Bringing Innovation To Operation And Maintenance

Hard work, creative problem-solving and a quest to continually improve bring honors for Oregon collections operator.
Bringing Innovation To Operation And Maintenance
The City of Redmond Public Works wastewater collections staff includes (from left) collections system operator Dave Wegener, collections coordinator Bill Strait, collections system operator Mark James, and collections system operator Mark Thacker.

Mark James has hauled hay, worked in construction and even spent time as an underwater welder and commercial diver.

But for sheer interest as well as benefit to the community, he’ll put his current job up against all of those any day.

James, 48, is a sewer maintenance worker in Redmond, Ore. He loves the job for many reasons, but one is because of the good it does for the community.

“We’re helping people every day and they don’t know it,” he says. For instance, people never think twice about using the toilet. “They don’t realize there’s a whole team of people on the other side of that flush that makes sure it gets where it needs to go.”

Now, James might be just a little less invisible. In 2014 the Pacific Northwest Clean Water Association — covering Oregon, Idaho and portions of Washington state — recognized him as collections operator of the year.

He admits the recognition was “almost embarrassing,” although he appreciated it. “I don’t go to work every day to try to win an award,” he says. “But it was nice that your work doesn’t go unnoticed.”

‘Very deserving’

His boss says James was a perfect choice for the honor.

“Mark’s a hard worker. He’s been very deserving of this,” says Bill Strait, Redmond’s wastewater collections coordinator. “He’s been very innovative in what he’s done here and made a lot of our work processes easier. He has strong ownership of the system and works very hard to make sure it continues to operate how we want. He takes pride in the things he does to make it work better.”

The City of Redmond has a population of 25,000. It’s primarily residential, serving as a bedroom suburb of Bend, 18 miles away. It’s also a heavily tourism-oriented community and is home to several craft brewers.

The brewing industry’s volume is easily handled by the city’s system, says Strait. Grease is another matter — a major highway that runs through the city and several restaurants along the corridor contribute to grease in the waste stream, necessitating a pretreatment program centered on each user’s site.

Busy crew

The sewer collections system is relatively new, having been built in 1976. It consists of 135 miles of sanitary sewer pipe, 13 lift stations and 3,254 sanitary sewer manholes. Equipment includes two Vactor combination trucks and a CUES-equipped video inspection van.

Operation and maintenance of the collections system is the work of five people — Strait, James and three other operators — who also provide extra help at the wastewater treatment plant. They also maintain a stormwater system consisting of 34 miles of storm pipe, 3,666 catch basins and 1,718 underground injection control structures (UICs).

“They’re big holes that can hold water and then slowly allow the water to seep back into the ground,” Strait says of the UICs. “Basically, it can look like a big manhole with holes in it, gravel around the exterior and fabric in it.”

Rock around the region is mostly old lava rock, which doesn’t absorb water the way typical soils do, Strait explains. It also makes digging difficult. Crews have to hammer open the ground to install the UICs, blasting the rock to fracture it.

Maintenance responsibilities

James has worked for Redmond going on nine years, working his way up from Utility 1 to Utility 3 in the city’s ranking system.

The job is fundamentally a maintenance position. “We’re charged with maintaining the sewer system to make sure that all wastewater gets to the plant,” says James.

That includes maintaining the lift stations, the collections system and the stormwater system. They do much of the repair work themselves, if the jobs can be completed in a couple of days. They clean and conduct video inspections of the entire sanitary sewer collections system on a five-year cycle and inspect and clean the entire storm system every year.

On the day he spoke with MSW, James and his co-workers were cleaning up a service line where it feeds into a terminal sewer main. “There’s nothing above it to keep it flowing,” he explained. “It’s a line that doesn’t get a lot of use. What will happen is the solids will separate out from the liquid, and if we don’t take care of it, it will plug up. If it backs up, it’s going to spill out on the street.”

A long-term solution will require a store located immediately adjacent to the problem line to reroute its service lateral, which in turn would demand digging up a parking lot.

Later the same day James and his team were scheduled to inspect the site for a newly installed sewer line. They were to round out the day with some routine cleaning.

That day’s agenda only hints at the daily variety that makes the work so appealing to James. “You’re doing something different every day,” he says.

Lifelong learner, worker

James was born in Orlando, Fla., and moved with his family to San Diego when he was 2 years old. His father, a U.S. Navy man, owned a construction company after completing 25 years in the service, then finished out his career as a building inspector for the community of La Mesa, Calif.

