Sometimes we get where we are going in unexpected ways. Back in her undergraduate days, if someone had told Paula Ely that she would one day work as an operator at a wastewater treatment plant, she wouldn’t have believed it. Although currently working as an assistant operator and lab technician at Great Barrington Wastewater Treatment Plant in Great Barrington, Mass., Ely originally earned a degree in psychology in 1989. Her intention was to become a therapist. This was the case until she learned that a master’s degree — hence more schooling — was needed for this role.
Fast forward to a few years post-graduation, Ely was working as a certified nursing assistant in a nursing home. The son of one of her patient’s came to the facility on a daily basis to visit his father. It was this gentleman who actually encouraged Ely to apply to the local wastewater treatment plant, where he was himself working. Thus, in 1993, she found herself on a new career path and the rest is history.
Admittedly, she had no previous background in wastewater management. A mentor at the first plant she ever worked at took her under his wing and taught her everything from the ground up. It was his guidance that enabled her to become very confident in a laboratory setting.
A few years later, the superintendent at the time encouraged Ely to become an operator. Heeding his advice, she enrolled in classes to help prepare her for the required licensing exams. By 1998, Ely had passed the grade IV and V exams and was officially recognized as an operator.
Having only ever worked at two different wastewater treatment plants, Ely joined the team at the Great Barrington Wastewater Treatment Plant in 2004. One of her responsibilities is to take inventory and monitor the level of microscopic organisms in the water. Too little or too many organisms can have consequences. Finding the perfect balance in number of these organisms is key because they function to remove the biochemical oxygen out of the water, which ensures fish can breathe adequately. She considers it very rewarding that the results of her tests can have such an impact in that they determine any adjustments needed to the water treatments to ensure efficiency and environmental safety — for humans and wildlife alike.
Ely possesses various skills that make her successful at her job, including a keen eye in detecting issues and attention to detail. Specifically, her strong observational skills allow her to identify any issues before they develop into bigger problems. “Pumps sound a certain way,” she explained. When an abnormal sound is heard, this functions as a signal that a pump is potentially malfunctioning. It is also crucial to recognize unusual smells and potential leaks. These very skills make her ready to respond in the event of an emergency, which should be kept to a minimum when a plant runs as it is intended.
Moreover, Ely enjoys the validation that comes from her laboratory testing. Some of her favorite things to do during the work day are number crunching, analyzing trends and importing data into graphs and Excel spreadsheets.
One fact Ely would like individuals to know is that “flushable” wipes are a source of frustration. While they theoretically can be flushed, they are not degradable. They actually clump and can ruin the pumps. Removal of the wipes from the pumps is labor-intensive and the pumps have to be shut down. This can result in increased sewer rates, so opt to dispose of them in the garbage as opposed to flushing the wipes down a toilet. Equally relevant, do not pour grease down drains either.
The public is encouraged to take an informative tour of their local plant to learn more about the operations that take place there on a day-to-day basis. “Contrary to popular belief, many visitors will be surprised by how clean plants really are,” Ely highlighted.
Furthermore, this would especially be a great experience for environmental students interested in exploring their career options. There is job security in this field because there will always be a need to manage and treat wastewater. More importantly, it is a merit-based field where one can work his or her way from the bottom to the top.
In January 2019, Ely was honored with an award, Treatment Plant Operator of the Year for Region One, by the Environmental Protection Agency. She was very shocked and is not even sure who nominated her for it. This award serves as a testament to her perseverance in the field. “I enjoy my job, take pride in it and do everything I can to make sure the plant runs as smoothly as possible,” stated Ely. True to her humble nature, she added, “There are many deserving individuals; unfortunately, many go unappreciated.”
When describing herself, Ely said she is a family-oriented person who enjoys reading. She is also fortunate to work with team members who are likewise dedicated to “doing whatever it takes to get the job done.” Her hope is to become a superintendent one day.