Goscicki: Privatization best for sewer plants

Aug. 05, 2013 @ 01:01 PM

Union County favors privatizing its wastewater treatment plant operations to solve problems, even though the state said plant operations are working well.

Union County Public Works Director Ed Goscicki said the treatment plant needs to be more reliable. N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources Division of Water Quality inspectors found a list of problems during a January visit to the plants. He feels that privatizing operations is the best way to fix those problems.

The 12 county treatment plant employees are upset. They might not be hired on by the company the county chooses to contract with. Even if they did keep their job, they will lose their current health and retirement benefits.

But their biggest complaint is that staff has tried all along to follow state standards and worked hard along side state officials to improve plant operations.

DWQ is not mandating the county transfer of control of operations , DWQ Spokeswoman Susan Massengale said. There was never an investigation into Union County WWTP operations. A 2012 violation was the only operations problem with Union County in almost five years, Massengale said.

“There was an unacceptable result for chlorine back in July, but that was really just a result of staff getting their house back in order,” she said.

But six months ago there was a communication problem between county and state officials that prompted talk of shutting the plants down.

Each year, certified labs must submit samples to be tested for certain substance concentrations.

“As a certified lab, they must run tests periodically to ensure their testing equipment is running properly,” Massengale said.

In 2011, DWQ sent Union County notice that they needed to test for phosphorous. That letter went without a response. John Hahn was plant superintendent at the time. The state expected Hahn to submit the test results or explain why they had not been done. But Hahn went two years without testing for phosphorous.

In 2012, the state received no test results for water conductivity. The state decertified the laboratory at the Crooked Creek WWTP to test for phosphoros and conductivity.The state required them to cease testing for 60 days. But Hahn did not tell his staff, so testing continued.

Early in 2013, DWQ officials traveled to Union County and met with Hahn and Public Works management. At the end of their Jan. 30, 2013, meeting, county and state officials signed an agreement to fix all the problems that inspectors found inside the plant. Water and Wastewater Division Manager Michael Moler agreed to voluntarily suspend testing for six parameters and contract an outside company to perform testing until problems were resolved.

“But we never shut Union County down,” Massengale said. “If there had been no agreement and if the county hadn’t worked to get back in compliance, we would have shut it down, but the staff worked with us to get their house in order.”

For the last six months, Union County treatment plant employees have worked closely with DWQ officials to fulfill the agreement.

“They are very close to being back up to speed,” DWQ Environmental Program Supervisor for Laboratory Certification Dana Satterwhite said. “They’ve demonstrated proof for all parameters except one or two, but we expect that to be complete within a week.”

When told what DWQ officials said, Goscicki said there still needs to be better control at the plants.

“The state has requirements for being in compliance with certain reulations,” Goscicki said. “From the perspective of the people who are responsible for the operation, we weren’t satisfied with the business practices. We want to make the operations at these plants exceedingly reliable.”

Reliability means having plans in place for all possible situations. In January, inspectors found databases in disarray and sticky notes explaing testing proceedures instead of formal written operating proceedures. There was no plan for equipment maintenance, and no maintence was performed for most of 2012. Equipment failure caused major problems last year that could easily have been avoided with regular maintenance.

“That’s the type of operations that we can’t continue any more,” Goscicki said.

Violations harm the environment and carry hefty fines from the state, depending on the type and severity of the offense.

To get the plants and employees up to speed would require three years training with a team of contracted experts, Goscicki said.  

“We could not afford to do that internally,” he said.

Hiring a private company with a whole team of resources to establish business practices, develop new proceedures and train others seemed to be the most effecient use of time and taxpayer money.

“The decision on this was not the laboratory decertification. It was based on issues observed by management over the years,” Goscicki said.

But workers said most plant operations problems ended when Hahn retired. Eight plant employees contacted the media this week. Most did not want to be named for fear they would be fired. But laboratory coordinator Heather Mullis said someone needed to give the employees’ side of the story.

“We are not doing this because we’re disgruntled employees,” Mullis said. “The twelve of us have worked very hard to get the plants in the kind of order the state wants.”

She took over laboratory supervision in February. She found that Hahn did not relay some of the plant data onto the state, nor did he inform employees of all necessary policy and reporting proceedures.

With DWQ chemists’ guidance, she rewrote all proceedure and testing manuals. In six months worth of email correspondence between Mullis and DWQ officials they commended her work and that of the plant staff for making great strides in a short amount of time.

The big improvement happened when Hahn abruptly retired from the county two weeks after the state inspectors visited the plant, Mullis said.

“The state sent all those letters telling us to submit test results or we’d be decertified for those parameters,” Mullis said. “If John saw them, he never told any of us about it.”

Plant employees said they put in work orders for maintenance, but they were not approved by Hahn.

“The work orders would just sit. John would tell us that we didn’t have money in the budget to do it,” Mullis said. “But when Mike (Moler) took over, he asked us why we were using only 45 percent of our maintenence budget.”

There is equipment being used in the plants every day right now that needs work done to them, but management has not authorized the expense, she said.

“Even today, we have filters that should have been refurbished two years ago,” one employee said. “There’s an ultraviolet disinfecting system with a laundry list of things wrong with it. The vendor that sold it to us came in and inspected it and found a bunch of things that needed to be done. But it just sits and sits and nothing’s been done.”

Mullis said she understands that business comes down to time and money. Most workers there will lose their retirement and health benefits, even if a contracted company hires them. But employees are more hurt that the county would dismiss all the work they have done so far.

“A lot of us have put our blood, sweat and tears into operating that plant,” Mullis said. “It feels like we’re being punished for things that we’ve been trying to fix for a long time.”