July 2011, Vol. 23, No.7

Wisconsin tackles tandem certification and training programs


Something rather unusual is happening in Wisconsin: The direction and timing of two projects at different government agencies have aligned, enabling the agencies to integrate the projects.

The Wisconsin Bureau of Apprenticeship Standards (BAS) is developing a new wastewater operator apprenticeship program at the same time that the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (DNR) is revamping its operator certification code. To capitalize on this timing, the two agencies have found several ways to collaborate to encourage good training practices, career advancement, and a supply of well-trained operators to succeed those who are ready to retire. 

Going ‘green’

The development of the apprenticeship program is being funded through Wisconsin’s Sector Alliance for the Green Economy (SAGE) grant, a $6 million project awarded by the U.S. Department of Labor.

The majority of trades tackled under the SAGE grant are building trades — such as carpentry and plumbing — with the goal of updating them with new skills and technologies to foster energy efficiency, said Owen Smith, SAGE outreach coordinator at BAS. The drivers for including a wastewater apprenticeship program under the SAGE grant are twofold, Smith said. First, the job itself is inherently “green.” Second, it helps alleviate the substantial concern about the retirement of current operators and the lack of new operators in the pipeline.

BAS will develop a new state advisory committee to oversee and administer the apprenticeship program.

“What we’re concerned about with wastewater is providing training to a new generation of operators, in what we see as an occupation that is inherently green,” Smith said.


An evolving certification program

At the same time, DNR is making major changes to its certification program, which was established in the mid-1970s. Even though the program’s study guides, exams, and standards underwent minor revision in the 1980s and 1990s, the basic framework had remained mostly unchanged. Now, the agency is revising and regrouping its criteria and expanding beyond just exams to earn credit toward advanced operator status, explained Jack Saltes, wastewater operations engineer at DNR.

From a logistics standpoint, the requirements to achieve basic certification are mostly the same, Saltes said. Applicants still will take a general wastewater exam — now comprising 50 instead of 40 questions — and need 1 year of experience to become a basic operator. While waiting for that year to elapse, applicants would be considered Grade T (in training), he explained.

Operators must take this general exam to ensure they are familiar with terminology, general operations, common equipment, sampling, monitoring, safety, and calculations. Operators then study what DNR calls subclasses, which are essentially unit processes, and must pass an exam to earn basic certification in each subclass.

In terms of what material is covered, DNR is making significant changes, including making major content revisions and regrouping what is covered in different subclasses, Saltes said. This revamp also marks the first intersection of the certification and apprenticeship programs.


Collaborating on the basics

By design, apprenticeships include about 10% classroom instruction and 90% on-the-job training. In the BAS apprenticeship, the core curriculum will be presented in the classroom. On-the-job training will cover unit processes (or subclasses) present at the treatment plant where the apprentice works. Combining a strong foundation and site-specific details makes the apprenticeship program useful for both large and small wastewater treatment plants, Smith said.

When BAS began developing its core curriculum, it asked DNR for help determining what information apprentices need.

DNR responded by grouping together several of its subclasses to create what Saltes refers to as the ABCs of wastewater. The ABCs include biological treatment, solids separation, and biosolids.

Understanding these topics is “critical for every wastewater operator in the state,” Saltes said. These revised subclasses will be a part of the core information for the classroom portion of the apprentice program.

In Wisconsin, wastewater operator apprentices will be in the program for 3 years and complete 540 hours of classroom instruction, Saltes said.

“The goal is to incorporate certifications into the apprenticeship program and design the program so that the apprentice is earning certifications throughout the program,” Smith said.

The designated provider of the related instruction materials for this program will be Moraine Park Technical College (Fond du Lac, Wis.), Saltes said. This choice enables the “classroom” portion of the program to be offered online.

Offering the classes online helps to address geographic and travel concerns of plants throughout the state, Smith said. “Our vision for this apprenticeship program is that it is applicable to the 1-mgd [3785-m3/d] and smaller wastewater treatment plants since they represent 85% of the municipalities in Wisconsin,” Smith said.

The online program is expected to start this fall. The program is targeting 70 apprentices for the program, Smith said.


Seeking advanced status

Another collaboration between BAS and DNR will provide a new way for operators to progress in each subclass. By successfully completing the apprenticeship program, operators will be well along the path to advanced operator status.

