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WATER & WASTEWATER OPERATOR SINCE 1984, A VETERAN’S INSIGHTS
FluksAqua Community, Spotlight, Water and wastewater community, Water plant operator,
Elinor Lake, Alberta
Sterling Mitchell loves cars. He has 28 of them including fourteen Volvo 240s – his favourite! A career in the car industry would have been a natural fit. But it was a practical decision that led Mitchell to become a water & wastewater operator in 1984. Back then the economy in Alberta was down so jobs were few and far between. Mitchell needed a career that could support his new wife and soon to be family. He figured his best opportunity would be to look for a position that might not appeal to everyone. The sewer seemed like an appropriate place to start. The first mandatory certification program in Canada came into effect in 1983, so Mitchell went to the Northern Alberta Institute of Technology (NAIT) to earn an unrestricted certification. He is now the principal water and wastewater operator at Elinor Lake Resort. Called Alberta’s newest cottage country, Elinor Lake provides easy access to Lakeland Provincial Park and offers more than 100 lakes within driving distance.
MANAGING CHANGE IN THE INDUSTRY: FROM MERCURY LEVEL SWITCHES TO SODIUM HYPOCHLORITE
With more than 30 years of experience, Mitchell has experienced major changes in the industry during his career. “We no longer use mercury level switches to control the level in a potable water reservoir!” says Mitchell.
He also believes technology could play a bigger role in documentation, but that the paperless office idea has never really taken hold in this “slow moving industry.”
Mitchell – “Documentation is important but I believe we could save a lot of time by being able to enter data into a computer rather than struggling with paperwork.”
Mitchell is also critical of the health and safety risks associated with the replacement of chlorine gas with sodium hypochlorite, which has been undertaken by a growing number of municipalities. He questions the preparedness of operations and emergency staff in case of accidental chlorine gas release. He points to the recent Fort McMurray incident as an example. “You have to make sure you use your safety equipment properly,” explains Mitchell.
SEASONAL OPERATIONAL CHALLENGES
Elinor Lake Resort is seasonal so Mitchell’s position is unique. The resort treatment plant is equipped with a nano-filtration membrane. In the spring, he has to ensure his Clean-in Place (CIPs) are done and his membranes are ready to go. He also has to remove the sludge from the sewer plant.
“I do my maintenance in the winter when no one is onsite,” explains Mitchell.
Like other water and wastewater operators, Mitchell’s work is influenced by the weather. Seasonal turning of the lake clogs their 50 and 25 micron filters very quickly. Spring runoff that contains fine clay also interferes with the wastewater treatment plant’s operation as fine clay hardly settles.
The seasonal nature of the residents does provide some unique challenges. For example, on the recent May long weekend, all of the RVs flushed their antifreeze so the influent was full of alcohol. Mitchell jokingly points out that unfortunately “it was not even good alcohol”.
Apart from seasonal challenges, Mitchell, like many other operators, also has to deal with operational challenges such as the dreaded “flushable” wipes, which clog pumps, bars screens and any sharp surface they catch onto.
CHALLENGING BUT REWARDING
While being a water and wastewater operator has provided steady employment and income for Mitchell, there have been sacrifices. Between shift work and being on call, a social life has been difficult to manage. He recommends to be prepared to work at inopportune times to those considering joining the industry. Mitchell does point out that while being on-call has its challenges, he finds his position really rewarding.
“You know you can make a difference in terms of public health and the environment,” says Mitchell.
“You can always keep learning but don’t expect a lot of recognition. If you need to be constantly praised, the job probably isn’t for you. The mayor isn’t going to come and say congratulations on a job well done.” People don’t want to think about the sewer so there is usually only a focus when something goes wrong.
KEEPING IN TOUCH WITH OTHER OPERATORS
Mitchell keeps in touch with other water operators and up to date with industry changes through online platforms like FluksAqua and Facebook, as well as attending conferences and workshops.
FluksAqua wants to hear your story! How did you come to work in the water and wastewater sector? What are your daily operational challenges? What solutions exist?
If you are interested in being part of our spotlight blog series, please send an email to Nadia Koukoui at firstname.lastname@example.org
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