corrective maintenance and fills in when I am away from the plant. He’s my go-to guy for anything at the facility.”

Operator Crystal Dodson works midnights. “She’s dependable, works lots of overtime and completes our weekly microscopic exams,” says Fayard. “She’s willing to complete any task and is a 100% team player.” Keri Gable also works midnights, fills out the plant’s daily Water Information Management System reports and collects all permit-required samples.

On the day shift, Daniel Hudgins is the longest tenured operator. “He has lots of historical knowledge,” Fayard says. “He maintains our Fuzzy Filters and does all our stormwater sampling and daily lab tests.”

Carmen Burns joins him and assists Kiblinger with daily preventive maintenance. The newest member of the operations team is Miracle Johnson, a U.S. Army veteran who has recently completed the plant’s operator trainee program. All operators are certified Class 1 (highest) except Johnson, who is Class 3.

The Northeast Plant looks sharp, and that results from the efforts of Kentson Parks. He maintains the entire facility from sweeping and mopping the buildings to pressure-washing around the facility and cutting grass. He also assists with maintenance when needed. 

The team is smart and dependable. “We depend on our folks to do their jobs; they know what we have to do,” Fayard says. “We maintain an easy approach. If you need help, I’m here, but I don’t stand over your shoulder. We work well together, hand in hand.” 

Kiblinger supports that assessment. “This has been a great place to work for the last 23 years,” he says. “What makes us click? One word: professionals. With this group, it’s amazing the minimal amount of instruction required.” He most enjoys helping newcomers study for the wastewater exams: “When they pass, it makes me proud.” 

Dodson observes, “The way the staff clicks is by passing along crucial information and being able to go above and beyond what is required of each operator to ensure that shifts run smoothly. I view my job as part of a whole because it takes all three shifts to make the plant function.”

Fayard says communications and sensitivity toward others are keys to success: “I have a way I like to do things. I’m very organized and like things neat and clean and orderly. When I came here it was a new group. I needed to see how they did things, and then adjust to make it work for all of us. You learn about your staff by listening and understanding. Some have kids, or grandkids, or grown kids. Every person is different, with a different personality.” 

Dealing with COVID 

The camaraderie and dedication were at no time more evident than during the COVID pandemic. “We worked 12-hour shifts and kept people here to keep from spreading the virus,” says Fayard. “We put out good water every day and had no violations. There were no complaints on overtime and no overtime pay. Our team simply jumped in and took care of things.” 

While staff is the strength of the plant, it’s also the biggest challenge facing Fayard and the operation. “Finding new people is more and more difficult,” he says. “We’re getting older. Yet it’s hard to find people with mechanical aptitude who are interested in this type of work.” He observes that recruits aren’t looking for a 30-year career; they have their sights set on the next 30 months. 

The tests for certification can also be a barrier. Fayard says new exam versions are difficult for some potential operators. He cites four or five candidates recently who didn’t pass. To find more people, the county utility sponsors in-house training for anyone showing an aptitude with mechanical systems. 

“Our training program lasts 18 months,” Fayard says. “We bring in the classes that candidates need and give them the opportunity to take the test as many times as needed.” 

While finding and hiring qualified operators remains the main issue, other challenges include tighter regulations on effluent permits, which Fayard refers to as “a natural progression.” PFAS loom large, as is the case nearly everywhere across the country. 

But Fayard remains confident about the future: “We have amazing redundancy and are experiencing just half our design flow. We have spare parts for just about everything. Realistically, we are in a really good spot.”


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