Wastewater treatment plant offers internship program

Published on Wed, Jul 4, 2012 by Kelly Sullivan

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Kimberley Rose, left, the first intern for college credit through Bellingham Technical College, spends her fifth day on the job at the Lighthouse Point Wastewater Reclaimation Facility assisting in a total shutdown of the plant. Rose is overseen by lead operator Christina Ness. Photo by Kelly Sullivan.

Last Thursday morning, Kimberley Rose assisted in a full system shutdown at Blaine’s Lighthouse Point Water Reclamation Facility. It was her fifth day as an operator intern.

“Things have stabilized really fast – it was cool to go through a total shutdown and restart in the last four hours,” Rose said, with a laugh. The process required monitoring the water supply on a computer and then physically opening and closing the different valves to shut off the water supply.

Rose is the treatment plant’s first intern, which is offered as a college credit program by Bellingham Technical College (BTC). The internship requires 165 hours of work over the course of the summer.

A self-proclaimed science geek, Rose said her interest was sparked after taking an elective class on wastewater at BTC. She looked at the internship as a way to upgrade her skills, making herself more desirable to employers.

Rose has a bachelor degree in biochemistry and said the job combines two different fields she is good at, biology and chemistry.

“We’re lucky to have someone with a good academic background and a background in chemistry,” said Ravyn Whitewolf, public works director.

 By partnering with BTC, the city hopes to provide technical college students with advanced resources that will help them directly apply their education to the field. In turn it creates a closer partnership between the plant and the Whatcom community, Whitewolf said.

The goal is to train interns, such as Rose, for permanent positions as a wastewater treatment plant operator.

It is hoped that interns will stay on at least as part-time employees after the requirements for the internship are completed.
The internship is a formalized position of an operator training program the treatment plant has been developing for years, said Christina Ness, lead operator at the treatment plant.

 Rose is entering a field where operators are in high demand. For 45 years, Ness has watched the pool of qualified operators dwindle; the numbers state and nationwide are diminishing as retiring baby boomers leave the field, Ness said. And more and more frequently, operators are relocating from smaller communities to larger ones with promises of a better location or higher salary.

The training provided by the internship is crucial for those who want to get into the field, Ness said. To become an operator the applicant must already be certified, and certified “hard time” is required.
Rose is currently working toward qualifying for the operator in training test. To apply for certification, interns must have a certain number of hours clocked.

“It is pretty much a closed occupation, you can’t get a job without certification,” Ness said. “Nobody wants to hire an uncertified operator.”

Ness said the job has changed significantly over the years, becoming very high tech and science oriented.

“We haven’t done the same thing twice since you got here,” Ness said, looking at Rose.

Rose said Ness and the other operators Phillip Arnett and Matthew Luttrell are knowledgeable teachers. Working at the treatment plant in Blaine is a great opportunity. The effluent is rated Class A, which is the cleanest water a wastewater treatment plant can provide due to the advanced membrane technology the plant uses to clean its reclaimed water, Rose said.

“It’s like a living science experiment,” she said. Every day there are routine activities to do in the lab, but the rest of the day she is in the field getting hands’ on experience.

Rose seems to fit right in after only a week at the plant. She added she is also excited to be one of the few women entering the field in a career still dominated by men.