Wastewater provides hands-on experience – Brenna Garner (ETM)

Brenna Garner
(L) Lowering a bailer into a groundwater monitoring well in the rain. (R) Titrating a wastewater sample to determine the alkalinity.

“When I come to work I smell money” Tim Woody, superintendent of the Resource Recovery Division of Public Utilities, said this when I was first introduced to the plant. I currently work for the City of Raleigh’s Neuse River Resource Recovery Facility (previously the Neuse River Wastewater Treatment Plant) as an Environmental Monitoring Technician. The Neuse River Facility treats over 40 million gallons of wastewater every day and is only one of three treatment plants that the City of Raleigh owns. Wastewater comes from many sources such as stormwater drains, industrial wastewater, and used water from homes and other buildings. We collect all or most of the wastewater from Raleigh, Garner, Rolesville, Wake Forest, Knightdale, Wendell, and Zebulon.

A wastewater treatment plant functions to collect wastewater and separate the solids from the water and to sanitize both. Once isolated and treated, you can either sell, pay a company to dispose of, or land-apply the solids, or discharge the treated water into a river.

Not only does the Neuse River plant process all of that material, but it also produces three reusable products that can be sold to or used by outside companies, two kinds of solids for fertilizer and reuse water for purposes such as irrigation. The solids used on site are land-applied on farm fields that are used to grow livestock feed that is sold to local farmers. The treated water that does not get reused is discharged into the Neuse River. The water that is discharged is monitored for certain nutrients like phosphorus and nitrates that can cause harm to the river ecosystem by causing reactions such as algal blooms. I have learned from and assisted several programs within the facility including: maintenance, administration, groundwater monitoring, reuse, and operations.

As my title suggests, my job centers around monitoring the plant and the surrounding environment. I have sampled various groundwater wells and surface water locations and field-tested them for pH, conductivity, dissolved oxygen, and temperature. I have tested reuse water lines at various points for chlorine and tested wastewater samples for pH, alkalinity, ammonia, nitrates, and phosphorus. Sampling these parameters allows us to how the plant is processing the wastewater so we can adjust what we add to make the treatment process more efficient. I have also accompanied and assisted the maintenance crew during off-site work at pump stations; this showed me how the water gets transported to the plant and how vital a good mechanic crew is to keeping the plant up and running. Overall, my aim is to gain familiarity with the wastewater treatment process and how it can affect the environment.

I really appreciate being able to work with many of the positions around the plant; each co-worker I meet allows me to see a new perspective into how the plant works. I am passionate about learning and there is so much to learn at such a complex facility. I enjoyed all but the occasional desk work that consisted of filling out spreadsheets and filing documents. The tasks I did indoors were absolutely necessary to the plant, and all real world jobs require such tedious labor. However unpleasant the desk work was, it was still valuable hands-on experience towards a career in the environmental field.

When working with the plant operators or sampling groundwater I was at the mercy of the weather. The operators are at the plant 24/7, 365 days a year; their job requires that they travel around the plant, monitor plant activity, check gauges, and adjust how the plant operates to maintain efficiency and to prevent disasters.

When sampling for groundwater, reaching the monitoring wells by truck can be very difficult because they are located in the fields and on the perimeter of the property, and if the ground is saturated the truck will get stuck, so you sample in any weather so long as the ground isn’t saturated. All 131 wells are sampled in March, July, and November, which have some of the most challenging weather conditions.

I will be able to use everything that I have experienced at the Neuse River Facility down the proverbial road. I have found that doing, not just studying, environmental work is what I am truly passionate about. I would love to keep working with the city and gain as much experience as I can in as many situations as I can.  If working in the public sector is an option when I graduate, I will gladly take it, but I will not limit myself to what I have already experienced while working with wastewater. You cannot know what you want to do in life unless you see as much as possible of what is out there, and there is plenty of good work to be done in corporations and environmental consulting. The City of Raleigh and the Neuse River Resource Recovery Facility are focused on reuse of our natural resources, sustainability, and innovation, and I am privileged to be serving such a vibrant community.