Showing posts with label Workplace Safety. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Workplace Safety. Show all posts

Tuesday, January 3, 2017

My experiences while serving as an At-Large member of the Gloucester County, Virginia Public Utilities Advisory Committee (PUAC) (The 3rd in a series of articles about my experiences and findings)

Our Water Treatment Facilities

We all know having access to safe, drinkable water is a necessity in sustaining human life. When we think of drinking water we think “clean”. Don’t we? Shouldn’t the plant our water comes from be clean and the water from it clean when we consume it? Of course it should. And “safe”? It has to be “safe” beyond reproach; Right? Heck yes it does. Do you know where your water comes from? Do you know what is in it? Are we paying a fair price for our water? In this and other articles I will share what I know about our local government operated public water supply system and sewer system. This article is about my first visit to our water treatment plants.

In Gloucester County, Virginia, some residences and businesses obtain water from private wells while others obtain this life sustaining element from our public water supply system. Some of our public schools obtain water from private type wells while others obtain it from our public water supply system. Many people with private wells and their children are likely to consume water from our public supply system at schools, at church, in restaurants, at the hospital, in doctor offices, at a friend’s house and so on. There are a lot of people who come to Gloucester County to visit family and friends, enjoy our historical attractions and attend various events. Many of these people also consume water from our public supply system. With so many people drinking our public water one would think our local government would do everything necessary to insure the safety, quality and availability of the water so many of us consume. That certainly “was not” the impression I was left with after my first visit to our water treatment facilities.

Our local government obtains water from two different types of sources and operates two different types of treatment plants that are located next to each other. Treated water from both sources are combined together to make up the water provided in our public supply system. Our first water source is Beaver Dam Reservoir, which began being used to supply our public water system when our surface water treatment plant was constructed in 1990. Our second source of water is the Potomac Aquifer. We have two deep wells near the water treatment plants that pull brackish (salt containing) water from the aquifer and sends it to our second type of treatment plant; our reverse osmosis plant that was placed into operation in 2003.

When I first visited our water treatment facilities in 2014, I was given a tour by then plant manager Brent Payne. Mr. Payne has since been promoted to Assistant Director of our Utility Department; in my opinion, a well deserved promotion. I have visited several such treatment plants over the years, but I have to say, our plant was without doubt, the absolute worst of them all. Most plants I have visited appeared very clean and well maintained, yet I found our surface water treatment plant to be just the opposite. Mr. Payne showed me various pictures of what areas of our plant looked like when he first began working there and it was even worse than what I was seeing as I walked through the plant. It was evident by the pictures, Mr. Payne and his people had made numerous improvements, but there was still a lot of work to be done to return our plant to an acceptable, up to date condition.

One of the larger rooms in our surface water treatment plant contains numerous large water pipes, valves and pumps that are used to control the flow of water during treatment processes and subsequent implementation of disinfected water into the public supply system. It was evident recent repairs had been made to some of the components within this room, but there was a lot that still needed attention. There were trails of water running into floor drains that were coming from small leaks in various places. There were bolts in valves and other components that were corroded and needed to be replaced several years before I first saw them. It looked like no preventive maintenance had occurred for many years. The only items in the room that looked like they had been painted in the last 20 years were items worked on by Mr. Payne and his crew. Not long after my first visit, a leak occurred in this room which sprayed water onto an electrical panel that was not designed to resist water. A short occurred in the panel, equipment was damaged and our facility and employees were placed in harms way because our local government ignored safety requirements that are diligently enforced upon private citizens and businesses.

I saw rooms inside our surface water treatment plant that were filled with various items that were piled and mixed together with zero thought of accountability, organization or value. Most of the walls throughout our plant looked dingy and as if they had not been painted for many years. The lighting was poor and ventilation seemed inadequate in most areas as it was very humid with the continuous smell of chlorine in the air. 

I went into another larger room that is primarily dedicated to storing and adding various chemicals and compounds used in the surface water treatment processes. Within this room was a smaller room that is dedicated to adding activated carbon (essentially charcoal dust) into the water treatment process. The activated carbon is contained in bags that resemble plastic lined paper grass seed sacks. These bags are periodically dumped by hand into a hopper by our employees. When they dump the bags, black dust fills the air unless there is an adequate exhaust and filter system to collect it as it comes out of the bag. No such system existed at the time of my first visit. The walls and everything else in the room were black from years of carbon dust buildup. When asked, Mr. Payne said he could not guarantee every employee utilized dusts masks, eye protection or other safety devices every time carbon was dumped into the hopper.

