BELLOWS FALLS -- They fit the bill of being the unsung heroes of any community.
They're people who make a living in a place far from glamorous and they handle the contents of your toilet after it has been flushed.
They're the operators of local wastewater treatment facilities, responsible for the maintenance of an area's sewage equipment around the clock. To pay respect to the workers who often go unappreciated, Gov. Peter Shumlin declared Friday as Water Quality Day, and certain treatment facilities hosted open houses all day and offered guided tours to interested members of the public. Two of these facilities were in Bellows Falls and Brattleboro, and the chief operators at each one spoke to the Reformer about their jobs.
Bellows Falls Chief Operator Rob Wheeler said he oversees his entire treatment plant, which opened in 1962. He said the village's facility takes wastewater from Bellows Falls, Walpole and North Walpole, N.H., Westminster as far down as Bellows Falls Union High School, Gageville and North Westminster. He showed the Reformer a schematic of the treatment plant about 10 minutes after a field trip of students from Cavendish had ended.
Wheeler said all wastewater enters the facility -- sections of which carry a stench of four odor for obvious reasons -- through pipes and first meets a finescreen that removes everything a quarter-inch or bigger in size. The sewage then goes to a grit separator, which takes out egg shells and inorganics that fall to the bottom of the stream as it goes through the tank, before entering the influent pumps, the lowest point at the plant. At that time, the wastewater gets pumped to another end of the treatment plant, where primary tanks settle out anything that would drop to the bottom of the tank.
Essentially, the treatment facility is made up of stations that perform individual tasks to clean the wastewater. It's a dirty job -- but someone's got to do it. However, Wheeler said the average age of chief operators is increasing, and there aren't many people to take over the trade.
"There's no one to turn it over to. There's not a lot of new people coming into the field," he said. "It's a job that you've got to learn to love. But you're not going to be out of work -- because it happens 24/7."
Wheeler, who has been with the plant since 1990, said he hopes future Water Quality Days spark interest in the dependable industry. He said it is a good career for anyone who has studied environmental science, chemistry, biology or engineering. He works with Chris Silva, Josh Kemp and Rob Germon.
A study has been conducted on a wastewater improvement project Bellows Falls wants to undertake. A bond vote had been scheduled for Tuesday but had to be postponed after The Shopper, the newspaper of record, failed to put the public notice in its May 1 edition. Municipal Manager Willis D. "Chip" Stearns II has told the Reformer state law requires notification of a bond vote to appear in the newspaper of record on the same day for three straight weeks. He said the vote will now have to wait until the primary election in August or the general election in November.
Wheeler said the $6 million would be used for new equipment (which typically has a 20-year lifespan) and concrete coatings.
Bruce Lawrence, the chief operator of the Brattleboro plant, said he appreciates the idea of Water Quality Day and hopes next year the state schedules it for a Saturday, so more people can visit. But he said his door is always open.
"Any time anybody wants to come down ... I'm even willing to make arrangements so that I'm here in an evening -- if somebody wanted to come down at 7 o'clock in the evening sometime and get a quick tour," he said, adding that people are generally very fascinated and impressed with the whole process.
He also said his plant's operations are similar to that of Bellows Falls, except the digestion process is slightly different. He mans the plant with Mike Ethier, Steve Dyer, Chris Simon and Assistant Chief Operator Harvey Dix. Lawrence said he worked at the facility from 1976 until 1985, when he took a job as a reactor operator at Vermont Yankee. He took early retirement from VY and started again at the treatment plant in January 2012.
During a tour, Lawrence told a couple of visitors the industry has greatly changed over the past 50 or so years. He explained that as a boy growing up in Westminster he would often flush his toilet and "run like the dickens" to a window to see the waste go into the Connecticut River. Environmental laws have been passed since then to keep river water as clean as possible for the public.
Lawrence said he would like one day to see Vermont's individual water and wastewater departments team up and share a Water Quality Day.
He told the Reformer anyone who works at a treatment plant soon gets used to the odor that comes with the job. When first asked how he deals with it, Lawrence smiled and responded, "What smell?"
Domenic Poli can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, or 802-254-2311, ext. 277. You can follow him on Twitter @dpoli_reformer.