You don’t hear much about wastewater treatment. Most people don’t even know where their local facility is. How does all that raw sewage magically transform into clear river water? What happens to the contaminants? And dear lord, what must it smell like?
“It’s not easy, what these guys do,” says Bill Patenaude, principal engineer for the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management (DEM). “They’re heavily regulated. There’s a lot of self-monitoring. It’s the day-in-day-out grind that we felt needed to be acknowledged.”
For years, Bill has been an outspoken advocate for wastewater treatment plants. When facilities run smoothly and environmental standards are met, he wants managers to know how appreciated they are – and this year, the facilities in Westerly and Warren both won awards for excellence from Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
The Boston branch of the EPA requests nominations every fall. Each state is responsible for nominating its best facilities, and any wastewater treatment plant in New England is eligible. But for its size, Rhode Island has received a conspicuous number of awards over the years, and 2018 was a typical example: Out of 519 facilities in the region, only five received awards, and two were ours. This is an impressive record, considering we only have 19 plants in the whole state.
“Wastewater treatment plants don’t get any of the respect that they should,” echoes Justin Pimpare, Regional Pretreatment Coordinator for the EPA. “But I think the award is something to shoot for. Having a clean environmental record is huge.”
What makes a wastewater treatment facility so excellent?
Consistency. In smaller communities, a plant may be run by town employees or by a private company; either way, teams are small, and they must deal with enormous volumes of water and waste. The machinery is massive and complex, and workers must be versed in engineering, chemistry, microbiology, and – of course – hydrology. The water never stops flowing, and neither do the responsibilities.
“It isn’t a glamorous job,” says Nick DeGemmis, superintendent of the Westerly plant. “It’s not for everybody. I’ve known guys who started working one day and quit before their first coffee break.”
“It all comes down to the interest and desire of the community to properly fund and operate their wastewater facility,” says Bill. “They have a lot of demands on them, and we understand that. It comes down to local pride, and local interest in clean water. For [the workers] to achieve that so humbly and quietly – we didn’t want them to be humble any more.”