Activated Carbon is relatively safe to use, but prolonged exposure to carbon dust has been found to cause pulmonary disorders. For this reason OSHA has established airborne exposure limits and is the reason I wasted no time in bringing my concerns about potential health risks to the attention of our BOS and County administration. A rudimentary exhaust system has since been installed, but I have no knowledge of its make up or effectiveness.   

After visiting our surface water treatment plant we headed to the reverse osmosis plant. This newer plant appeared, at first glance, to be in much better shape than our surface water plant. Mr. Payne explained about the water for this plant coming from two nearby wells that tap into the Potomac Aquifer. He also explained that one of the wells is not used as much as the other because it was positioned in a place containing high iron content. He further explained that iron greatly shortens the life of the plant’s expensive filters. The only way to correct this problem is to drill at another location, verify the water quality and then construct the well pump house. It looks like someone previously skipped the “verify the water quality” step. I wonder how much that screw up will eventually cost us.    

Residents, businesses and others, who obtain water for human consumption from private wells, are responsible for monitoring the safety and quality of water drawn from “their” wells. Samples of private well water can be tested by our local, state government run, Health Department or by private labs like Reed and Associates in Newport News. Our local government is primarily responsible for monitoring the public system water, but the Health Department plays an “oversight” role in the monitoring process. Our public school system is responsible for monitoring water drawn from wells at our schools that are not connected to our public supply system. The Health Department also plays an oversight role in this monitoring process. Considering instances like Flint Michigan; in which local and state government monitors hid substandard test results, coupled with some of the things I have seen and learned about our public water system; I am not convinced our local government has always done the job we have paid or elected them to do.

I will share more of what I have learned about the quality of our public water in later articles. Before I close I want to share this: So far, the picture I have painted of our public water and sewer department is fairly negative. I guess it appears that way because there have been so many years of neglect. In all fairness to the people currently leading our Utilities Department, I have to say they are dedicated, knowledgeable and capable employees. They did not create the mess I am sharing with you in these articles; in fact, they have made some improvements. Our Utilities Department could use more support from our Board of Supervisors, but Utilities and the PUAC could do a much better job of publicly providing our BOS and us with an accurate, nonpolitical and complete picture of the condition and capabilities of our water and sewer infrastructure. More on that later.
Feel free to share this article at your discretion.

Kenneth E. Hogge, Sr.
Gloucester Point, Virginia  

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

My experiences while serving as an At-Large member of the Gloucester County, Virginia Public Utilities Advisory Committee (The 2nd in a series of articles about my experiences and findings)

Utilities' Equipment Storage Yard

As I previously shared; I visited Utilities’ office, equipment storage yard and water treatment plants after being appointed to the PUAC. I began by visiting the equipment yard first and was astounded at its’ dilapidated and unorganized condition. Being retired from the military and from the dirt work side of the construction industry, I am well aware of what an equipment and vehicle storage yard should be like and why. Utilities’ equipment yard is located in the courthouse area, behind Southern States and behind Main Street Center. Access to the yard is limited as it is gained through the Southern States shopping center parking lot and along narrow roads behind the shopping centers. The floor of the yard is made up of various slopes covered in dirt, gravel and grass/weeds. One of Utilities’ heaviest used and oldest sewer pumping stations is located in the rear of the yard. Beyond the pumping station are wetlands with a stream that flows to the Ware River

Inside the yard I observed several portable emergency pump units stored under a pole shed with various usable and unusable pipeline fittings and other items and debris. These pumps are necessary when one or more of the sewer pump stations become inoperable and they vary in price from $35,000 to $50,000 or more. Many of the hoses and fittings to the pumps, which are not cheap either, were lying on the ground in the dirt. Several of the pumps had flat tires and were missing various components. The batteries, like the rest of the pump units, looked like they had not been maintained for a very long time. When I asked Utilities’ employees how many of the pumps actually worked; they said probably none. They said all of the pumps’ batteries were likely dead because they had no way of plugging in chargers to keep them charged. They said when a pump is needed they take what is needed from the other pumps to get one running. I did not find this hard to believe due to the un-maintained appearance of the pumps and other items stored in the yard.

