Maintenance crews go for broke in sewer treatment olympics


November 08, 2005|By TOM HORTON

WASHINGTON -- You might think a Saturday observing pump maintenance is a less-than-fulfilling autumn weekend.

But when a major city's raw sewage is backing up inches away, and the main pump handling it has just gone down, and you have scant minutes to ready and install a replacement or face reading damning headlines in next morning's paper, it is the best show in town:

"Prime it, prime it, PRIME IT! Bolt OUT! Filter in! Air good! Five, six, seven, eight - DONE!"

Wrenches flashing, grease guns clacking, the Seacoast Sewer Snakes, a crack team out of New England, swarm the big Godwin Dri-Prime 2600 emergency pumping unit with the vigor and precision of a NASCAR pit crew.

Sweating and happy, breathing hard, the Snakes walk off the floor of the Washington Convention Center to a big hand. The talk is they handily beat the previous maintenance run by Commode Commandos, Colorado's champions.

Welcome to the 18th annual "olympics" of sewage treatment, which draws competitors from British Columbia to Argentina, performing simulated real-life sewage jobs - from pipe breaks and worker-down-a-manhole to laboratory analyses.

"Every other day of the year with these guys, their reward for competence is anonymity," says Steve Harrison of the sponsoring Water Environment Federation, a nonprofit association of the water and sewage treatment industry.

"If a treatment plant's operating normally, no one knows or wants to know. So this is their one day to shine and get recognition."

Indeed. Over the years I've made the rounds of the Chesapeake's sewage treatment plants (one of many things this column does so you don't have to).

I've watched as the processes have grown increasingly complex - the raw inflows screened, filtered, aerated, settled, clarified, nitrified, denitrified, chlorinated, dechlorinated and final-filtered ("polished," they call it).

And always the plants and their operators are under pressure to do better, as human populations grow.

They are the last, thin line of defense for our burgeoning millions, collectively wooshing and gurgling a mighty river of excreta from across the 64,000- square-mile watershed toward the vulnerable estuary.

"Brown Tide, Brown Tide, report to the Lab Event." The great hall echoes with sounds of the all-day trials, in which 39 teams will compete for Division I and Division II trophies.

I'm rooting for the top entries from the Chesapeake region, the Hampton Roads, Va., Sanitation District's Bio-force, and Division II Extractors.

I'm liking Bio-force's chances - until I watch reigning champion Fluid Dynamics. These guys are good and they know it, dressed in snappy, green and black uniforms with matching spandex gloves and walking almost with a swagger.

"Rock stars," a judge laughs. They huddle and break with a cheer, poised to tackle the timed "Safety" event, where two team members must be lowered by winches down a 6-foot-deep manhole to rescue a "disabled" 180-pound dummy.

They practice weekly, and it shows. With blinding speed, moving catlike, they set up a tripod and wind the rescuers and dummy in and out of the hole, winching like America's Cup sailors.

As the day wears on another crew, the Trinity River Authority CreWSers, representing five major plants in the Dallas-Fort Worth area, begin to impress.

They've been second or third in seven of the past eight years, and they're feeling their time has come.

Certainly, they've got the best cheering section: "Saw it, saw it, SAW IT!" (at the pipe break event); "Git in that hole, Git DOWN that hole!" (safety rescue event); "LOOOB! LOOOB!" (pump maintenance).

The pipe break event "has always been our downfall, and this year I think we're top four there," says Dale Burrow, who works pretreatment back in Texas, monitoring what industries are sending his plant's way.

Win or lose, the annual competition has great value to workers and their employers, says Rhonda Harris, a past Water Environment president who's attended all 18 of these events.

"I've seen participants go from laborers to plant managers and supervisors. It promotes professionalism, and I've seen it change a plant's whole attitude about its employees."

`There's not a person here today who's satisfied with just meeting the limits in their plant's discharge permit," said J. Michael Read, incoming WEF president.

"People don't know how much these guys care," adds Robert Rutherford, manager of a 20-million-gallon-a-day plant on the James River.

"Two years ago we were in the middle of a plant rehab and big rains caused so much infiltration that 2 million gallons flowed into the river.

"Then on the heels of that came [Tropical Storm] Isabel, and we all got together and said, `Not one drop's getting into the river.' We stacked sandbags, brought in backup pumps all the way from New Jersey, and we got through it. It was a matter of pride."

And now, the winners (you just can't get this stuff in The New York Times, folks):

The favorites, Fluid Dynamics, were hit by penalties that added time to their impressive raw scores - more than 50 categories, from safety procedures to technique and putting away tools figure in final scores. They finished second.

For the Texas CReWSers, it was the breakthrough year: first place.

And the Chesapeake acquitted itself well, with Hampton Roads taking third in Division I and a second in Division II. "We're a little disappointed," said Bio-force captain Wesley Warren, "but on the good side, all our plants are in compliance with their permits."

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