From Abandoned Plant to High-Tech Wastewater University

What's old is new again in Maine. There, a hands-on training center breathes life into a shuttered treatment plant, filling a critical need for water and wastewater operators.
From Abandoned Plant to High-Tech Wastewater University
The Carleton Pond facility, which was closed in 2004 by the Greater Augusta Utility District after a former meat plant and major water user ceased production, could become the training ground for future water and wastewater operators.

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A once-shuttered water treatment plant could find new life as a one-of-a-kind, hands-on training center for future water and wastewater operators.

Built in 1992 for $12 million, the Carleton Pond facility was closed in 2004 by the Greater Augusta Utility District after a former meat plant and major water user ceased production.

Located on a 700-acre site about 10 miles northwest of Augusta, Maine, the district had considered demolishing the plant until approached last year by the Maine Rural Water Association.

In what has become a joint partnership, the association believes a training facility could not only take the aging facility off the tax role, but also help fill a critical need for workers.

“We’re looking for new people to come in, so that’s going to be helpful,” says Ken Knight, chairman of the district’s board of trustees. “The other thing is it takes a facility that’s not doing much at the moment and helps make it a viable source of income. So I think it’s very positive that way long term. This saves it from being demolished, and I think that’s a win-win for the ratepayers and taxpayers.”

Maine has 2,000 regulated water supply and 175 wastewater treatment facilities. About 41 percent of its operators are between the age of 50 and 59, and another 15 percent are between 60 and 69. According to the Water Environment Association, up to 55 percent of those workers are expected to retire in the next 10 years.

“If we are able to help the industry and help our membership by bringing people into the industry that may not have otherwise thought about doing so, that’s a huge win for our membership,” says Kirsten Hebert, executive director for the Maine Rural Water Association.

MRWA trains about 1,000 water and wastewater operators each year and is looking to partner with the Kennebec Valley Community College to provide instruction at the plant.

In addition to attracting students to the program, Hebert hopes the center can help retrain workers displaced by a paper mill closure last December in Bucksport, Maine, which left about 500 jobless.

“We’ve been in touch with the Department of Labor in hopes of partnering with them on an apprenticeship or training program for dislocated workers,” she says.

In March, the utility district presented the association with a one-year commercial lease that includes use of the plant and access to the water source. Discussion is underway on a follow-up five-year lease. And an engineering firm has donated time to provide conceptual drawings that will serve as the foundation for a future business plan. Knight’s goal is to have the drawings in hand by the end of April.

Hebert says the one-year lease is a good-faith effort by both boards to show they want to move forward with the school.

“We talked about hosting a couple of classes there this year just for the sake of getting interest up and letting people know this is coming,” she says. “I don’t necessarily know the timing of that. My guess would be toward late summer or early fall.”

Without remodeling, Hebert says the treatment plant could accommodate 20 students. The goal is to have the facility ready for hands-on classroom instruction by late 2016.

Program details are still being discussed. Suggestions include an 18-month certificate or one- or two-year courses. The goal would be for students to earn a water operator or wastewater operator license.

The association is also seeking donations for lab equipment and assessing what it might take to turn the former treatment plant into a hands-on learning center.

“I will be looking for any and every dollar that’s not nailed down,” Hebert says.

Along with private donations, Hebert is pursuing grant money for training and assistance as well as in-kind donations from industry representatives willing to assist with a business plan or provide students with educational insight about pumps, SCADA systems and other industry technology. 

For more information on donating or assisting this project, please contact Kirsten Hebert at kirstenh@mainerwa.org.



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