When driving past the Ronceverte Wastewater Treatment Plant, it’s immediately evident that huge upgrades have been made to the facility. Tripling in size, the new site has added several giant pieces of machinery and basins.
It’s not just the outward appearance that has changed, however. Upon receiving an insider’s tour from a wastewater operator, it’s clear that the new plant is way more suited for the needs of area residents.
Serving the cities of Lewisburg, Fairlea, and Ronceverte, the new plant can now hold a maximum of ten million gallons, compared to the old plant’s maximum of three million. In November 2013, the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) published the Greenbrier River Restoration Plan. The dated Ronceverte plant could not meet these limits for phosphorus removal. However, the new plant contains precise machinery that is able to remove large amounts of phosphorus, thus meeting the rigorous requirements.
The updated facility includes an upgraded pumping station, new headworks, Vertical Loop Reactor (VLR) process, which consists of three basins, two secondary clarifiers, ultraviolet disinfection, effluent filters, sludge dewatering centrifuge, and two of the existing basins have been converted into digesters. The facility strongly improves the disinfection system, increases efficiency and sustainability, and modernizes wastewater treatment equipment, all while creating a safer work environment.
During an exclusive tour given to the Mountain Messenger by Kalea Klaiber, a Level II Wastewater Treatment Plant Operator at the Ronceverte facility, she explained that the water the new plant puts out into the river is actually cleaner than the water already there. “We take all kinds of samples throughout the day to ensure that everything is working the way it’s supposed to,” she said. “With the new systems, we can actually get notified on our phones or personal computers if something was to mess up in the process. We’d know right away.”
Klaiber is one of a small handful of women throughout the state of West Virginia who works at such a plant. Starting at the bottom of the totem pole, she’s worked her way up through the ranks over the past several years by taking specialized wastewater operator tests, and has lofty ambitions to run the new laboratory facility as lab manager once the plant upgrades are completed. Currently, samples taken at the Ronceverte plant are sent off for testing, taking as long as a week to get back. With the new facility, the turnaround on such tests will be exponentially faster, since they will be able to be completed at the new laboratory in-house. With water treatment plants being generally male-dominated, Klaiber continues to shatter the glass ceiling with each position she achieves at the facility.
Employees are able to move up in the ranks based on time working for the plant, completing classroom and working hours, and by gaining on-site experience. It takes real time and dedication to complete the necessary programs to become a laboratory manager. Working at a sewage plant doesn’t sound like a very technical job off the bat, but with a plethora of active microbiology, strict parameters to meet, and levels to monitor, the job is not for the faint of heart. With a facility like this, measurements must be exact to fit into state and federal requirements.
“These new systems are so efficient compared to what used to be in place, that the final waste product gathered at the end of the process is a fraction of what we were processing before,” Klaiber emphasized. The old system involved harsh and potentially dangerous chemicals such as chlorine to treat the wastewater. Now, ultra-efficient UV lights kill off 99.99 percent of bacteria and pathogens, and the improved clarifiers, filters, and digesters mean there is virtually no smell to speak of, even when walking right over the basins. The entire facility is surprisingly odorless, considering what’s being processed, and a lack of algae and other buildup due to the updated UV system.
“It’s a really nice facility, it really is,” says John Humphreys, Chief Operator of the plant.”It’s functioning just the way it’s supposed to. Some numbers are actually coming back less than zero by the end of the process, that’s how efficient it is.”
The plant is expected to be fully completed next spring. Although most of the new systems are already operational, final site work such as paving is still a work in progress. The multi-million dollar project was initially met with skepticism from some local residents due to an increased sewer bill rate, but with the old plant having long been operating at maximum capacity, it was necessary to make a change. Local residents can get used to the lack of smell from the new and improved plant, lower phosphorus levels, and improved quality of water in the Greenbrier River.