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News: Member Portrait

Member Portrait: Melinda Ward, Raising the Bar

Tuesday, June 13, 2017  
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Originally published in the Spring 2017 issue of NC Currents magazine.

It should be no surprise to anyone who knows Melinda Ward that she was honored with the 2016 William D. Hatfield Award for her work as Wastewater Superintendent for the City of Eden. The award, which recognizes wastewater treatment plant (WWTP) operators for outstanding performance and professionalism, is a fitting tribute to someone who has dedicated her life to raising the bar in both plant efficiency and public relations.

When the price of electricity and gas started to rise sharply a few years ago, Ward made it her mission to find a way to reduce costs at Eden’s WWTP. The amount of electricity saved by turning off the lagoon aerators during peak hours paid for the plant’s first SolarBee® in less than a year. “It’s been a great asset to the plant,” she confirms. A few years earlier, the plant had replaced its floating aerators with brush aerators, resulting in a surplus of dissolved oxygen while reducing the effectiveness of mixing in the lower half of the aeration basin. “It became obvious that we needed to use less aerator capacity,” says Ward, adding that, with the way the system was designed, turning the aerators off would stop the mixing process.

Ward started looking into solar-power mixers, eventually obtaining a SolarBee® on a trial basis. “It had never been used in a wastewater plant in this capacity,” she notes. “It doesn’t actually mix the mixed liquor, but it keeps the solids in suspension.” As a result, operators have been able to shut off the aerators during sunlight hours. As an added bonus, the SolarBee® helps moves the air further down the basin, to depths the aerators could not reach.

“We’ve started seeing better mixing and better treatment in the basin,” says Ward, adding that the plant has since purchased two more SolarBee® units. A dissolved oxygen (DO) monitor installed at the end of the basin sends data to the SCADA system, ensuring operators turn on an aerator if levels fall below 1.5 ppm.

Ward co-wrote a paper on the project, which was presented at the NC AWWAWEA Spring Conference and later at a WEFTEC conference in Los Angeles. “I’ve had several people from other plants call me about our experience to see if it could work for them,” adds Ward. “It’s not going to work for everybody, but it can be a useful tool for plants with basins like this that have problems with over-aerating.”

If improving plant efficiency was not reason enough to recognize Ward’s work, she is also heavily involved in encouraging better relations between plant operators and the public. A few years ago, she started writing a column for a local monthly paper to educate readers on subjects such as fats, oils, and greases, and how to prevent overflows. She has also visited schools to give presentations on careers in water and wastewater, and once set up a booth at the annual RiverFest to highlight what the plant does to protect the river and how citizens can help out.

“I love giving tours of the plant as well,” she adds, “and taking people around and helping them understand what we do.” She enjoys, seeing the amazement on their face when they see the contrast between the influent and the crystal clear effluent coming out at the end.

If Ward is particularly passionate about the work she does, it is in large part thanks to the sheer depth of her experience in the industry. “I grew up playing at a wastewater plant when I was little,” recalls Ward, noting that her father, Lynwood Sessoms, was superintendent of the Tarboro WWTP. “I would go with him to collect samples.” Later, she witnessed the conversion of the plant to secondary treatment, as well as the second upgrade to nutrient removal.

With this degree of early exposure, Ward should have been a shoo-in for a career in water and wastewater, but that is not where she initially headed. “I decided to be a banker,” she explains, “but of all the different classes I took, I didn’t like any of them.”

Fortunately, while in college, she also worked part-time at the construction site during the Tarboro plant upgrade. Ward started in the office with the engineer and construction manager, then during the winter and summer months, she worked directly with the construction. “I got to see the plant from all different aspects,” she recalls. “Me and a couple of other college students got the odd jobs that nobody else wanted. It was fascinating. I had seen a lot of stuff, but never actually seen it empty.”

It was a visit to an NC AWWA-WEA conference in Asheville that finally sealed the deal. “I got to walk around and talk to all the vendors,” she recalls. “I was fascinated by everything. Then, after working at the construction site and seeing all the different aspects of the industry, I decided to declare a major in Environmental Health.”