At the age of 17, James went to work in the first of a variety of jobs. He credits his father for one of his first lessons in the world of work: “My dad taught me when you’re doing something, do it the best you can and then try to do it better.”

Fourteen years ago he got his first municipal utility job. His goals were security and stability. “Health insurance was huge — I had never had it,” he says. “And I traveled a lot with my other jobs. This one I was able to stay at home.”

Pay was modest but steady. “You’re not getting rich off it, but you’re working every day.” What James hadn’t expected was how rewarding the work itself turned out to be.

Move to the Northwest

“I didn’t realize how much I actually loved this kind of work until I got into it,” he says. “I just fell in love with what I do, so it was kind of a win-win.”

The ability to learn on the job was another plus. “When you start off, you can just have a high school diploma,” says James. In California, he earned higher levels of certification in water distribution and wastewater collections.

James was working in Ramona, Calif., when by happenstance he and his wife found their way to Redmond. His wife’s family had moved from the San Francisco Bay Area up to Spokane in eastern Washington. When his own parents moved to Pennsylvania in retirement, James and his wife — parents of three children — decided they wanted to move closer to her family “so they could see their grandkids.”

They took a three-week vacation to the Oregon-Washington region in search of a place to live and found Redmond. “We bought a house before we moved up here,” he says. “Then when I got work it was in [sewer] collections — something I was used to.”

Continuous improvement

Since arriving in Oregon he’s continued to upgrade his skills, earning a Level 3 collections certification for the state as well as a Level 2 wastewater treatment certification, which qualifies him to work at the Redmond wastewater treatment plant, where he puts in about one weekend a month as part of an on-duty rotation.

In his time there, the job duties have expanded. “We went from subbing out our minor repairs to doing it ourselves,” James says.

The job has its downsides, he admits: “Whenever something goes wrong and you get covered in raw sewage, that’s never fun.” And the winter weather of central Oregon has taken some getting used to after a lifetime in Southern California. Then there’s the hazard of working in the streets as traffic zooms by.

But he appreciates the small blessings of his workplace, such as being able to change out of work clothes before he goes home.

Strait says when he first saw James’ resume, “I was a bit surprised he was looking to go into the wastewater field here. He has a lot of skills — some that can be applied to a lot of high-level jobs.”

Capitalizing on experience

Those skills have made it possible for James to take the lead on field repairs, says Strait — everything from coordinating and managing the jobs to running the backhoe when crews have to dig.

While he’s continued to earn specific technical certifications along the way, James has never forgotten the lessons learned in his earlier work. “Every one of those jobs taught me something,” he says.

His construction career taught him how to drive commercial vehicles, qualifying him for a CDL, and as a commercial diver he learned welding — both underwater and topside.

“I do most of our fabrication around here,” he says. “If we need something built to help me out somewhere else, I can build it.”

James is focused on improving the system. “He’s always coming up with ideas and thinking ahead, trying to make sure that things are being maintained properly,” Strait says.

He’s learned how to operate a wide range of equipment and makes it his business to understand the system in depth. James is the only collections-side employee to also serve on call at the wastewater plant, and he’s knowledgeable about the details of the system’s lift stations as well.

“He’s an excellent troubleshooter,” Strait says. “He leads by example. He does a lot of the training of current and new employees.”

A surprise

Off the job, James admits he has “some fishing poles I haven’t broken out in a long time.” But he enjoys spending time with his wife and three children — two daughters, one with special needs, and a son who’s getting into skateboarding. He tinkers with vehicles in a backyard shop and plays golf less often than he’d like to. “If I could golf all the time, I would,” he says.

The fact James was even nominated for the award — by Chris Miccolis, Redmond’s wastewater division manager, who is also the Oregon president for PNCWA — was initially a surprise to James. But then he won that award and went on to earn recognition at a higher level for the Oregon region of PNCWA and then for the PNCWA as a whole.

And while he is grateful for the recognition, he got something else from attending the PNCWA meeting at which the award was granted: inspiration. That, he says, came from Dale Richwine, one of the speakers at PNCWA’s Vancouver meeting in 2014.

“He said we’re silent heroes — we save lives every day of everybody in our community just by keeping the raw sewage off the street.”

It’s a title that James takes to heart.


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