Previously, the sole mechanism for an operator to move forward was passing an exam. But now, DNR is switching to a 10-point system that gives operators the chance to mix and match how they want to receive their training, Saltes said.

Under the new system, operators must earn a total of 10 points in a subclass to receive advanced operator certification. The system will require four to six points of experience and four to six points of education.

One year equals one point of experience. As for education, 40 hours of contact time is equal to one point, Saltes said. For example, DNR is defining a certificate course as “at least a 40-hour course of concentrated educational instruction of no more than three wastewater topics, with certificate or proof of instruction, and worth one point toward advanced operator certification,” Saltes said.

More lengthy and in-depth education programs will be worth more points. Fulfilling apprenticeships and earning an associate’s degree from a technical college are considered the two best methods of advancement and are each worth six points, Saltes explained.

“We’re getting very favorable support and feedback from the stakeholder group and the wastewater operators’ association in Wisconsin in moving toward a points system,” Saltes said.

However, for those who prefer to advance by exam, DNR also will offer a 100-question advanced operator exam across all subclasses that will be worth four points, Saltes said.


Putting it into practice

The new program provides multiple paths to advanced certification. An operator with 6 years of experience, for example, could take the advanced exam to earn four training points for a total of 10 points. Alternatively, an operator who completes the BAS apprenticeship program would earn six points, as well as one point for each of the 3 years while in program. This operator then would need to work only 1 more year to reach the advanced operator level.

Whether or not to give both training and experience points for the apprenticeship was still being debated but, “for right now, experience is experience,” Saltes said.

He added, “We’re not trying to make any one route more favorable than the other.” The stakeholder group will meet this summer to finalize the points system.

Saltes said he hopes the new certification program will go into effect sometime in 2012. Implementing changes to the certification program requires a code revision, which, barring any controversies, will take about a year, he explained. (Operators already working toward certification under the existing program could opt to be grandfathered into the old program, Saltes said.)

“The Wisconsin Wastewater Operators Association, DNR, and the training stakeholders are very, very proud of the profession. They look highly on it,” Saltes said. “We did not want to dilute it or compromise competency in any way with these changes.

“That’s why we’ve been really working hard to get this to make sense and to work, but at the same time give operators more flexibility … and not just by exam alone,” he said.


Steve Spicer, WE&T


Advantages of apprenticeship

Both the apprentice and the employer benefit from apprenticeship programs, said Owen Smith, SAGE outreach coordinator at the Wisconsin Bureau of Apprenticeship Standards.

For employees, apprenticeships are first and foremost jobs, he said. “Apprentices are paid while they are learning the trade, whether that is on the job or in the classroom.”

Typically, an apprentice earns 50% to 75% of the hourly rate of an experienced worker during the first year of the apprenticeship. The percentage usually increases each year, and after graduating, the apprentice earns a full wage.

For the employer, apprenticeships are a path to highly trained employees, Smith said. Skilled and experienced operators provide training and oversee the work of the apprentices and share their institutional knowledge.

“It’s an investment in the future of the worker and the company,” Smith said.




A ‘natural’ process?

In a speech this spring, President Barack Obama proclaimed that the “potential … is enormous” for natural gas drilling. “Recent innovations have given us the opportunity to tap large reserves — perhaps a century’s worth — in the shale under our feet,” he said.

However, when it comes to water quality issues surrounding natural gas drilling, the benefits are less clear-cut.

The Marcellus Shale, which according to many experts is the world’s second-largest natural gas field with at least 4.75 trillion m3 (168 trillion ft3) of available natural gas, stretches from New York to West Virginia. Deep down inside the shale, 1500 to 2400 m (5000 to 8000 ft), lies natural gas. Since 2008, energy companies have been extracting the gas from Marcellus by combining horizontal drilling with hydraulic fracturing, or fracking. During horizontal drilling, a well is bored deep down into the shale layer, and then across in that same layer, making the shape of an “L.” During hydraulic fracturing, workers inject a water-based mixture into the well at high pressure to crack the rock.

This process, which increases the exposed rock surface in the bore hole and allows more gas to be collected, boosts well productivity but raises several questions related to water quality. What should be done with the hydraulic fracturing fluid, or “frac water”? Does deep-well drilling strain streams and rivers? And finally, will chemicals used in the water-based mixture contaminate drinking water? Scientists, energy companies, and environmental regulators do not necessarily agree on the answers.


