$300 Million Wake-Up Call Leads to Streak of Accolades

$300 Million Wake-Up Call Leads to Streak of Accolades
The Wayne County (Mich.) Downriver Wastewater Treatment Facility, which serves almost 350,000 area residents, received its second Platinum Peak Performance Award at NACWA’s Summer Conference and Annual Meeting in July.

The non-compliance lawsuit filed against the Wayne County (Mich.) Downriver Wastewater Treatment Facility in the mid-1980s was not only a shock to the communities served by the facility, it was a wake-up call. It took a $300 million investment to bring the facility back in compliance. 

Built in 1929, like any other aging treatment plant, ongoing maintenance and periodic upgrades were a must. But, for a number of reasons, the needed upgrades were deferred and some maintenance work was unaddressed until the EPA lawsuit prompted reinvestment in the system, which serves 13 communities in Wayne County. 

“We had a massive non-compliance streak back then, and the lawsuit by the EPA was a hard pill to swallow,” says Plant Superintendent Firooz Fath-Azam, P.E. “But it forced the realization that regular investments in this facility were not only necessary, it would be less expensive in the long run.” 

Decades of change 

The facility’s turnaround started in the mid-1990s and continues to this day. In fact, the plant, which serves almost 350,000 area residents and treats up to 225 mgd, was recently recognized for outstanding compliance with their NPDES permit limits. The facility, which is one of the few facilities in the nation with older infrastructure and significant wet-weather flow volumes, received its second Platinum Peak Performance Award at NACWA’s Summer Conference and Annual Meeting in July. 

It’s also the first large wastewater treatment facility in Michigan to be so recognized. According to Fath-Azam, since 2004 the facility has won one silver, five gold and two platinum NACWA awards, which represent violation-free operation across more than 1,000 parameters or limits per year that must be met. 

Daniel Alford, P.E., assistant plant superintendent, adds, “Fortunately, our communities now recognize the importance of investing in their sewage treatment facility. It’s no different than the continuous effort needed to maintain your own home. Except in this case, the investment by those who benefit from the plant’s efficient operation is $10 to $15 million annually.” 

Employees make the difference 

Although the plant has undergone several major improvements since the lawsuit, including a recent $4 million upgrade to further automate operations, and comprehensive staff reorganization a decade earlier, there’s no hesitation from either Fath-Azam or Alford when it comes to assigning credit for the NACWA recognition. 

“This is still about people,” Fath-Azam says. “Although our most recent automation upgrades brought us to a full control situation where we can monitor and make necessary changes much faster and more efficiently than ever before – including remotely – it’s our employees that ensure problem-free operations. And although we have about 50 percent fewer staff than we did 10 years ago, they’re incredibly hardworking.” 

The treatment facility staff also takes considerable care to maintain a positive relationship with the communities it serves. A few years back a comprehensive project plan was developed to project needs 20 years into the future. The plan, which is updated every five years, advises the member communities how much money is needed from them annually to operate and to fund maintenance and upgrades. 

It also helps guarantee that lawsuits will remain a thing of the past, and that accolades for this state-of-the-art, world-class facility are likely to continue rolling in.


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