Her coursework eventually led to an internship at both the water and wastewater plants in Tarboro. “My father told me never to work for a municipality, but that’s where I ended up for my first job,” laughs Ward, noting that she started her career with the City of Rocky Mount. “I’ve been working with municipalities ever since.”

She explains that working for a municipality gives her a greater sense of protecting the environment. Ward started her career at the water plant and distribution system as part of Rocky Mount’s cross training. Within a year, she was relocated to the wastewater plant as lab supervisor. “I got a lot of variety,” she recalls.

Shortly after becoming lab supervisor, she met her husband, Michael Ward, who had also done an internship in water and wastewater at Rocky Mount around the time when she started. He relocated to Clinton, and after they were married, she joined the nearby Newton Grove WWTP as Superintendent. Because it was a small plant with unique challenges, she also acted as the operator. “There really were no industries in town,” explains Ward, “but sometimes you would have upsets at the plant that were hard to track down. If it ever rained in the middle of the night, there would be all kinds of problems when I came in the next morning. I learned a whole lot.” For many years afterward, she would wake in a panic whenever it rained.

She left Newton Grove after her first son was born, and a year later accepted a part-time position supervising a well system once a week for the town of Turkey. Then in 2001, the family moved to Henry County in Virginia, where Ward stayed at home raising her sons before eventually going back to work in the lab and as an operator at the Martinsville WWTP in Virginia.

In 2008, she became Superintendent for the City of Eden, NC, just across the Virginia border. “My wide variety of experience prepared me well for this job,” she reflects.

After being in Virginia for so many years, Ward had lost touch with the industry in North Carolina. In an effort to reconnect, she decided to volunteer for the NC Wastewater Board of Educators and Examiners (WWBOEE). “I thought it was a great way to start off,” she says.

She then joined the Central Region’s Professional Wastewater Operators Committee (PWOC) and served as chair for three years, before becoming the vice-chair for the committee at the state level. She notes that the PWOC offers operators excellent opportunities to see a wide variety of processes by visiting other plants. “It’s a great learning experience for everybody,” says Ward.

Recently, she started a term as chair of the WWBOEE. She also joined the Risk Management Committee, for which she has become one of the “safety experts,” thanks to her extensive involvement with safety issues for the City of Eden. A few years ago, the City invited the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) to the plant for a consultation on areas that needed improvement. Success in addressing safety issues has earned the City of Eden’s WWTP certification with the Safety and Health Achievement Recognition Program (SHARP) for two 3-year terms in a row.

In fact, Ward is always looking at different ways to improve the plant, whether it be in terms of safety or operational efficiency. A few years ago, she spearheaded a clarifier rehabilitation project that saw all the weirs and baffles replaced with fiberglass. “When they took the clarifiers down, they fixed everything that needed to be tweaked and adjusted,” she says. “We utilize our help as much as possible. If somebody is working in something, they are going to fix everything they can find before it breaks the next time.”

When Ward first arrived at Eden – the very day her father retired from water and wastewater – the plant, rated at 13.5 mgd, was running at 6 mgd. A year later, the City’s largest industry closed shop and volume was reduced to between 3 and 4 mgd. The team figured out a way to run only half the plant by sending everything through one of the two basins, saving the other for backup during extremely high flows. This allowed maintenance to be performed without bringing the plant offline. “I tried to take advantage of every opportunity I could find,” says Ward. “It’s worked out because the plant has been running really well now – maybe not according to textbook, but we have played with it and figured out what works best. Then when everything is going great, I look for other things to improve.” She is currently working with engineers to find other ways to improve the plant in anticipation of starting even more upgrades.

At the same time, Ward is constantly reading industry literature to keep abreast of the latest innovations and technology. Of course, she also takes advantage of every professional development opportunity. Last year, she even brought her teenage son to the NC AWWA-WEA Annual Conference in Raleigh, carrying on a tradition started by her father so many years ago.

It was more than fitting, then, that her father was in attendance when she received the William D. Hatfield Award from the NC AWWA WEA. “I was fortunate to have a great example,” says Ward. “I could not have chosen a better career.”

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