Emerging technologies

Frac water has high salinity and high total dissolved solids (TDS). In addition to natural salinity of water in the shale formation, any fresh water that is forced down a well will dissolve salts in the formation, giving the recovered water very high salinity. The returning fluid is collected in metal tanks or open containment pits lined with plastic. These are then pumped dry, and water is usually either recycled for fracking additional wells or trucked offsite to a wastewater disposal facility. Containment pits can become points of failure. Occasionally, liners get cracked or damaged, allowing frac water to leach into groundwater.

Increasingly, drillers are shifting to closed-loop systems as the preferred method of handling flowback water. With new discharge regulations coming soon, more natural gas drillers are considering treating frac water onsite and reusing it.

According to Radisav Vidic, an environmental engineering professor at the University of Pittsburgh, “Reuse [of flowback water] … reduces water needs, minimizes transport of water, and hence, the liability involved with accidents and spills.”

Some companies claim they can build or are building treatment technology capable of handling flowback water. Vidic agrees with their claims.

“Thermal distillation plus crystallization can treat the flowback [frac] water and produced water to give you distilled water with TDS of less than 100 mg/L and highly concentrated brine,” Vidic said. “However, it is expensive and generates at least 150 to 200 ton [140 to 180 Mg] of salt per well, and we have to figure out what to do with that salt.

“There is only one fixed facility that uses thermal distillation and one mobile unit in Pennsylvania. There are currently no crystallizers in Pennsylvania. Therefore, the reject from these thermal distillation operations has to be trucked to a Class 2 underground injection control well.”

One company that provides recycling for shale gas producers is Fountain Quail Water Management (Fort Worth, Texas). Luke Thomas, vice president for business development at Fountain Quail, said that since 2004, his company has used distillation technology to treat and reuse flowback water in the Barnett Shale in Texas. The company announced in January it was teaming with Layne Christensen Co. (Mission Woods, Kan.) to provide treatment solutions in the shale gas and industrial water treatment markets and will tackle the Marcellus Shale.

In January, Fountain Quail’s chief operating officer, Brent Halldorson, said in the firm’s Water Desalination Report, “We have been able to recover 85% of the flowback from Barnett Shale gas wells for reuse in new fracturing operations. …  Because of much higher TDS, treatment challenges in the Marcellus Shale are very different, and we are only able to average a 75% recovery. … However, [using Layne’s complementary technology] allows us to achieve zero liquid discharge.”

According to Thomas, shale gas water is highly variable and inconsistent based on the source and the stage of the drilling, fracking, or produced water cycle. Numerous technologies and services are available to meet specific needs. His company uses clarifiers to separate out total suspended solids and soluble organics, followed by distillation. “The residual … salty brine may then be sent to a saltwater disposal well or further processed, creating a zero-liquid-discharge solution.” Thomas said.

 “If certain geological conditions exist, disposal wells may be operating safely and effectively given the history around the industry,” Thomas said. “[We prefer] to treat shale gas wastewater with advanced technologies that return as much clean water as possible to the hydrological cycle. Deep injection wells typically remove water from the normal cycle.”


Keeping resources in balance

Deep-well drilling consumes more water than shallow-well drilling. When does it become a drain on water resources? Brad Gill, executive director of the New York Independent Oil and Gas Association, said it is important to take current water use into consideration.

According to Gill, the average precipitation in New York is 340 million m3/d (90 billion gal/d), half of which is returned to the air by evaporation. Approximately 155 to 185 million m3/d (41 to 49 billion gal/d) runs off into surface waters and replenishes the groundwater supply. Only 3 million m3/d (784 mgd) actually is consumed or by definition, does not return to the water cycle. “This equates to 1.75%,” Gill said.

Gill said some of the bigger consumptive users in New York are the general public, which uses 1.2 million m3/d (318 mgd), and power plants, which use 1.3 million m3/d (340 mgd). Industry and agriculture account for 227,000 m3/d (60 mgd) and 185,000 m3/d (49 mgd), respectively.

For comparison, it has been estimated that the natural gas industry could require 102,000 m3/d (27 mgd) across the three states (New York, Pennsylvania, and West Virginia) where the Marcellus appears to be developable.

