Friday, June 29, 2012

Leaps and Bounds

I am so busy! And I waste so much time. I miss writing/blogging. It's the first day of my every-other-3-day-weekend, so let's do some.

If you had told me twenty years ago or even just three years ago -- end of June 2009 -- where I would be now and what I would be doing (and how I would feel about it), I would have looked at you funny, laughed, and probably never spoken to you again. You freak.
I have no idea how I got here.
I am 20 lbs. heavier, probably half an inch shorter, a whole lot wetter, and minus some critical Vitamin D. I am down one good cat and plus one good man. I am 880 miles from where I started. I am 1,237 miles from where I intended to be. I am 734 miles from where I stopped in the middle and would gladly have stayed. I am so far away from the beach. But here we are.
I was never going to go back to an isolating, repetitive job at a plant. I was never going to work the night shift or 12-hour shifts or weekends and holidays again. I was never going to wear neon vests or a hard hat or steel-toed boots again. I am now doing all these things. And I'm getting paid very well for it.
What am I doing?
I am an operator. I am in control in the control room. I adjust chemicals. I increase flows. I close valves. I fill tanks. I take samples. I run tests. I meet regulations. I gather data and look for patterns. As an operator, I am a chemist. I am a biologist. I am an engineer. I am a mechanic. I am "authorized personnel."
Sometimes I use computers, sometimes I do things by hand.
I work with compounds that could easily kill me and some that can only hurt:
Ozone, O3 -- why can we breathe elemental oxygen but not the triatomic form, trioxygen? Because it's an unstable allotrope and a wicked oxidizer. It kills or disables disease-causing organisms in the water, but dissipates immediately so provides no further protection downstream.
Hydrofluorisilicic acid, H2SiF6 -- if I get it on my skin, it can stop my heart. It's good for kids' teeth (I'm living, biting proof) and it doesn't hurt adults. And no, I'm not having the "government mind control drug" conversation with you.
Carbon dioxide, CO2 -- ever heard of the canary in the coal mine?
Sodium hydroxide, NaOH -- better known as caustic soda or lye, it can cause instant severe burns. We use it to raise the pH of the water for corrosion control for metal pipes and fittings.
Sodium hypochlorite, NaClO --the industrial version of household bleach, it contains 12% chlorine instead of 3%. Think quadruple Clorox. We use it to further disable disease-causing organisms and to provide disinfectant protection in the pipelines, all the way to the consumer's tap. If you can smell chlorine in your drinking water, we're not adding enough. Confused? If you can smell it, that means it's working. Which means there's still stuff in the water (or in your aerator; clean that out!) for it to work on. If it has nothing to work on, you usually can't smell it in the quantities we use. (Swimming pools are a different story -- they're using far more because it has less time to work. You are an immediate health hazard and they can't risk you making other people sick, so they pour more in. Don't drink pool water.)
Water, H2O -- the stuff we can't live without, the reason I operate. An obvious drowning hazard.
On my 12-hour shift yesterday, 35 million gallons of water went through my hands to the faucets of half a million people in King and Pierce counties. People work around me -- mechanics, managers, inspectors, maintenance workers, engineers, administrators -- who support me, but at the end of the day it's my decisions and my responsibility... my certificate on the wall, my name logged into the control computers.
I am one of six operators, two teams of three. Because of my schedule and the fact that I don't spend that much time with my coworkers, including all the above-mentioned support personnel, even after nine months here I don't really know them that well. On the night shift I wade through the debris of their days: dirty dishes in the sink, mud from their boots, coffee cups and pop cans in the work trucks we share, their handwriting in the log book. E-mails. Papers left on the glass of the copier or in the output tray. Vests and hardhats and more personal clothing on the hooks in the hall, like flannel jackets and waterproof Carhartt coats. Pictures of their families on their desks and office walls. Sometimes it feels like a ghost town.
Outside the walls of my control room and my chemical facility -- both of which are the size of airplane hangars -- they're building a $250 million filter plant that will expand the current facilities by thousands of square feet. Right now I'm a water treatment operator without a plant to operate, unless you count the chemicals I add to the water. I'm not filtering, I'm not coagulating, I'm not really "treating." I will be by 2014.
Dump trucks and backhoes and giant loaders are busy tearing up the peaceful meadow behind the chemical building where a month ago elk and killdeer and assorted forest critters romped. Now it's a giant mud pit. In less than a week they knocked down hundreds of oak and cottonwood and alder trees to clear a staging area the size of two city blocks.
There will be four buildings two stories high and a clearwell forty feet deep and a four million gallon tank to match the ten million gallon tank on the hill. If you don't know what a structure that holds ten million gallons of water looks like, you're missing out. It's big. It's like a small stadium. In the basement of the biggest structure we'll have a pipe-filled filter gallery that will rival the longest, largest halls in the Louvre, a monument of our own. We'll drive forklifts through it. When all this is done it will be the largest drinking water treatment plant in Washington and one of the largest plants on the west coast.
I guess that's why I'm here. I wanted to see it happen from a front row seat. I chose this.

It's still a surprise to be here.