Monday, July 30, 2007

Cordale's Birthday Fish

Lucky thirteen, indeed.

Friday, July 27, 2007

The Care and Feeding of an Industrial Facility

I worry. It’s what we do, we Bertoncelj women. We worry.

I also have an emotional disorder of some kind that irresistibly compels me to inflict intense and lasting personification on a great many of the inanimate objects in my life, including vehicles, laptop, shoes, houseplants, silverware, whole cities, and even certain rocks. I humanize just about everything, finding I relate to the world and all the things in it in a way that allows me to feel more affection for it than many people could possibly comprehend. Unfortunately, it provides me with a lot more things about which to worry.

My job consists of the maintenance and operation of two structures: one old, and one new. They are both fully functional water treatment plants (although only the new one is currently operational), employing a fascinating combination of ancient and modern technology to provide clean water to the citizens of our fair city. As operators, my three colleagues and I tend to both buildings and the equipment within and without; we are each mechanics, janitors, scientists, landscapers, interior designers, IT specialists, security guards, pest control professionals, and secretaries all in one. Most of the time things at the plant run smoothly, ticking along on an undemanding schedule of tasks, days efficiently rolling into weeks. But occasionally, something goes wrong, and when it does, I worry.

The plant is so like a living body, a giant sleeping on a hill overlooking the city it serves. Orange cinder block skin, steel bones, concrete muscles, electric organs, and glass window eyes; the Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition (SCADA) is its computer brain, the chemical pumps are like many hearts, the air compressors and blowers, automatic valves, motors, hoses, pipes, rails, walls, and basins mirror the glands, valves, veins, cavities, and all the necessary tissues of a living body.

Like a body, the plant is a series of processes. Replace circulation, respiration, and digestion with flocculation, sedimentation, and filtration. The only difference is that the plant exists to achieve these processes, while in a living body the processes are achieved because the body exists.

Like a body, the plant requires certain things. Living bodies require sunlight, oxygen, protein, carbohydrates, vitamins and minerals, and, possibly most importantly, water. The plant needs aluminum polymer coagulants, liquid sodium hypochlorite disinfectants, electricity, natural gas, oil, glycol and water. The feed water, called influent, has to be of a certain quality, which is to say that certain characteristics of the raw water must fall within certain parameters in order to allow the plant to function properly, for the processes to produce a safe, aesthetically pleasing, potable product. Like poison will interrupt the processes of a living body, so water that doesn’t meet these criteria will disrupt the processes of the plant.

And that’s how I felt at 5:00 a.m.: like I was sitting with a patient, a victim of poisoning struggling to cope with the introduction of material that threatened the processes that keep it alive. The recent rains, after weeks with no moisture, washed tons of gritty silt into the Bear River, well above the intake to the pipeline that feeds the plant. The plant reacted like any body that was poisoned: she cried out for help. Our phone numbers are programmed into a dialer program in the SCADA, the modem is triggered by the alarm, and a tense, nasal, computerized voice identifies her and alerts her caretakers, “This is the Evanston water treatment plant. Influent turbidity above the high limit. Influent turbidity above the high limit. Please enter access code followed by the pound key.” We acknowledge the alarm and crawl out of bed.

Measured in Nephelometric Turbidity Units (NTU), the amount of suspended material in the water was 450 NTU, well over the 4 or 6 NTU we’ve been contending with lately. We turned down the flow to the plant (lucky for us, people stop watering their lawns when it rains) to slow the total process, give the chemicals and equipment more time to affect the extremely dirty water, water that looked like cappuccino swirling with undissolved sugar. We turned up the polymer and chlorine as if they were antibiotics or antidotes and monitored the sensors and meters that measure NTU in each process like we were nurses in an ICU, nervously watching blinking blips on black screens.

Like it always does, the problem eventually passed. Although the plant was dealing impressively well with the bad water, we switched our source water to the relatively stable Sulphur Creek Reservoir, which is wretchedly acrid and slimy green with algae, but still preferable to 450 NTU. The cleaner water slowly arrived, mixing with the river gravy until the amount of suspended material dropped to a less catastrophic level. Prolonged exposure to that grimy mess would have undone the filters in the end, and we were using copious amounts of expensive polymer that isn’t always easy to come by.

So for a little while, I worried. Not too much, because there are three other capable operators at the plant, two with a combined thirty-five years in the industry. They know what to do. They’ve nursed the plant through much worse, including a spring thaw that delivered 1,200 NTU and several tons of greasy red fire retardant from the previous year’s late summer forest fires in the Uinta Mountains.

But still, I worried. Just like I would if you were poisoned.

Monday, July 23, 2007

Head First

I finished the last Harry Potter book at 11:45 this morning. It took me less than eleven hours total to devour and, I thought, tied up the series very well. But then I had to face the anticlimax, to look up again and discover that I was back in the real world, in the humid break room where the new white cinder block walls are already yellowing from cigarette smoke, and under the window sample bottles are stacked in coolers, taped shut for shipping.

Only in that first brief moment when I've dragged myself back up from a good story am I disappointed with my otherwise charmed life.

Monday, July 09, 2007

Thanking Mike

Mikey grilling for some celebration or other, outside City Hall in 2004, with a Wal*Mart bag over his head to deflect the wet March flurries. You can't tell here, but that red apron is covered with pink pigs.

I have only known a few truly selfless people in my life, and Mike was one. He was also a whistler, a lottery ticket buyer, a trout fisherman, a Junior Jazz coach, and a proud, kind father of five, four of whom (two sons and two daughters) he married off all in one summer. He was nuts about his five (and counting) grandchildren. I never heard him complain about anything. He was my boss until I left City Hall in January of 2005, and even then he wasn't resentful that I was leaving. "I knew you wouldn't be here long. You have too much potential." Mike had been battling cancer for some time and was in a lot of pain, so I wasn't surprised to hear about his passing. I think he was just 53. I'm sure everyone who knew him will miss him.

Sunday, July 01, 2007

216 Reasons...