Local wastewater winners keep water healthy and safe
Most people don’t think about where the water goes after they flush, but it doesn’t just disappear, and it is a major environmental concern. Luckily, there are folks like Bettina Stern and Kenneth Walsh, who won 2011 Operator of the Year awards at the annual Delaware Technical and Community College’s Environmental Training Center.
“We don’t want to put toxic stuff in the ocean, and these people are our first line of defense,” said Hillary Valentine of DTCC, who presented at the 2012 Operator of the Year Ceremony in May.
Stern won Wastewater Operator of the Year for her work as laboratory director and administrative assistant for the Town of Selbyville, nominated for her accuracy in testing and reporting.
Multi-Koastal Services’ owner and operator, Kenneth Walsh of Frankford, was named On-Site Professional of the Year, nominated for his dedication, commitment and work ethic.
“On-site wastewater” is synonymous with septic systems because individuals treat everything right on the property.
Three operators won statewide, plus three lifetime achievement awardees, all of whom were honored for going above and beyond their jobs in professionalism, work ethic and dedication to the Delaware environment.
In the town…
Each day, Stern can be found at the laboratory of the Selbyville wastewater treatment plant. After flowing down the drains, all water leads to the facility on Polly Branch Road, and Stern collects samples at each stage of the treatment process.
First, solids are filtered and hauled away; then the water is clarified with everything from lime to microorganisms. The massive lagoons that contain the wastewater do not smell as strongly as might be expected. Finally, the water is disinfected with chorine and flows back to a regional plant and eventually back to nature. Selbyville must constantly meet county, state and national regulations.
“There’s quite a lot to it. … You really have to keep a watchful eye,” said Stern, who handles lab and administrative tasks. “I would say the testing is one of the most important jobs, because you have to keep monitoring it all the time. You get … keyed into it when something’s not quite right.”
As a small town, Selbyville’s water facility is unique because of Mountaire’s poultry processing plant. Mountaire uses around 75 percent of Selbyville’s water flow but must pre-treat the water before flushing it to the town treatment plant. Selbyville is one of the few municipalities in Delaware with an industrial user and pretreatment program.
“She’s definitely an asset to the community that she serves,” said Jim Burk, wastewater manager of operations. “She has a love of waste treatment, and you need somebody with that kind dedication.”
This year, Burk and Stern prepared an annual pretreatment report for the Environmental Protection Agency, earning a high approval rating of 98 percent. Stern’s hard work led Burk to nominate her for Operator of the Year.
Stern’s career began in Rehoboth Beach in 1989, where she leapt at a chance to do lab work. She switched to Selbyville in 1990 when she enrolled at Salisbury University, eventually earning bachelor’s degrees in biology and nursing. She also holds a master’s degree in education.
“I always loved science and that type of thing,” said Stern, adding that she would like to teach wastewater classes.
She kept learning and worked up to the Level IV Wastewater Operator’s License, the highest possible in Delaware.
“There’s always something new and exciting happening at the wastewater treatment plant,” said Stern, who said her work changes from day-to-day.
Stern said she was honored to be nominated by “such a wonderful group of people working in the field. … I really love the wastewater community. I’ve worked with a lot of really nice people, here and at Rehoboth.”
And all around…
The best part of Ken Walsh’s job, he said, is working with people. He has been involved with environmental protection for 10 years.
“It was a surprise when I was nominated,” said Walsh, who now proudly displays twin commendations from the Delaware state senate and house.
“We get families. We work for their kids, cousins, aunts and uncles. It’s a nice feeling that it’s not a onetime service,” Walsh said.
Education is considered an important part of maintaining wastewater systems, so Walsh shows clients how their systems work.
“Septics are designed to fail. They have a life expectancy,” said Walsh, who helps clients gain a level of confidence by teaching them to maintain their equipment.
Walsh had much to learn when he moved from New Jersey to Sussex County in the 1980s. After serving in the U.S. Navy and graduating from Lafayette College, Walsh left a successful job at Superior Industries because he didn’t want to raise his children in the city.
He and his wife experienced the double culture shock of country living and wastewater business management. But they built a home and raised their children, and Multi-Koastal Services has grown.
“In 27 years, I’ve never left this office [without having] returned a phone call,” said Walsh, noting that the secret to his success is good service. “You deal with us. You don’t get strangers on the phone. We give very good service. My father taught me years ago: if you can’t be there when they need you, they don’t need you.”
In so many years in the business, the biggest change to the wastewater field, Walsh said, has been the technology and regulation.
The “flush-and-forget syndrome” ran rampant before people became aware of environmental concerns.
Now, Walsh discusses new Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control (DNREC) regulations, such as the Inland Bays Pollution Control Strategy, which limits the amount of nitrogen that on-site waste systems can produce.
He educates and encourages the recycling of used water and effective maintenance with the Delaware On-Site Wastewater Recycling Association (DOWRA), having served on its board of directors and as past president. Walsh is also a DNREC certification board member for wastewater operators, so he helps to license new professionals in the field.
Many people might believe the State is unyielding or unforgiving, which Walsh said is a misconception because DNREC will help people.
“If there’s an environmental issue, they work with taxpayers on an issue. There’s no one in Georgetown or Dover who won’t help,” Walsh explained. “The State of Delaware, and DNREC, cares about the earth and does what it can for the environment.”