Learning From the Godfather: This Operator and Superintendent Got His Start as a Child

Tucker Randles got his introduction to the clean-water professions as a kid. Now he’s a deputy plant superintendent with his eye on Ohio’s highest license.

Learning From the Godfather: This Operator and Superintendent Got His Start as a Child

From left, Travis Breeden, Howard Cornell, Doug Barry, Tucker Randles, and Keith Fleming with the primary sludge pump (Flygt - a Xylem Brand).

William “Tucker” Randles got his introduction to wastewater from his godfather, who was a plant superintendent.

After starting his career as an operator, Randles is now deputy superintendent of the wastewater treatment plant in Zanesville, in the Appalachian foothills of eastern Ohio.

He oversees operations, supervises the plant team, and is starting to lead a capital improvement project.

His godfather, Gene Mathias, started as an operator in Coshocton, Ohio, and for the last 10 years of his career was plant superintendent there. “As a kid I spent some time down there with him, got to know the plant, and got to see everything,” says Randles. “He was always happy with the work he was doing.” 

When the city needed an operator, Mathias gave Randles a recommendation. He started in 2008, studied at the Operator Training Committee of Ohio, put in the mandatory year of hands-on experience, and passed his Class I license exam. He also worked at the Coshocton water plant and picked up a Class I water license.

With the dual licensing, Randles worked a year at Pickaway Correctional Institution near Columbus, which had both water and wastewater plants serving the prison and surrounding community. In 2012, he moved on to Columbus and worked there for nine years, advancing to supervisor. He took the job in Zanesville in 2021.

Valued education

Randles grew up in the small town of Warsaw, still lives there, and commutes 50 minutes south to Zanesville. He earned an associate degree in environmental science at Zane State College.

In his previous supervisory job, he didn’t do much with budgets, ordering parts or preparing change-of-operations forms. Scott Brown, wastewater superintendent, taught him all that. “Going before city council, I’d never done that previously,” Randles says. “Scott really showed me how to be professional in talking to people.”

As deputy superintendent, Randles oversees the Zanesville plant’s 33 team members and daily operations. That includes meeting with Doug Barry, maintenance foreman, and Brandon Fink, chief operator, Fink to learn how the plant is doing day to day. It also means coordinating with vendors to order parts, assigning work to budget lines, and interacting with Clint White, pretreatment coordinator, and Steve Shirley, collections system supervisor.

Wastewater in the plant flows through two grit tanks, three primary clarifiers, three AccuPac trickling filters (Brentwood Industries), an activated sludge process, four secondary clarifiers and two chlorine gas disinfection tanks.

Biosolids are pumped to a single pit followed by a WEMCO gravity thickener (Trillium Flow Technologies) and two anaerobic digesters. A 2-meter belt press (Komline-Sanderson) produces cake hauled by a contractor (Little Farms) for land application. Digester gas fires two boilers (Bryan Steam, LLC) that heat the digesters. Excess gas is flared.

The plant (11 mgd design, 7 mgd average) was built in 1959 and serves about 18,000 customers, with an annual budget of $7 million. Under a schedule Randles created, operators work 12-hour shifts.

“They now get three days off one week and four days off the next week,” he says. “So far they have really liked it. I think going forward it makes us more competitive for hiring people. Since COVID, it seems people value more time off and more time with their families.”

Looking at upgrades

Randles and his team are preparing for a $20-$25 million capital improvement project that would affect almost every plant process. CTI Engineers is doing the design. Randles’ job includes leading the project and helping with the design and budget that will be presented to the city council for approval.

One project goal is to redo the headworks, replacing the current submersible pumps with screw pumps. The plan also calls for adding a second automated screen, combining the grit system with the primary pumps in the same building and adding a new septage receiving station. Also on the list is replacing chlorine gas disinfection with UV or sodium hypochlorite.

The plan also calls for replacing the trickling filters with another activated sludge train or with more capacity in the current train. “The challenge with the trickling filters is we don’t have a way of bypassing them,” Randles says. When the flow drops, there are odor issues, and the filters are a breeding ground for snails. Their shells build up in tanks and plug pumps; they need to be removed periodically with a vacuum truck.

Higher certification

Recently, with encouragement from Brown, Randles applied for his Class IV (highest) wastewater license. “It was always in the back of my mind as something I wanted to do, but I didn’t know if I was able to do it myself,” says Randles.

Preparing the application took about a year. To qualify, an operator must supervise plant operations, and a Class IV operator must attest to the applicant’s skills, experience and job duties.

Each application has 12 sections, including a section on research, for which Randles did a six-week study of ammonia levels in the collections system. “The outcome, if you get your Class IV, is that you could go to any plant in Ohio, and on day one you would be able to start operating that facility,” he says.

His application was 150 typed pages. With additions that included a copy of the plant NPDES permit, flow charts, lab data and training program outline for incoming operators, the total exceeded 300 pages.

The next step is for the Ohio EPA to review the application, which takes two to three months. The Operator Certification Advisory Council will then send notes and comments to which Randles will need to respond; another round of questions may follow.

Quality performance

In the meantime, Randles and his team have maintained a high-performing facility and have earned recognition for their work. Randles received the 2022 Professional Wastewater Operations Award from the Ohio Water Environment Association. In the same year the plant received a Resource Conservation Award in the non-agricultural division from the Muskingum Soil and Water Conservation District. 

“We work with the county, and all the county flow comes here into the plant,” Randles says. Various industries are located in the county, including a Dollar General warehouse, two bakery plants and a meat processing plant for the White Castle restaurant chain.

Randles joined the OWEA during his time in Columbus when his superintendent mentioned that it included a group for young professionals. Randles worked to get younger people interested in wastewater operations and helped organize contact hours for training young operators.

He is now in his second year on the board of directors for the association’s southeast section, where he helps set up training and organize plant tours. He considers OWEA meetings a great place to talk to other operators about issues they’ve experienced.

One current topic is finding qualified applicants. In Zanesville the solution was to create an operator-in-training position. “We had an operator position come open, and no one who applied had a license,” says Randles. The operator-in-training position, which aims to take a person from zero experience to basic licensing, attracted five applicants.

After starting from the bottom in his own career, Randles aspires to help someone else along the same path.


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