I was shown what was called “Utilities’ repair shop”. This “shop” consisted of what appeared to be an old portable wooden storage building with a ramp at the entrance. There was a riding lawnmower sitting in the middle of the floor with hardly enough room to walk past it on any side because of everything else being stored in the building. I was also shown a small recently built storage building where the employees said mostly copper and brass fittings were stored. I guess the intent was to better secure items that tend to walk away on their own or deteriorate rapidly when left outside on the ground. This building was the best looking and most organized area in the yard.

Utilities has a vactor truck which is essentially a huge shop vac on a truck. The truck is used primarily to vacuum up sewer water and debris and to flush out sewer pipelines. Vactor trucks are necessary pieces of equipment in utility departments like Gloucester’s. Utilities’ vactor truck, which likely cost $150,000 or more when new, was parked under another pole shed type structure. Like the other pole shed in the yard, there is no electricity. This would not be a problem for most any other truck type piece of equipment, but because vactor trucks have water tanks along with numerous fittings and lines that contain water; storing in such conditions during periods of freezing weather will cause many of the water containing components to freeze and burst. Utilities does a pretty good job of minimizing damage due to freezing; but don’t you think there should have been a heated facility for the truck to call home, before it was purchased?

There was no restroom facility or drinkable water located at Utilities’ equipment yard. When I first visited, there was a single user cinderblock outhouse facility inside the chain link fencing and to the right when you first enter the gates. The outhouse no longer had a door or place to sit; in other words it was unusable and appeared to have been like that for a long time. The outhouse has since been torn down and removed. I first thought there may be restrooms in the small cinderblock building that is to the left as you enter the gates. That was not the case, as there were no restrooms or drinkable water anywhere in the yard. An employee said they would typically urinate somewhere out of sight or go to the main office or somewhere else to relieve themselves.

There was a dump truck, backhoe, water trailers and others types of utility related equipment parked in Utilities’ yard. Even though all of the department’s equipment was not present, the yard appeared too small and uneven to safely move and store such equipment. There is also a lack of space to store pipe, fittings and other supplies necessary to repair and maintain our public water and sewer systems. The small amount of storage space within the yard is inadequate and does little to protect supplies from the weather.

Utilities has been in need of a new storage yard and office for a long time. (More about the office later in the series) Several years ago several million dollars were borrowed to, in part, design and construct a new yard. Tens of thousands of dollars was spent to have the design work done and drawings created. Unfortunately instead of making adjustments to the plans and continuing forward, the whole idea was pretty much scrapped by the current Board of Supervisors in 2013. The director of Utilities at that time wanted to buy land for the new yard, but the BOS did not agree and directed Utilities to search properties already owned by the County, to see if there was a parcel suitable for their needs. There was not much of a selection and the only suitable parcels are owned by our school system, so everything pretty much came to a halt. From that point forward I continually suggested constructing a new utility yard and office on the old Page Middle School property as the first step in consolidating certain County and school system functions. (More about the utilization of the old Page property will come later in the series)

The last I heard about Utilities’ yard from one of our Supervisors is they were thinking about building a temporary yard close to the school bus garage to establish a presence on the property; in hopes that someone will want to develop the property and, be willing to pay to relocate Utilities and the school bus garage to another property they hope the developer will purchase; all in exchange for the bus garage property and old Page property. I told the Supervisor nothing should be done if taxpayer money was going to be wasted on such speculative nonsense. Now the BOS and the school board have consented to spending tens of thousands of dollars on a study to determine the best place for the school bus garage facility and Utilities’ facilities to be located. Study after study, hundreds and hundreds of thousands of dollars to buy “so called” expert opinions. What a waste of tax dollars.

After visiting Utilities’ yard I notified appropriate County staff and the BOS of the following safety concerns:

-No restroom facilities at the yard
-No potable water at the yard
-Unsafe equipment maintenance area at the yard
-No eyewash apparatus at the yard
-No readily accessible fire extinguishers at the yard

I did not perform an in-depth safety inspection by any measure. The concerns I noted were nothing more than first glance observations.

In my next article I will describe my visit to Utilities’ water treatment facilities. In upcoming articles I will also share some of my concerns about safety, accountability, water and sewer rates and a few other topics. If you pay taxes or pay for water or sewer in Gloucester County; you should not miss any of the articles in this series.

