Ensuring Water Quality in West Virginia

As the state celebrates its 150th birthday, the West Virginia Environmental Training Center heads into its 28th year providing certification programs for wastewater and drinking water system operators
Ensuring Water Quality in West Virginia
Rich Weigand is a Certified Environmental Trainer and one of the country’s leading experts on wastewater and drinking water training.

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Richard Weigand’s introduction to the clean-water industry is familiar, but definitely far from boring. It began with a summer job during high school and college — four summers in fact — working for the Sanitary Board in the New Jersey town where he grew up. His interest in wastewater and water treatment flourished, and eventually led to a biological sciences degree and a Master’s degree in Environmental Science from Rutgers University. 

After college, Weigand oversaw water quality and training plant operators for a West Virginia county health department. When the West Virginia Environmental Training Center (WVETC) was built in Ripley in 1985, he made the transition into his current role as director of environmental training. 

A Certified Environmental Trainer, Weigand is one of the country’s leading experts on wastewater and drinking water training. He recently spoke with Water System Operator about operator training and certification in West Virginia, as well as national guidelines currently under development by the Association of Boards of Certification (ABC). 

His years of experience in the industry also give him some insights about the need for national operator training standards, and how national guidelines currently under development by ABC will add value to how states improve their guidelines. 

WSO: What was the charter of the WVETC when it was built and how has it changed over the past 20 years?

Weigand: West Virginia already had a state-funded wastewater training program when we built the center. So it was natural to build out the training program to include drinking water plant operators and related environmental professionals. Today, 90 percent of students are public utility employees already employed in a water, wastewater treatment or public utility. People who work for regulatory agencies, water industry consultants, industrial facility managers, and commercial service providers such as plumbers also attend our programs. 

WSO: How is the center staffed and who provides the training?

Weigand: One of the unique things about our training center is that every year, upwards of 40 or 50 instructors come in from our state and around the country to teach different classes — and all of them volunteer their time. For example, we might have a local operator with many years of pump maintenance experience who volunteers to teach that topic. Additionally, various mechanical equipment manufacturer representatives come in at least a half dozen times a year to explain, demonstrate and teach correct usage of their products. On occasion, we’ll also bring in a national expert to teach specialty workshops, such as microbiology, nutrient removal and clarifier performance. 

WSO: What specific types of classes does the center offer to fulfill certification requirements?

Weigand: We have two core types of program offerings. One is designed to help operators prepare for the exams required for licensure. The other is focused on recertification with continuing education courses to help make operators better at what they already do. Certification prep courses are four to five days. Attendees come into town for the week, with coursework Monday through Thursday. Then, while everything is still fresh in their minds, they take their exam on Friday. 

The state Health Department is our official certifying authority, and they administer exams right in our classrooms. We also make sure we schedule wastewater and drinking water programs at different times of the month so operators from both plants in one community are not out at the same time. Or, if the same manager has responsibility for both plants, he can attend each session to get recertified. For instance, a wastewater class would be held the first week of the month and the drinking water session the third week. 

WSO: Where are program attendees from?

Weigand: Because we’re funded today by the state Department of Education, our charter mandates that we provide training for people in this state, but we’re allowed to accept students from out of state, too. For example, if we bring in a national expert from across the country to lead a class in say, process control, we will have a lot of people coming from surrounding states. 

WSO: How are the curriculum and training materials developed? Have they changed significantly in three decades?

Weigand: It’s interesting that one of the biggest changes the center has seen is in presentation technologies. Years ago we were using 35 mm slides and overhead projectors. Today, a lot of the curriculum is delivered using PowerPoints and hands-on demonstrations. Fortunately for us, manufacturers of the equipment and machinery used in the wastewater treatment and drinking water plants have always been very generous in providing both training materials and equipment samples. 

Regarding curriculum development, my colleagues across the country, such as Bill Mixer, water quality technology instructor at Casper College in Wyoming, and Paul Krauth of the Utah Department of Water Quality, all try to leverage each other’s expertise by sharing course and presentation materials. 

WSO: What type of hands-on experience do students receive?

Weigand: We make every effort to build a lot of hands-on experiences into our program. For example, one of the workshops we offer is in microbiology. The class will spend time touring a local wastewater treatment plant and then have the opportunity to take measurements using a portable dissolved oxygen meter and collect samples, which are brought back to the classroom to examine under a microscope. This is always one of the most interesting parts of our class, especially when those attending don’t routinely work in their plant’s lab. 

Our goal is to show how what is seen under the microscope can be directly relatable to problems in the treatment process. For instance, a certain type of filamentous bacteria seen under the microscope may mean there’s not enough dissolved oxygen in the system and there’s a need to increase the amount of air in the process. We have an actual laboratory in our training center with pH meters and more, and we show students how everything is used and its importance in improving water quality. 

