A Call for National Certification Standards

Led by Utah’s Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ), agencies there collaborate to improve wastewater treatment operator training
A Call for National Certification Standards
Paul Krauth, P.E., outreach coordinator for Utah’s Division of Water Quality.

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The U.S. EPA’s 1999 guidelines for certification and recertification of public water system operators avoid mandates for these programs, allowing states to make their own certification requirement decisions so long as water-quality standards are being met. 

However, the EPA did provide funding for operator training programs and centers, in addition to on-site technical assistance and training. States were the funding beneficiaries of these programs, which were often provided in cooperation with educational institutions or nonprofit agencies. 

Today, states are creating and maintaining their own training programs as federal funding dwindles. For example, the Kentucky Water and Wastewater Operators Association will host its 56th annual conference in April. The three-day event offers training, product demonstrations and an opportunity for operators to network with each other. 

The work being done at the state level should not be discounted. But some in the industry believe state associations need support through national standards for more uniform training and education. 

According to Paul Krauth, P.E., outreach coordinator for Utah’s Division of Water Quality, nearly all of the money the Federal government provided annually for training programs across 46 states has been lost to budget cuts begun in 2006. As a result, training centers have closed and many community colleges have stopped offering operator training. Krauth talked about training issues and the need for national standards in an interview with Treatment Plant Operator

TPO: What has been the overall impact of these training budget cuts?

Krauth: We are spending billions of dollars to build new wastewater plants with some of the most sophisticated and advanced technologies we’ve ever had, but we’re falling down in our commitment to ensure that those who operate them are properly trained. 

TPO: How could the emphasis on this training have slipped so dramatically in less than a decade?

Krauth: As the EPA’s training funds under the Clean Water Act began to disappear, so did a lot of other funding sources. Many community colleges shifted their offerings from trade/technical curriculums to computer, office and business courses – or became universities without vocational programs. Vocational schools began closing nationwide and with them, a lot of trainers running those programs were also lost. Operator turnover rates at small wastewater treatment plants were high, municipal budgets and salaries were stressed, and community support waned. Wastewater operator training somehow became less important a lower priority. 

TPO: What’s being done to attract people to careers in the water treatment industry? It would seem that to bring back training programs, there needs to be demand for them.

Krauth: Other than efforts spearheaded by the Water Environment Federation, there’s no nationwide effort I’m aware of to elevate this as a career option. However, as president of the Water Environment Association of Utah, I see our organization reaching out to future water professionals at career fairs in high schools. The pay scale for these jobs today is generating a lot more interest than in the past. And, because people will continue to flush and continue to drink water, this is a career with job security, too. 

TPO: If efforts like these help grow interest in wastewater careers, what is the next hurdle to rebuilding training programs?

Krauth: I think the biggest problem is that there are no minimum national training or certification standards required for the people who treat and return wastewater to streams and waterways. 

The Safe Water Drinking Act mandates – and even reimburses – required training for drinking water treatment operators. But there’s no requirement on the wastewater side. That’s unfortunate, because what’s coming out of our sewage treatment plants should be as important as what comes out of our taps. I’m on a committee of the Water Environment Federation that is working toward a national standard for certification requirements. Although states will still set a lot of their own training requirements, we feel it’s important there be baseline requirements for all states. 

TPO: If all these organizations are focused on improving training and certification standards, then what’s standing in the way of it happening?

Krauth: Well, I think one issue is some concern whether training actually helps make operators more effective at their jobs, or just helps them pass their next certification test. Also, very few regional or state agencies coordinate with or support each other’s training programs. 

Utah’s a big state but we have a lot of non-populated areas; we have only 39 large mechanical treatment plants processing 30 to 50 million gallons a day. However, we have many smaller facilities that still need licensing, another 800 operational staff that need ongoing training, and more who are maintenance staff and who only need to meet minimal requirements. 

But Utah is a bit ahead of the curve because, although we have multiple agencies coordinating certification and licensing training across the state, these agencies sit down together once a year and work out their offerings on a common calendar. This ensures we that have a variety of programs, at different times and in different locations throughout the state. We then jointly publish and widely promote an annual schedule of courses and classes. This promotes cost-efficiency, and the environmental benefits are invaluable. 

It may be easier to do this in Utah because the State Division of Water Quality is the regulatory agency and can require all agencies to work together. For-profit training organizations operating in other states are sometimes competitive, and it may be harder to get them working together. 

TPO: Why aren’t other states following the same model?

Krauth: Utah is strong in continuing education requirements for wastewater treatment plant operators. We see this as a profession: just because you received your license, doesn’t mean you’re done. In fact, we have continuing education requirements for all those running any wastewater collection or water or wastewater treatment systems. 

Cities are handing treatment plant operators the keys to their largest capital investment – costing more to build and operate than their water distribution system – but not supporting them in the job. These operators may be at the helm of a $10 million facility, but sometimes municipalities or districts won’t spend $1,000 to keep their skills updated. The effectiveness of these facilities can fall apart pretty quickly if we don’t keep those in charge continuously trained in how to maintain them. Training has to be a ‘must do’ not a ‘nice to do.’ 

TPO: Why are national standards so important?

Krauth: Every state has a different spin on what’s needed, which is why national requirements for what operators need every year or two to stay current are so important. Water and sewer treatment technologies have exploded exponentially over the past 10 years. We’re building wastewater treatment plants that put out better water than some drinking water plants do, particularly in regard to allowable levels of metals. And that requires expertise that needs to be kept up-to-date. 

TPO: What are those concerned about the lack of national standards for treatment plant operator certification and training suggesting?

Krauth: For a long time we were unaware of all the chemicals impacting water quality. Today the pollutants these systems need to deal with include bacteria more resistant to drugs, estrogens, testosterones, drug residues, and more. We are probably only a few training credits away from a repeat of the Cryptosporidium outbreak in Milwaukee some years ago, or the deaths from dysentery in Haiti after recent earthquakes there. 

The diversity of certification programs in this country is staggering. And if you have 50 states doing things 50 different ways, you’re bound to have some dissonance every once in a while. 

With that in mind, industry groups such as Association of Boards of Certification (ABC) have taken a greater leadership role in the development of national program standards for operator certification. An international organization that works with the majority of states, Canadian provinces and tribal water utilities, ABC has been working with its U.S. members and advisory boards to develop more specific guidelines for operator continuing education, training and certification renewals. That document is currently being circulated for comment among industry leaders and ABC’s constituents, and we’re looking forward to seeing those guidelines rolled out in the very near future. 

Hopefully we’ll see everyone adopting these guidelines, because we all literally live downstream from what goes into our lakes and waterways; it eventually comes right back to us. 

Today, you’re not just a sewer plant operator, you’re a public health officer responsible for protecting public health. And you better know how to do that job well.


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