Sewage plant shows issues in serving community
Frank Welch is a paradox of municipal public works. He knows firsthand about having water and sewer services – and not having them. It’s both professional and personal for him.
“I’m a believer in public water and sewer,” he said.
It would be great if every household in Jefferson County where he lives and works could have them, he said.
For 32 years, Welch has helped provide water and sewer utilities to Shepherdstown-area residents for a living. Yet he wants and can’t buy those municipal services for himself, not for any price.
“I’ve got a septic and a contaminated well,” Welch said of his home in Middleway. “You can’t drink the water at my house. We carry our water in to drink. We use the water for shower and stuff, and it’s never affected me. I’ve lived there 20 years like that.”
Yet as public works director for Shepherdstown, Welch oversees a progressive, environmentally-leading wastewater treatment plant. It’s a practically brand new five-year-old plant, a small-town operation recognized as one of the first to overhaul itself to comply with rigorous federal Chesapeake Bay protection regulations.
As open, candid and casually forthcoming as a priest giving his own confession, Welch is a regular guy who is the top boss in an earthy blue-collar job that’s become a high-tech, scientifically complex field. He started in the municipal water delivery and treatment field in 1971. It was an entry-level job at the Charles Town sewer plant “mowing grass and cleaning tanks,” he said.
Now he manages the town’s sewage treatment and water service plants, although much of his time is also taken up with the town’s recycling programs.
Rules for the Environment
The Chesapeake and its water life – especially its grasses, crabs and fish – were dying, and environmental studies showed that nitrogen and phosphorus running into the estuary from various sources were major causes of suffocating algae blooms, Welch said.
One of several responses, Congress targeted wastewater treatment plants in the bay’s waster shed – comprising eight counties in West Virginia, several counties in five other states and the District of Columbia – to virtually eliminate those two naturally occurring nutrients in the human waste streams they filter.
Yet municipal wastewater plants at the time, including Shepherdstown’s, weren’t designed to remove nitrogen and phosphorus from their wastewater flows. They needed entirely new microbiology systems and technology to meet the strict bay-protection standards.
Welch said many other municipal and county sewage treatment operations in the Chesapeake Bay watershed that were affected by the costly federal regulations decided to delay overhauling their facilities. Shepherdstown officials, backed by their residents willing to absorb a service rate increase because of it, faced making the inevitable expensive system upgrades right away, he said.
“We decided to do it because we’re an environmental town here,” Welch said. “No doubt on that. We’ve got to do a good job on the environment. We decided that we were going to have to pay to get that done. That’s what we did.”
What Welch did to meet the regulations was lead his community in rebuilding Shepherdstown’s sewage treatment plant from the inside out and the ground up.
Except for a single holding tank, every system and piece of infrastructure there was replaced, he said.
“Everything else was gutted and replaced with a new technology,” he said.
Today, at the cost of $9.2 million, Shepherdstown’s sewage plant far outperforms the strict federal regulatory standards for eliminating nitrogen and phosphorous from the wastewater it treats, Welch said. Those standards allow the plant to include no more than five milligrams per liter of nitrogen and 0.5 milligrams per liter of phosphorous in the treated wastewater it releases into the nearby Potomac River.
“And that’s at any one time,” Welch pointed out. “We’re meeting the standards.”
Sitting at a practical, nondescript desk inside a metal industrial trailer that serves as his no-frills office, Welch described Shepherdstown’s wastewater treatment plant as a delicate but dynamic ecosystem of living and breeding microbes – “a lot of them” – off the unwanted nutrients and other waste material. He also talked about systems that calibrate oxygen levels, as well as tightly packed bundles of spaghetti-like membranes that filter the wastewater.
“That’s how (the filter) draws out the clean water,” he said. “It will not draw a virus through it. That’s how fine it is. You can’t get a virus out of here. You can’t get a solid out of here.”
Tucked away off a narrow residential street on the edge of town, the wastewater the treatment plant releases is virtually clean enough to drink, Welch said. He’s watched people drink it, in fact.
“I didn’t do it, I’m not that crazy,” he acknowledged. “The mayor drank it and the engineer drank it.”
Though using various computing monitoring and regulating systems, the plant and the lifecycles of its microbes demand continual observation and tending by its five-member staff, including Welch.
“You have to operate this plant,” he said. “Everything is done by a computer basically, but you have to keep an eye on all of it. If you don’t keep everything right, you’re in trouble.”
For that reason, Welch, even with a smartphone app that feeds him information anywhere he has a cellular connection, believes in continual on-site monitoring at the plant. That means regardless of whether it’s badly storming or snowing or it’s a holiday of some sort. All the plant’s staff drive four-wheel drive vehicles to ensure someone can get to the plant even during a blizzard.
“You have to get out and walk around the place periodically, look at the screens, see if there’s anything wrong,” he said. “I’m a believer that you should always check your plant every day, every day. That’s the way I was taught, and that’s the way I always did it. And that’s the way I want my guys to do it.”
Shepherdstown’s wastewater treatment plant serves about 1,000 customers inside and surrounding the municipality, cleaning a daily stream of about 300,000 gallons per day. With about 3,800 students in town, Shepherd University is the plant’s biggest customer. The plant’s treatment capacity is 800,000 gallons per day, so it has the potential to serve a considerable number of more homes and businesses into the future.
Welch said he knows about 450 homes outside the town have failing septic systems that they and public officials should consider connecting to the wastewater plant. It would be healthier for those homeowners, the community and the environment, he said.
Whether those new connections happen anytime soon, however, Welch looks at his own personal circumstances without public water or sewer service in Middleway.
“It’s not just my house that’s messed up,” he said. “There’s a bunch of them in that area. It’s one of the most contaminated areas of Jefferson County.”
Service for Everyone
Welch said many areas of the county would significantly benefit if existing public water and sewer service lines were extended to them. He said he believes that even though stretching those public services will almost inevitably draw new development to those areas, development that many residents don’t necessarily want.
No matter how Charles Town, Ranson and Jefferson County officials work through their current negotiations to consolidate their separate but interlinked sewer systems, Welch thinks the primary benefit of such a consolidation – however that might happen – should foster additional expansion of the service.
Even as a professional public works insider, Welch said he knows the consolidation is a complicated issue. Knowing and respecting many of the officials involved in the debate as colleagues and friends, he said he respects the different views and doesn’t have any definitive answer how the utility consolidation should be done.
“I don’t know if there is a perfect answer to that,” he added. “But the economies of scales, that’s where you keep the rates down.”
Every wastewater treatment plant is effective in its own particular way, with their own operational quirks, characteristics and identity, Welch explained. Every water and sewer system is designed, engineered and operated differently for sometimes complicated but specific reasons, he said. The technology of Berkeley County’s sewage treatment plant, he pointed out, is considerably different that the technology Shepherdstown’s plant relies on.
Ideally from his perspective, however, it would be better if every household in Jefferson County where he lives and work could have those services, Welch said. But Middleway is far away from the nearest public system operated by Charles Town, he acknowledged.
“I’m a believer in public water and sewer,” he said. “I want it at my house. I’ll pay for it. I’ll pay my share,” he said, before acknowledging, “I don’t feel that I’ll ever get it.”