We also have a lot of the actual equipment involved in the treatment process, several of which, such as pumps, have been cut in half. And when a pump manufacturer leads a class, they will actually take one completely apart to show where problems occur and how to repair them. 

WSO: Does the WVETC encourage high school or college students to enter the wastewater treatment or drinking water fields?

Weigand: Because we’re funded by the state Department of Education, over the years I have done everything from teach kindergarteners about recycling to lecturing on water quality at state universities hoping to get students interested in the environmental field. Although my day-to-day focus is adult students, I’d never miss an opportunity to engage with students of any age, whether it’s an eighth grade career fair, a high school science event or a university lecture. 

WSO: What does the future hold for the program?

Weigand: Most of the training we’ve done for 20 to 25 years was for wastewater treatment or drinking water plant operators. However, we just got a grant to provide training for people who drill municipal or residential water wells. In West Virginia, we still have a lot of individual septic systems with installers who need training. Today, we are developing an onsite well and septic demonstration site where they can see different treatment systems actually installed. 

Over the past year and a half, we’ve installed six different types of systems — septic tanks, pump tanks, and home aeration units — on the property surrounding the WVETC. None are completely buried but are set halfway into the ground so they can be viewed and studied. It’s really exciting, and the goal is to complete another three or four additional types of installations this year. 

WSO: What impacts the delivery of effective training?

Weigand: I think one of the biggest problems we face across the country is that more and more municipalities are cutting back their training budgets. Fortunately in West Virginia, we have a state subsidy so we’re able to charge very low fees. For example, the current cost for someone to register for a weeklong session is only $65. It helps that almost all our instructors are volunteers — and they’re glad to contribute their time back to their own state training center. 

WSO: What do you feel the industry can do to improve wastewater and water system operator training? How is this related to the lack of national certification standards?

Weigand: With new technologies and stricter requirements, everyone has had to put in a lot more effort to keep up with newer water-quality standards. Stricter water-quality and wastewater regulations are coming down the line all the time; we have to be prepared to ensure our operators understand and can address these requirements. 

I’ve seen ABC’s draft national guidelines; it’s an excellent document. But it isn’t a national requirement, nor will the U.S. EPA make it so. I have no reason to believe that these draft guidelines won’t be adopted by ABC membership as a recommended national standard. And then it will still be up to each state to commit to oversight and improvement of their own guidelines. In West Virginia, we have a lot of ownership in our state’s water-quality standards after 20 or more years of work improving them. However, the ABC guidelines will be helpful for us, as well as for all states, to learn from those suggested standards. 

WSO: Do you believe the lack of consistent standards from state to state is a problem?

Weigand: I think it’s a relatively minimal problem. A small percentage of operators take advantage of training reciprocity from state to state. And although there are some differences in what different states require, we are all close enough that those issues are not significant. When someone certified in another state wants to move into West Virginia, we will recognize their certification, as other states do ours. 

Frankly, I don’t see individual states going through statutory procedures to adopt national standards. Instead, they undoubtedly will pick out pieces they can use from a model national standard to improve their own standards and certification requirements. Most states have invested too much effort in writing their own guidelines, have confidence in what they’ve done, and are not about to throw it out to adopt a national standard unless it would be federally mandated. But no one expects that to happen. 

The Safe Drinking Water Act prompted states to step up to the bar for drinking water operator training and testing. Unfortunately, there’s nothing in the Clean Water Act for wastewater operator training and testing. No one expects that to change. If the EPA were to ask us here in West Virginia, we’d tell them we’re meeting all recommended guidelines. So I don’t believe they will force a national standard for drinking water or wastewater treatment training. But as I said earlier, the ABC guideline is well written and when released will contain a lot of excellent ideas states might want to consider adding to their own guidelines. 

WSO: What are some of those ideas we’ll see in ABC’s national guidelines once they’re finalized?

Weigand: Their document is only in the comment phase right now, so it’s several months away from being released. However, ABC has always been a leader in job analysis by explaining what a Class I wastewater operator does, what they need to know, and what needs to be on certification exams. 

In West Virginia, we use ABC’s Need To Know documents to develop and write our certification exams. For example, we have much less math on a Class I certification exam because we realize that person doesn’t need to know a lot of details about how to set up a lab or do the requisite math. But we understand that a Class I operator should know how to tear apart and rebuild a pump if necessary. 

All our classes at the WVETC are geared to specific operator roles, functions and responsibilities — whether they’re Class I, II, III or IV. It’s our job as training providers and certifying agencies to clearly define what operators at every level need to know to protect water quality. That’s what we’re going to teach them and what we’re going to test them on.



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