I’ve been very glad to see so much attention focused lately on the Utility of the Future (UOTF). In my view, the key to being a UOTF is the notion that clean water utilities should no longer see permit compliance as the ceiling of their aspirations but, instead, as the floor. Clean water utilities have significant resources and capabilities and can, and so should, use them to go beyond our conventional clean water discharge permit responsibilities to do more to make a positive difference for the environment and, most importantly, for people as well.
The idea of going above and beyond translates to many important and meaningful opportunities—-optimizing water quality performance beyond mere permit compliance, green energy initiatives, green infrastructure, etc. However, working as I do in Camden, NJ, one of the poorest cities in the United States, I think that clean water utilities also can, and so should, make a positive difference for their neighbors as an environmental advocate and anchor institution in our communities. There is so much that we can do to improve the quality of life for our neighbors.
My agency, the Camden County Municipal Utilities Authority (CCMUA), and I did not come to the idea of being an advocate and anchor institution in Camden overnight. On the contrary, it was a rather long process, and education, that took us through a continuum of four main phases:
- Do no harm
- Be a good neighbor
- Be a proactive advocate and anchor institution that is invested in the quality of life of our neighbors.
There is no doubt that our agency started with well-intentioned indifference. That is, we believed that performing our mission to treat 80 million gallons (MGD) of sewage every day and clean up the waterways of our region was the complete sum of what we should be doing. Odor control was not a priority for our agency, even though a residential community of about 2000 residents was sited only 100 yards from our wastewater treatment plant. The thought was that odor was a typical byproduct of the wastewater treatment process and so, while unfortunate for those who lived nearby, an unremarkable state of affairs. And, besides, as one colleague put it “if it really bothered them, they could move.”
However, in an economically distressed city like Camden, it is not easy to move. And, in fact, no one would choose to live in the shadow of an 80 MGD treatment plant with virtually no odor control in the poorest city in the nation if they could choose to live elsewhere. More importantly, they shouldn’t HAVE to move. And so, thankfully, our agency graduated to the second phase of our education—do no harm. We installed odor control facilities throughout the plant and also implemented a zero tolerance policy for operations and maintenance practices in order to change the culture of the agency—odor control had to be a core component of our wastewater treatment mission; we would no longer adversely impact the quality of life of our neighbors.
With odors virtually eliminated, our relationship naturally improved with our neighbors. Part of this was due to the positive effects of changing the workplace culture about odors from easy tolerance to complete intolerance. That led to feelings of regret for the years of indifference and the adverse impact on our neighbors….and to the desire to make amends and be a good neighbor. And, so when we looked at green infrastructure as one means of coming into compliance with combined sewer system regulations, we looked for “win-win” opportunities to install the green infrastructure in a way that would improve the quality of life for our neighbors. Our first community project was to eliminate an abandoned gas station that had contaminated soil and groundwater — was an attractive spot for illicit activity — and to convert it into a rain garden park for our neighborhood.
The success of this project led to state funding for more rain gardens throughout Camden City and for conversion of an abandoned factory on the waterfront into a 10-acre riverfront park which finally gave the community access to the waterfront. In addition, the project attracted several environmental partners that assisted with the green infrastructure initiative. Good begets good and so this successful collaborative endeavor led our agency and our partners to conclude that we should continue to work together to address Camden’s other serious environmental challenges. The Camden Collaborative Initiative (CCI), a completely voluntary collaboration, was formed among the CCMUA, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Region 2, NJ Department of Environmental Protection and 35 other environmental and community service non-profits. The CCI continues to work on green infrastructure and Camden’s flooding problems but also works on brownfields, air emissions, environmental education and sustainability initiatives. The CCMUA has traversed the learning curve from indifference to doing no harm to being a good neighbor to being an anchor institution in Camden which is invested in the quality of life and well-being of Camden’s residents, all while still continuing to work on its core mission of sewage treatment.
It is important to note that environmental justice initiatives did not pull our agency away from its core mission but rather enhanced and improved upon that original mission. And that, I believe, is the core idea of the Utility of the Future initiative—that, in addition to clean water utilities continuing to perform our original core water treatment missions, we should also look for other opportunities to use our resources to help improve the environment and quality of life for our customers wherever we can. Instead of being another regulated permittee, we can, and should, utilize our wherewithal to help save the planet and make the world a better place for our customers. As Mahatma Gandhi said “We must become the change we wish to see.” We clean water agencies have tremendous opportunities to make a positive difference, especially in economically distressed communities like Camden City……..and so we should.
Andy Kricun is the Executive Director and Chief Engineer of the Camden County (NJ) Municipal Utilities Authority, a member of NACWA, which operates an 80 million gallon per day waste water treatment plant and a large regional sewer system that services over 500,000 customers in southern New Jersey.
Andy graduated with honors from Princeton University with a bachelor’s degree in Chemical Engineering. He also has a professional engineer’s license in civil engineering and over 25 years of experience in environmental engineering. Andy serves on NACWA’s Board of Directors and is Chair of NACWA’s Industry of the Future Workgroup.