At King County’s Wastewater Treatment Division (WTD), we’re serious when we say men and women devote their entire careers to public health and our waters. We sat down recently to talk to three career employees with over a century of combined service.
On December 1, 1981 three men, Al Viray, Al Williamson, and Bryon Fauchald, reported for their first day of work at the West Point Treatment plant in Discovery Park. At that time, they were the three newest employees of Metro (now the King County Wastewater Treatment Division, or WTD), and none were too sure how long they would stick it out.
“I came from the Navy, and I could have worked for Boeing. I didn’t know anyone here,’” Viray says. Bryon Fauchald says, “I only got to know Al Williamson when he dropped a wrench into a valve and conveniently remembered that it was my fault.” Bryon laughs, “He still remembers it that way.”
That was 35 years ago, and even though Viray, Williamson, and Fauchald have faced major changes in the industry and the agency, the three look back on their tenure at West Point Treatment Plant with pride.
Viray, Williamson, and Fauchald all took jobs in the wastewater industry for one reason: it was steady work, the kind that helps support a family. “It’s always been the kind of job that is stable, but also one that allows you to move up in the organization,” Viray said. He is now Day Operations Supervisor.
Williamson, the Assistant Plant Manager, agreed, and added that though stability was the selling point, the sticking point has been the actual work. “This place will challenge you,” he emphasizes. “It will challenge you mentally and physically, and when you’re able to take a bad situation like a heavy storm and turn it into a positive experience, you really feel accomplished.”
Fauchald started out as an operator in Shoreline at what was then the Richmond Beach Treatment Plant. The experience was a revelation for him. “I grew up in Shoreline, and didn’t know anything about what happened with our wastewater. I never knew there was a treatment plant down by the beach. And here I was working there as an operator.” Today, he is the Senior Operator In Charge at West Point Treatment Plant.
The three men take the Wastewater Treatment Division’s (WTD) environmental mission to heart. Al Williamson commutes by boat, fishes and dives. Being able to look out on a healthier Puget Sound helps remind him of the contribution he makes every day.
Bryon Fauchald is the last generation of his family to be moored in commercial fishing. He almost returned to it at one point, but his job at West Point helping to protect water quality won out. “As a fisherman, you really see the end result of what goes into the water. And I grew up here when you couldn’t go swimming in Lake Washington because of the pollution. We play a really vital role in protecting those waters.”
Viray, too, admits he’s become an environmentalist since he first began working at West Point. “It took me about 20 years to realize I was an ‘environmental guy’,” he says, smiling. “I went from not even knowing what wastewater treatment was to someone who tells people to recycle their used oil and not dump trash on the side of the road.”
The trio have seen changes in the industry. Most of their most hair-raising adventure stories predate modern equipment and safety regulations. “You didn’t have vactor trucks to suck up sewage and solids,” says Al Viray. “You used a shovel.” They followed regulations and protocols that existed then, but the rulebook was a lot thinner then than today.
Al Williamson says the upgrades to the screening facility are the biggest improvement he has seen. The West Point plant is in Seattle’s combined sewer system, where stormwater and wastewater flow together in parts of the city. The first big rains of fall usher in a torrent of water along with roots, fence posts, leaves, and other debris. “We would fight the leaves on the first big rain every fall,” Williamson said. “We’d be down in the screening room with rakes for 12 hours trying to keep the flows moving.”
These three men have persevered through major changes in the agency, including the upgrade of the West Point plant from primary to secondary treatment during the 1990’s. Crews found their work affected by large scale construction, but their grit and adaptability were most challenged when the plant was changed over to the new system. “We were right in the transition and storms were coming in,” Viray says. “When we were switching over, we were working directly with engineers to operate the new system, because there wasn’t a manual yet. We had to figure it out along the way.”
When asked how their vast knowledge and experience will be passed on, they cite two efforts to ensure institutional knowledge doesn’t retire with them. “We’ve always trained our operators from the ground up,” says Al Viray. “We want them to know the basic parts of the system, not just start manning the controls.”
Al Williamson says that documented standard operating procedures capture years of experience. Detailed work orders are like pilots’ pre-flight checklists, providing a systematic way to prepare for big tasks like cleaning digesters. “Those work orders used to be on 3 by 5 inch cards,” laughs Williamson. “We had a card file, like an old library would have.”
While a stable job with training and advancement opportunities and lots of challenges inspired the men, there’s a different reason they’ve stayed.
Fauchald says, “We have a strong sense of teamwork here, and I work with really good people. It’s all about friendship, support, and respect.”
“We’ve spent the past 35 years working together, and for 10 years we worked on the same shifts for 50 hours every week. You become close because you have to depend on one another to stay safe,” Williamson says.
That’s something they all agree with.
“We’ve always watched each other’s backs,” Viray says before adding. “It’s really the people who have made me stay here so long.”
“I never thought I would work someplace where I’d come into contact with people with such different backgrounds, from all walks of life, who have so many different stories,” Williamson says. “That’s been the best part for me. My only regret is never taking the opportunity to learn some of the other languages my coworkers speak.”
Viray, who hails from the Phillipines and speaks three languages, leans back in his chair confidently.
“I have no regrets.”