Kevin Grant, who started as a water meter reader for Hillsborough County more than 25 years ago, now runs the Northwest Regional Water Reclamation Facility, whose new expansion, completed last year, was the most expensive capital improvement project in the county’s history, costing $193.3 million.
The plant currently processes up to 17 million gallons of sewage a day, though it’s capable of handling 30 million gallons. It treats the wastewater the northwest facility was doing all along, plus the flow from two other plants that were shut down, water that is used for irrigation and industrial purposes.
Grant, 61, who served 15 years in the U.S. Army, trained for years and passed state exams to become a licensed wastewater plant operator. He talked with the Tampa Bay Times about why the plant and what it does is worth more than $193 million.
You say it is essential to keep the facility running round the clock. How is it powered?
Due to the nature of the facility, we treat sewage and the sewage doesn’t stop. We have to have three sources of power. Right now, our primary source of power is a turbine gas generator, which doesn’t shut off. But all facilities have TECO power and they also have a diesel generator.
Storm water is directed toward retention ponds, you say. What exactly does your facility treat?
What wastewater facilities treat is domestic and industrial waste. As far as domestic, anything that goes down – it’s not just the toilet, it’s your sink, your dishwasher – any drain that comes from your house, that’s all combined to be sewage. …
The primary thing that a wastewater facility does – it’s for the community, it’s for the health and welfare of the community. You can go to foreign countries, and as you’re walking down the street, right there on the curb next to you is sewage going down the sidewalk. In the United States, we don’t have that, and the reason we don’t have that is because of facilities like this.
Why is it especially necessary to be on hand at the plant during hurricanes?
The main thing you’re worried about during hurricanes is there is an increased amount of water coming from either homes or wherever, because people are going to be staying in their houses. But the other thing is you don’t want to have spills. We have to report spills; spills have to be reported to the state as well as, depending on how bad they are, to the federal government. So it’s important to keep the facility running to prevent spills of sewage.
If the storm is bad enough to where we can’t stay at the facility, that’s something that can’t be controlled. But in the normal process, when a hurricane comes, that’s basically when we earn our money. We earn our money everyday, but in disasters like that, that’s really when we earn our money.
How clean is the reclaimed water?
There are certain limits that you have to treat the water to, so if the water is discharged it doesn’t harm the environment. For instance, there’s a phosphorous limit. Phosphorus comes from dish soap, fertilizer, stuff like that. Why do we have a limit on phosphorus? Because phosphorus promotes algae growth (in water bodies). … Nitrogen and all these other things, they make the water to where the water can be kind of toxic for people and all that. The other thing we have to do is we have to make sure that the water has enough oxygen in it, because if you put out what we call dead water… then the fish will die.
You started as a water meter reader with the county. What was that job like?
It’s kind of tough. My meter read determines what someone will be charged. So there’s a lot of pressure because you have to make sure you’re accurate. There’s also a lot of pressure because there’s a lot of them that you had to do. We averaged at the time … I handled like 500 a day.
Of course, there’s black widow spiders. There’s snakes. Sometimes the meter is under water. Sometimes people have their meter – I think they do it on purpose –
like underneath a palm with barbs on it (he laughs). It’s not an easy job.
Did you ever get residents coming out complaining?
All the time. All the time.
What would they say?
Well, they think I’m there to shut their water off. Or they want to complain about how much their water bill is. Just because I work for the county doesn’t mean I get a break; I have to pay the same thing that they do. … I’m a meter reader but they want to ask you about problems that they’re having with their water inside the house. They want to complain to you that they don’t think their meter is right, or the pipe is broken. There’s all kinds of things.
Is the job you have now gratifying?
For me, yes, it has been gratifying because I’m a public servant. Even though most people don’t know what you do or really care or think about what we do – If something goes wrong they care. …
It’s gratifying to know that being a wastewater operator , that wastewater treatment or water treatment in general is done all over the world. … In theory I could work anywhere. And water is something that’s always going to be needed in one way or another, whether it’s to consume or to get rid of. It’s always going to be needed. You can always have a job. …
I take every opportunity I can to promote what it is that I do because it’s very important. People need to be aware of this. I’m 61, I didn’t start in this until I was in my 30s. … Young people now when they’re in school, they want to do something, the first thing they think about is they want to be a doctor or lawyer or a pilot or something like that. … We need younger people to get involved in this. Most of the people that are in this are… up in age.