Working Together for a Cleaner Environment

Wastewater professionals, lawmakers should steer policy toward stronger water recycling programs.
Working Together for a Cleaner Environment
The Miller’s Sewage Treatment Solutions team includes, from left, Jeremy George, Chris Schiewe, Josh Miller and Bernie Miller. (Photo courtesy of Miller Sewage Treatment Solutions)

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Association involvement:

I was nominated to run for a board position in 1996 and have served as many terms as possible with the limits set forth in our bylaws. I have been president and vice president at least a couple times, and have chaired the membership and cluster task force committee multiple times. In my 20-plus years in the association, I have also served on the legislative and conference committee.  

Benefits of belonging to the association:

I believe there are tangible and many less-tangible benefits to belonging to an association. This reminds me of a story I share with potential new members. It was the first conference I attended and hardly knew anyone there. I had just gone through the lunch line, found a table with an open spot and asked if I could join the group.

After introducing myself, I asked the two friendly brothers next to me what line of work they were in. They told me they were mostly excavators but did put in a few septics every year and enjoyed the conference, so they came every year for the fun. I then asked them where they mostly worked, and as it turns out it was in the area of a project I was working on. I explained that I was a project manager for an engineering firm and was working on a new church project in their area. I then asked if they might be interested in bidding the job. As it turns out, they got the job and it was their primary job for the whole year. So needless to say, networking was a big benefit for them.

Being involved and keeping a pulse on the industry is critical for a business to stay on top of the industry. Benefits that come to mind are networking, education, resources and friendships.   

Biggest issue facing our association right now:

Trying to identify what the association can do to better serve its members. The board members and people that are involved are always striving to be better and do more. As a board, we seem to have no shortage of ideas, but with a strong economy, no one on the board has the time to follow through with the ideas. It is apparent that we either need to be satisfied with what we are currently doing or hire additional staff to make these ideas a reality.       

Our crew includes:

  • Bernie Miller, designer, president/owner
  • Barb Miller, office support, vice president/owner
  • Jeremy George, site evaluator/inspector
  • Chris Schiewe, service and maintenance
  • Josh Miller, helper

Typical day on the job:

I spend most of my time in the office drafting, preparing design reports and talking with clients on the phone. Prior to having properly trained staff, I would spend my days in the fields and my evenings and/or nights making phone calls and completing septic designs. Having well-trained field staff has helped our business become more efficient and has allowed me to spend more time with family.    

Helping hands — indispensible crew member:

Jeremy George has worked for us for nearly 15 years. His willingness to work long, hard hours in some extreme conditions makes him an indispensable crew member. Chris Schiewe is following right in Jeremy’s footsteps with his willingness to work hard and dive into situations where most seasoned septic professionals would be hesitant.

The job I’ll never forget:

Upon doing a real estate septic tank inspection, we found the tank was full of syringes. As it turns out, the septic tank had not been pumped since the system was installed about 20 years ago, and the single woman who lived there was diabetic. The pumper we had lined up refused to pump the tank unless we came up with a way keep the syringes out of his pump truck. We ended up making a 15-inch-diameter screen with 1/4-inch holes. The screen did work, however it took lots of water and pressure to separate the sludge, hair and grease from the syringes. We bought a couple different pool nets to get the syringes out of the tank.

After discussing disposal options for the syringes with the county, it was concluded that we were to place them in plastic tubs, tape them shut and take them to the landfill. As it turns out, we did get out of there without getting poked, however, the pumper has mentioned that he occasionally sees a syringe in the field where the septage was land-applied.

My favorite piece of equipment:

Our surveying total station, a Pentax PCS-315. The combination of the total station, data collector and our survey AutoCAD program helps us more accurately and efficiently gather site data used for design purposes.    

Most challenging site I’ve worked on:

The most challenging and unique site is a church camp located on two mostly rock islands a stone’s throw from Minnesota’s Boundary Water Canoe Area Wilderness. The camp had been using pit toilets with the exception of one 100-foot-long by 30-foot-wide mound system located in the center of the main island that served the main lodge/dining hall. The terrain was such that it would be impossible to haul material over land, assuming you could even get the material across the lake.
I asked the camp director how they got the material across to build the mound, and he said, “with backpacks and buckets.” On multiple occasions, while trying to locate additional mound sites, we encountered a cow moose with her calves feeding on the birch tree sapling. The following winter an ice road was created across the lake and the materials were transported with a wheel loader and placed in the areas of the proposed mounds. The system we designed for the main lodge included modifying the existing mound system by adding peat modules on top of the existing rock bed and incorporating aerobic treatment.

The craziest question I’ve been asked by a customer:

Prior to inspecting a holding tank, the customer asked me why I would not go back to school to get a better education so I would not have to look at other people’s poop. I did not answer at that time and went on with my inspection. After completing the inspection in 15 minutes, she continued to question why I would not go back to school. After I presented her with a bill for $300, she stopped asking.

If I could change one industry regulation, it would be:

Allow and provide incentives for wastewater recycling and reuse.

Best piece of small-business advice I’ve heard:

Shortly after starting my own business, I was talking with an older, very wise engineer about marketing and growth. He said it’s like a dog chasing a car; you better have a plan if you catch it. I took that to heart and have been careful not to oversell our services until we have the staff and resources to handle the work.  

If I wasn’t working in the wastewater industry, I would:

It had taken me 20 years to realize I enjoy and get the most satisfaction in life from helping people by solving their problems. I suppose I would gravitate to another career or industry where I could get the same satisfaction.       

Crystal ball time — this is my outlook for the wastewater industry:

I am mostly concerned about the drinking water supply of the world and think it is taken for granted in most places around the U.S. Forty-seven years ago we landed on the moon, but still have not developed processes and regulations to widely and efficiently treat and recycle wastewater on a smaller scale. After 23 years in the industry, I realize how hard it is to treat wastewater to drinking water standard, and have always been perplexed that drinking water is used to flush toilets. My hopes are that the industry takes a leading role in developing ways to more effectively treat and dispose wastewater and that lawmakers down to the regulators allow or accept change before it is too late.

- Compiled by Sarah Umhoefer


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