With the resignation of a Geauga County Department of Water Resources’ operator, the McFarland Creek Wastewater Treatment Plant is no longer in state compliance, department Director Steve Oluic informed commissioners last week.

The Geauga Commissioners approved the resignation of the class three McFarland plant operator during the Jan. 5 meeting. Dr. Oluic told the commissioners that this is the second and final class three plant operator he’s lost, and with no class three operators, the McFarland plant is officially out of compliance under Ohio Environmental Protection Agency regulations until they can find a replacement for the position.

“They both left for pay reasons,” Dr. Oluic said, explaining the first person to resign moved to a North Royalton plant where he would make an additional $9 per hour compared to Geauga and the second operator to resign moved to a Bedford Heights plant to make an additional $3 per hour.

The Ohio EPA has a five-level classification system for certified plant operators, from class A to four, requiring different timeframes of experience. Operators gain their certification by meeting certain prerequisites before they can apply for and take the certification exam.

Dr. Oluic noted that the step from class two to three tends to be more challenging because of a higher increase in experience required compared to moving up between classes A and one, then one and two.

Different wastewater plants are classified by the amount of wastewater flow they handle per day, graded by MGD (million gallons per day), according to the Ohio Revised Code, and require operators to have matching certification. A class three plant handles between 1.0 and 5.0 MGD.

County Administrator Gerry Morgan, former director of water resources, said the McFarland plant is right at the “low end” of class three wastewater plants and is the only class three plant in the county.

Dr. Oluic told commissioners that the department may have one individual who has expressed interest in becoming supervisor of the plant, but he is not class three certified and would have his certification in two years.

“We’ve also looked to Lake County for some of their retirees for class three operators. There’s a possibility that one gentleman would be willing to come in, but only part time,” Dr. Oluic said, noting that the county will be hard-pressed to hire enough operators to cover the required hours for the plant. He said the McFarland plant needs two operators.

“There’s a high demand for class three,” he said, “and we’re competing with other counties.”

Commissioners Clerk Christine Blair told the commissioners that the department is planning to revise the job description for a class three operator in the county in hopes of encouraging more applicants.

“Level three has always been a challenge,” Commissioner Ralph Spidalieri said. “It’s getting even worse because there’s so [few] people [certified].”

“A lot of them are retiring out,” Dr. Oluic added.

“The EPA’s also changed the rules on what it takes to get a class three from where it was 10 years ago,” Mr. Morgan noted. “They made the prerequisites to even sit for the class three much more challenging.”

In addition to requiring 60 months of general operating experience, an individual must also have 12 months of experience as a class two operator for a total of 72 months of experience, according to the Ohio EPA. Moving up from class one to two requires just 36 months of operating experience, and from class A to one requires just 12 months of operating experience. Class A requires 1,040 hours.

Commissioner Tim Lennon asked if the department could contract out class three operators. Dr. Oluic said they could, but “I’d want to avoid that as much as possible” due to union negotiations that would be required.

Mr. Morgan said contracting may be required as a temporary fix to the problem, until they can fill the position, to get back in compliance with the Ohio EPA.

“I don’t see the union arguing over it,” he said. “We’re not displacing somebody in the department because we don’t have somebody who can be in the position.”

Dr. Oluic added that the Ohio EPA also has a list of class three operators who are willing to help out at places in need. “There are about three or four individuals within an hour or two of McFarland that we might be able to attract,” he said, adding that the county may also be able to get a waiver from the Ohio EPA for a certain amount of time due to the coronavirus pandemic.

“The EPA, they will understand if and when we have the discussion with them,” Mr. Morgan said. “We’re doing what we can to get somebody in, but there’s nobody to be brought in.”

He added that with the competitive market, larger plants like the Northeast Ohio Regional Sewer District tend to take claim to class three operators because they have more positions available at higher pay that don’t require placement as supervisors or operators of risk, meaning they wouldn’t be directly putting their names “on the line” when reporting to the EPA.

“No responsibility,” Dr. Oluic said.

“And more money,” Commissioner James Dvorak quipped.

Sam Cottrill started reporting for the Times in February 2019 and covers Auburn, Bainbridge, Bentleyville and Chagrin, Kenston, Solon and West Geauga schools. She graduated from Kent State University in 2018 with a bachelor's degree in journalism.

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