The third article in this series will be published after the new year begins. Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to you and yours!!

Kenneth E. Hogge, Sr.
Gloucester Point, Virginia

Thursday, December 8, 2016

My experiences while serving as an At-Large member of the Gloucester County, Virginia Public Utilities Advisory Committee (The first in a series of articles about my experiences and findings)

I was appointed to the Gloucester County Public Utilities Advisory Committee (PUAC) in August 2014, as an At-Large member. From the outside looking in, it appeared to me that Gloucester’s Utility Department (Utilities) was not being managed very well. Being that I am now retired due to disabilities and possess knowledge and experience in water, sewer, and many facets of business management, employee and equipment utilization, safety and a few other areas; I was looking forward to and excited about the opportunity to give back to the community where I grew up.

From the very first meeting I began to realize the PUAC did not serve any realistic purpose and had no true sense of direction. From my very first visits to Utilities’ office, equipment and storage yard, water treatment plants and sewer pumping stations, I could tell everything had been neglected for numerous years. I also noted numerous workplace safety violations which I immediately shared with the Board of Supervisors and appropriate members of County staff. After thinking about the situation for a while I decided I would offer some suggestions to make things better, instead of trying to place blame on those responsible for the excessive neglect of Gloucester taxpayer's and utility customer's infrastructure.

One of my first suggestions as a committee member was the development and implementation of a Utilities enhancement program. The following was my proposal:

Gloucester County Public Utilities Enhancement

As we all know Utilities is not financially self sufficient, numerous areas have degraded for one reason or another over the years and systems expansion is stagnant.  Developing and implementing an enhancement plan utilizing an ownership approach will help considerably in turning Utilities into an efficient and self supporting department.  In order to establish an ownership relationship with Utilities, each committee member would have to look at Utilities as if it were their own personal investment or business.

Each committee member would have to become familiar with Utilities’:
-intradepartmental roles in completing missions
-growth potentials

Collectively the committee would have to identify the areas in which each member has experience or expertise so those talents can be applied accordingly throughout the enhancement process.  For example; if one or two committee members have experience in office management they could focus on areas related to such.

All intradepartmental leaders would need to give a short briefing to the committee in which they define their areas of responsibility, statistics related to their areas, their manpower, etc.  After such briefings, there would need to be an open discussion period for all of the leaders and the committee.  The primary purpose for such briefings and discussion period would be to establish professional, face to face relationships among those responsible for the functionality and care of Gloucester’s utility assets.

Each committee member would need to visit the varying sections of Utilities at least one time per month.  Such visits would serve to educate committee members on what is entailed in performing day to day operations and will help instill the ownership concept.  When employees see people taking interest in what they are doing they tend to perform better.  Such visits would need to be completely observational and educational in nature and all observations and suggestions would need to be presented to the committee before shared with others.  The only exception to this would be for safety concerns.  Situations where a person or persons’ safety is at risk should always be brought to administration’s attention immediately, through whatever means available.

A high level of participation and dedication would be required from all Utilities employees and the advisory committee to insure success of an enhancement program.  The frequency of committee meetings would have to change from bi-monthly to monthly and there would likely be frequent special meetings as well.  Increasing the number of committee meetings would be necessary to heighten focus, enhance the committees’ knowledge base, expedite the enhancement process and establish and maintain forward momentum through all process phases.

Once the above steps are in motion, the committee would then be able to begin to establish concise goals and desired results of the enhancement plan.  That is when the real work would begin.

No interest was shown in developing such an enhancement plan as it never even made it off the table. Changing the frequency of the meetings did not fly either, as it was unanimously voted down by my fellow committee members. I sensed my fellow committee members were unwilling to dedicate the necessary time to fulfill such a plan. From that time forward, the PUAC basically continued along the same path I can only assume it was traveling prior to my appointment; one of no direction or purpose. There will undoubtedly be those who will claim the PUAC has and continues to serve a worthwhile purpose and that everything is fine within Gloucester’s Utility Department. If that were the factual case, none of the articles that will be contained in this series would be necessary. In upcoming articles I will share some of my concerns about safety, accountability, water and sewer rates and a few other topics. If you pay taxes or pay for water or sewer in Gloucester County, you shouldn’t miss any of the articles.

Kenneth E. Hogge, Sr.
Gloucester Point