Gill notes that this is the equivalent of 3700 to 4000 wells per year being drilled, which at this point, he says, is extremely optimistic and quite high. “Nevertheless, if we were to assume one-third of the need would come from New York, this would equate to 12 to 13 mgd [45,000 to 49,000 m3/d] — 1.7% of the total consumptive use and only 0.027% of what is returned to the state through precipitation.”

However, water consumed by residents can be treated at publicly owned treatment works (POTWs) and returned to the environment, whereas fracking water, for the most part, is not treated at POTWs, and is usually deep-well injected. In early May the Marcellus Shale Coalition, an industry group, announced that after May 19, its members would begin sending wastewater to underground disposal wells in Ohio or recycling the water for reuse in hydrofracking operations. This will help end the practice of discharging wastewater from shale gas drilling operations into area waterways.


Environmental impacts?

The question of whether fracking chemicals are contaminating drinking water continues to be controversial. There is a loophole, some suggest, that exempts energy companies from disclosing what chemicals are used in the fracking process if they feel this information is proprietary.

According to Theodora Colborn, president of The Endocrine Disruption Exchange and a professor emeritus at the University of Florida (Gainesville), these laws that allow gas drillers exemption to disclosure should be repealed. Colborn believes that all meaningful environmental oversight and regulation of the natural gas production was removed by the executive branch and Congress in the 2005 Federal Energy Appropriations Bill.

In “Natural Gas Operations From a Public Health Perspective,” a paper scheduled for September publication in the International Journal of Human and Ecological Risk Assessment, Colborn examines 944 products and 632 chemicals used during natural gas drilling. “Many chemicals used during the fracturing and drilling stages of gas operations may have long-term health effects that are not immediately expressed,” she says in the paper.

Colborn told WE&T that “47% of the products [used by the natural gas industry] have the potential to affect the endocrine system, including human and wildlife development and reproduction. … To protect public health we recommend full disclosure of the contents of all products, extensive air and water monitoring, coordinated environmental and human health studies, and regulation of fracturing under the U.S. Safe Drinking Water Act.”

 In the many articles written about natural gas drilling, industry experts are quoted as saying that fracturing fluids are composed of 99.5% water and playground sand, and companies already report to state regulators the small amount of additives used in the process, items they say are also routinely found in products under one’s kitchen sink.

But Anthony Ingraffea, an engineering professor at Cornell University (Ithaca, N.Y.), said, “This is an extremely serious issue. ... We’re talking about the generation of unprecedented volumes of liquid wastes that have to be properly disposed of because the geology from which they are returned adds to the liquid materials that were safely entombed for the last couple hundred million years thousands of feet underground.”

At a recent gathering of Marcellus Shale gas proponents, the director of the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection Bureau of Oil and Gas Management, Scott Perry, said gas production in Pennsylvania can be safe, but only if drillers do the responsible thing. Perry called on the industry to look for best practices and to adopt them. “There is no need for regulations to be developed when there is no impact to be addressed,” Perry said.

He used gas migration as an example, saying the industry needs to adopt a zero-tolerance policy. When such standards are put in place, according to Perry, the Marcellus industry can be as noncontroversial as more traditional gas drilling. “It’s been so successful that a lot of people had no idea that we were even drilling wells in Pennsylvania. That’s the kind of environment I want to get back to,” Perry said.

A spokesperson for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) said that to help ensure that energy production does not come at the expense of public health, EPA scientists are undertaking a study of hydraulic fracturing to better understand any potential impacts it may have on drinking water resources.

“While we conduct this study, we will not hesitate to take any steps under the law to protect Americans whose health may be at risk,” he said. He added that EPA continues to engage in any enforcement actions necessary to ensure that drinking water quality is protected, including cases now under way in Texas and elsewhere.


— Robert Gluck,WE&T


Taking a big hit

In final FY 2011 budget, the clean water and drinking water state revolving funds are reduced by more than 60%

The battle over H.R. 1473, the Department of Defense and Full-Year Continuing Appropriations Act 2011, was prolonged and contentious, with both Republicans and Democrats taking strong stances on what cuts should and should not be made to the final fiscal year (FY) 2011 federal budget.

“The status quo is unsustainable,” said Sen. Orrin Hatch (R–Utah) in an April 5 press release. “Our over $14 trillion debt is a threat to the future of our nation. Spending has been out of control for far too long.”

