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United South and Eastern Tribes Offer Certification for Water Operators

A story about certification among water operators at United South and Eastern Tribes.

The West African proverb “filthy water cannot be washed” can be interpreted as a warning that it is better to maintain a clean water supply than to treat a polluted one. There would seem to be little disagreement over that common sense idea, but 40 years after the passage of the Clean Water Act, the national nonprofit Environmental Working Group recently found more than 300 contaminants in the drinking water that gushes out of the taps of millions of homes in the U.S. So, with few exceptions, the country’s water has to be “washed” before it is safe for humans and other living beings. Now Indian nations can have the water-treatment plant operators who “wash” their water trained and certified by an Indian organization.

The United South and Eastern Tribes (USET) recently received Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) approval to train and certify drinking water treatment plant operators throughout the country. The approval was issued in a February 8, 2012 letter from Mindy Eisenberg, acting chief of the EPA’s Drinking Water Protection Branch, Office of Ground Water and Drinking Water. “We will continue to work with USET to ensure that the USET Operator Certification Program continues to meet the criteria necessary to remain an EPA-approved certification provider,” Eisenberg wrote. The new certification approval came just in time for the Third Annual Tribal Utility Summit (TUS), May 15 to 17, where a number of training events will be offered on process, lab analysis, and operation and maintenance issues for water, wastewater and solid-waste systems. The summit this year will be hosted by the Seneca Nation of Indians at the Seneca Niagara Casino and Hotel in Niagara Falls, New York.

USET’s Certification Board, consisting of tribal employees and leaders, set the criteria for certification through its bylaws and by applying nationally recognized standards. Tribes will now have the opportunity to provide input on the requirements for certification and certification renewals through board stakeholder meetings and direct input to the program through their tribal operators.

Perhaps best of all, the USET Certification Program furthers the goal that USET President Brian Patterson expresses as “bundling the arrows”—meeting Indian country’s needs from within Indian country. “There are lots of reasons why nations should use USET’s Certification Program,” says Steve Terry, USET’s senior project coordinator, “but primarily because we affirm tribal sovereignty. If you do USET certification, you don’t have to go to the state to be certified. We’re a tribally driven program for tribes.”

USET offers a number of certifications, including Class I-IV Public Water System Operator; Water Distribution System Operator; Water Laboratory Analyst; Class I-IV Wastewater Treatment System Operator; Wastewater Collection System Operator; and Wastewater Laboratory Analyst.

The certification process to gain EPA approval was rigorous. USET had to submit a business plan that met EPA’s Tribal Drinking Water Operator Certification Program Final Guidelines. The agency sets seven baseline standards for the program that must be met in order for “nonstate providers” to receive approval from the EPA. The guidelines also establish a method for the EPA to assess, track and address certification and training needs in Indian country. Water system operators in Indian country can also receive certification from state and/or other certification-provider programs that meet the baseline standards and have received EPA approval.

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Training operators is a demanding and multilayered process, but it can be richly rewarding, says USET’s Scott Williams, a technical assistance specialist. “The best training is a combination of classroom work, site visits and hands-on training right at the plant where the operator will work. We’ll help them get the training they need, but they must understand that they must meet the standards and be able to pass the Association of Boards of Certification (ABC) examination.”

The ABC had its genesis in 1972—the year the Clean Water Act was passed—when water and wastewater industry people began talking about certifying water operators. The ABC developed the criteria that have set the bar for certification, Williams says. According to the ABC’s website, “Today, our Association includes almost 100 certifying authorities, representing more than 40 states, nine Canadian provinces as well as several international programs. These programs certify more than 150,000 water and wastewater operators, laboratory analysts, plant maintenance technologists, bio-solids land appliers and backflow prevention assembly testers.”

USET’s contract with the ABC allows it to administer ABC exams. Once an applicant has passed the exam, he or she can apply to USET for certification. “USET offers training for operators dealing with small water systems—roughly defined as those providing water for a population of 5,000 or less—or systems providing anywhere from 1 million to 2 million gallons a day of water,” says Terry, who adds that the only other indigenous organization offering a certification program is the Inter Tribal Council of Arizona.

An applicant who has received certification through a state or other EPA-approved Tribal Drinking Water Operator Certification Program may also apply to USET for certification through reciprocity, meaning he or she won’t have to take another exam. There is also a provision in the USET Certification Program to “grandfather” experienced operators and others without academic qualifications.

“It’s a great opportunity for people who may not have a lot of formal academic training,” Williams says. And it’s a good paying job, he adds. “It’s a specialized area, and there are so many opportunities coming up because a lot of the folks in the jobs now are in their 50s and will retire. You’re not going to get rich, but you’re definitely going to have a good-paying, middle-class, steady job.”

Shawn Martin, the St. Regis Mohawk Tribe’s manager of public works, hopes to use USET’s “grandfather” provision to certify one of the employees in the tribe’s water-treatment facility, which can treat up to 1.4 million gallons a day. “My operator has 14 years experience in water and wastewater treatment. He doesn’t have a high school diploma, but he has qualifications, knowledge, skills and experience. That experience is unbeatable; it’s something you can’t always find in younger guys. If a pump falls apart he can put it together easily. You can’t beat that with a paper exam.”

Martin is sending three operators for training to the TUS, which provides the continuing-education units needed to maintain certification. Martin, who manages “the paperwork side of things,” says he’s thinking of taking the training and certification himself. “I don’t operate [the facility]. I know quite a bit about how it works, but it’s not hands-on. It’s one of those things where you know enough to get into trouble,” he jokes. “I’d like to be certified because you never know what’s going to happen to people or if an operator gets sick. It would be good for me to have an overall better understanding of the system and how the plant works.”