Wastewater professionals: The quiet heroes!

by Scott Carroll, General Manager of the Costa Mesa Sanitary District

CMSD Wastewater Maintenance Worker Erick Caldera clamping two-inch air release pipe inside a bridge

Firefighters statewide are being praised for their valiant and heroic efforts to save property and lives in the countless wildfires that have burned recently throughout California, and they absolutely deserve this praise.  In particular, their courage and commitment to protecting the community was demonstrated in the effort to save so many homes from burning in Lake Elsinore during the Holy Fire.

Every year, Costa Mesa and Newport Beach Chambers of Commerce host appreciation events for each city’s police officers and firefighters to recognize their heroic efforts to protect and preserve our safety.  There is another group of professionals you’ve probably never seen or heard of that are just as dedicated to protecting the community and demonstrating heroic efforts. They are the thousands of wastewater professionals that work in our communities every day, protecting the environment, property and public health.

The goal in the wastewater industry is to prevent sanitary sewer overflows (SSO) from occurring but, unfortunately, SSOs do occur from time to time. When they do, that’s when you see the courage and commitment of wastewater professionals to protect the community.  The Costa Mesa Sanitary District recently experienced an SSO, and to make matters worse the pipe was located inside a bridge over a freeway.  Wastewater was pouring down the bridge and onto the shoulder of the freeway.  CMSD personnel responded immediately to stop the SSO, which required someone to go inside the bridge.  Without hesitation, CMSD wastewater maintenance workers Erick Caldera and Tony Gomez entered the bridge, employing confined space entry techniques. Once inside, they were subjected not only to rats and cockroaches but to dangerous hydrogen sulfide gases that require significant safety precautions to avoid a serious and potentially fatal outcome.  Erick and Tony, demonstrating great courage by entering the bridge, had to quickly clamp a two-inch air release pipe that was connected to our largest force main pipe in the system, transmitting 3,750 gallons of wastewater a minute. They approached the pipe with wastewater spraying on their face shield and protective clothing and they successfully clamped the pipe, but the work was far from over.

Down on the freeway, we needed help capturing the wastewater, so we put out a 9-1-1 call to other wastewater agencies. Without hesitation, each agency dropped what they were doing and provided assistance.  Wastewater professionals from the Orange County Sanitation District, City of Newport Beach and Irvine Ranch Water District arrived on the freeway to assist with both the removal of wastewater and cleaning the freeway, all of which was done while risking their safety from passing vehicles that were traveling in excess of 60 mph.  These professionals collected nearly 20,000 gallons of wastewater and prevented the dangerous wastewater from entering our waterways.  When I recently thanked one of the professionals from the City of Newport Beach for his help, he responded, “that’s what we do – we look out for each other.”

Members of the CMSD Collection Systems Team.

Back on the bridge, wastewater was still trickling out of the pipe despite the clamp, so we had to replace it.  While preparations were underway to replace the pipe, CMSD wastewater maintenance worker Jesse Blakely staged our wastewater cleaning truck on the bridge and began vacuuming the trickling wastewater from a manhole to ensure that wastewater did not run down the bridge.  At 8:00 that evening, we received a call regarding a private SSO where wastewater was entering a storm drain. Another wastewater cleaning truck from a private contractor was called to relieve Jesse and Erick from the bridge and, despite already working a fourteen hour day, they responded to the private SSO, blocking the wastewater from entering the storm drain, removing wastewater from the storm drain channel and coordinating efforts with a private plumber to relieve the blockage.

Meanwhile, plans for replacing the two inch pipe were set to begin at midnight, thirty-four hours after the pipe was clamped. We needed ten pumper trucks to help divert 3,750 gallons a minute of wastewater, and Department of Transportation regulations forbid operators with the required Class A driver’s license from working more than eight hours a day.  As such, we had to wait at least 24 hours before scheduling ten operators.  When midnight arrived, all CMSD wastewater professionals assisted in replacing the pipe while most of the community was sleeping; by the time local residents woke to start their day, the pipe was replaced.

It is an honor and a privilege to lead CMSD wastewater professionals Steve Cano, Tony Gomez, Jesse Blakely, Alex Arreola, Erick Caldera, Brandon Hickman and Joel Ortiz.  Their dedication, hard work and commitment to ensuring the community and environment is safe is both admirable and heroic. They’re just part of the thousands of wastewater professionals throughout California that perform heroic activities every day. Let me ask you a favor: the next time you see wastewater professionals cleaning a pipe in the street or working on a wastewater lift station, waive to them or simply say “thank you” because every day they’re making sure our quality of life is not disrupted and they have earned the community’s appreciation.

About the Author

Megan Barillo

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