“Budgets are not just dollars and cents; they are moral documents that signal who we are and what we believe in,” said Rep. Barbara Lee (D–Calif.) in an April 5 release. “The budget that Chairman [Paul] Ryan and Republicans unveiled today is an attack on low- and middle-income people and a bold attempt to dismantle Medicare and Medicaid.”

A compromise was finally reached at the 11th hour on April 8, narrowly avoiding a federal government shutdown.

Though proposed budget cuts were reduced from the original $61 billion approved by the House in February to approximately $40 billion by the time President Barack Obama signed the legislation on April 15, many programs still saw significant reductions, including those under the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). EPA’s budget was reduced by $1.6 billion, a 16% decrease from FY 2010. Of that $1.6 billion, approximately $997 million was taken from the clean water and drinking water state revolving funds (SRFs).


The downside

Carl Myers, assistant director of government affairs at the Water Environment Federation (WEF; Alexandria, Va.), said the final FY 2011 EPA budget “with its significant cuts to the clean water and drinking water SRFs will definitely impact local utilities’ ability to address their infrastructure needs. EPA’s operating budget also is cut, which will hinder EPA’s administration of its environmental programs.”

After hearing about EPA’s budget cuts, Ronald Poltak, executive director of the New England Interstate Water Pollution Control Commission, said he was disappointed.

“I thought the cuts were misguided,” Poltak said. “The EPA’s budget was cut by $1.6 billion, and more than 60% came out of SRF. This will affect the states’ and cities’ ability to meet the EPA mandates,” he said.

Poltak said these mandates continue the efforts that began with the passage of the Clean Water Act, “but we’re talking about more sophisticated needs.” These mandates include combined sewer overflows, stormwater, and nutrients, which now have stricter permit limits.

“The cost it takes to meet these mandates will be tremendous,” Poltak said. “When you take into account the EPA’s budget and the reduction of the SRF, you’ve effectively weakened the ability of the partners to get the job done.”

Poltak also echoed Myers’ concerns about states’ and municipalities’ ability to meet aging infrastructure needs with budget cuts. He said estimates for needed water and wastewater infrastructure improvements in the next 20 years are approximately $400 billion.

“I don’t see how we’re going to be able to do that with budget cuts,” Poltak said.

But not all budget cuts are bad, said Alan Vicory, executive director and chief engineer of the Ohio River Valley Water Sanitation Commission (Cincinnati) and chairman of the regulatory subcommittee at WEF.

Vicory said he had hoped budget reductions would not impact state agencies because cuts could “lead to less sampling, less analysis, and less necessary enforcement.” But he said he does not think “it’s wholly negative that staffing is sacrificed in some areas. Sometimes it helps increase an agency’s focus.”

Vicory gave the example of the commission, which has not suffered budget cuts recently, but hasn’t witnessed budget increases either, and “we’re leaner and meaner as a result of that,” Vicory said.


The case of the disappearing policy riders

Poltak noted that the one positive aspect of the compromise is that it did not include the 16 policy riders or amendments that were included in the original House version of the bill, H.R. 1. These riders would have greatly affected EPA’s regulatory ability and many existing programs implemented to clean up waterways. They included

  • an amendment by Rep. Mike Pompeo (R–Kan.) that would have eliminated $8.4 million from EPA’s Greenhouse Gas Registry, a program that collects data on industrial greenhouse gas emissions, returning its funding to 2008 levels;
  • an amendment by three Texas Republicans, Reps. Ted Poe, John Carter, and Joe Barton, that defined specifically what greenhouse gases are and prohibited EPA from imposing regulations for 7 months on those gases emitted by a stationary source;
  • an amendment from U.S. Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R–Va.) that would have prohibited EPA funding for enforcement of total maximum daily loads in the Chesapeake Bay watershed; and
  • an amendment from U.S. Rep. Tom Rooney (R–Fla.) that would have prohibited funding for EPA to impose and enforce federally mandated numeric Florida water quality standards.

Myers said that the House “signaled its intent to more closely oversee and critique EPA’s development of clean water guidance and regulations.”

Poltak agreed.

“Having 30 years in the field, it was clear they were trying to send a message to the EPA, and that message was ‘slow down,’” Poltak said. “I don’t agree with it, but I understood what they were trying to say.”


LaShell Stratton-Childers, WE&T


©2011 Water Environment Federation. All rights reserved.