But without the Cleveland Utilities employees who operate the Hiwassee Wastewater Treatment Plant 24 hours a day and seven days a week, the city of Cleveland could be in a world of hurt — and pollutants — and government groups like the Tennessee Department of Environment & Conservation and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency would be unhappily knocking on the doors of City Hall.
This dreaded scenario points to the significance of a recent award earned by Cleveland Utilities for the third consecutive year and five of the last six.
Presented by the Kentucky-Tennessee Water Environment Association, it is the Operational Excellence Award that has again been given to Cleveland Utilities for “... continued outstanding operation” of the wastewater treatment plant. It is this facility that assures the effluent being released into the Hiwassee River meets the full sanitary standards of environmental organizations whose role is to protect America’s natural resources.
The latest Operational Excellence Award — which allows for no more than one violation within a calendar year in 3,253 potential areas — spans the period of Jan. 1 through Dec. 31, 2013.
The certificate of award explains the purpose of the honor; that is, “... to recognize the dedication, resolve and outstanding effort of the employees of this facility by having no more than one violation of its NPDES permit limit for the 12-month reporting period.”
NPDES is an acronym for National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System.
According to the EPA website, the purpose of the NPDES permit is to assure compliance of the U.S. Clean Water Act. It reads, “Water pollution degrades surface waters, making them unsafe for drinking, fishing, swimming and other activities. As authorized by the Clean Water Act, the National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System permit program controls water pollution by regulating point sources that discharge pollutants into waters of the United States. Point sources are discrete conveyances such as pipes or man-made ditches.”
The NPDES permit program was launched in 1972.
“I’m very proud of all of our staff at the wastewater plant,” said Craig T. Mullinax, vice president of the CU Water Division. “This is a 24-hour a day, seven days a week operation. It’s ongoing all the time ... you have different shifts. They work very hard [at assuring the plant does not commit violations] and I’m very proud of what they do.”
Speaking before a recent session of the Cleveland Board of Public Utilities, Mullinax stressed, “... This is a tremendous award that they’ve gotten.”
Mike Ward, supervisor of the CU Wastewater Treatment Plant, also addressed board members. Like Mullinax, Ward was quick to credit the 24-hour commitment of the public utility’s staff.
“To put this [award] in perspective, [the NPDES permit] allows only one violation within the calendar year,” Ward explained. That’s a stringent guideline, especially when considering the plant works in so many scenarios where potential violations could occur, he said.
CU was one of only four public utilities receiving the Operational Excellence Award for the third year in a row at a recent conference of the Kentucky-Tennessee Water Environment Association.
“It’s just quite amazing when you look at the totality of it,” Ward said of the potential for error. For example, just dropping a 24-hour container sample — and breaking it — can net multiple violations, he added.
Ken Webb, CU president and CEO, credited the work of the public utility’s entire workforce of 185 employees.
“... [They are] 185 of the finest folks that I know of,” Webb said. “The community owes them a debt of gratitude.”
To make his point, Webb referred to a photograph included in board members’ information packages. The picture showed two water line workers standing in a ditch up to their knees in muddy water. They were laboring to repair a burst line.
Webb snapped the photograph himself because he was visiting the work site.
“What’s significant about [standing knee-deep in water],” Webb said, is that CU workers have to do it year-round. On this day, the temperature was about 80 degrees so conditions were not altogether uncomfortable ... other than working in wet surroundings. However, in the winter it’s a different matter.
“... When it’s 10 degrees out there, and the wind is blowing, that’s something else,” Webb told board members. “Just to be able to stand there watching them methodically go about their work ... I’m proud of all of them.”