It was mid-morning on a sunny spring day, and Shane Hamilton had already clocked half of his 10-hour shift at West Point Treatment Plant. He began his day at the top of the centrifuge building, clipboard in hand with a thick stack of work orders, and worked his way down to the first floor.
Shane, an industrial maintenance mechanic, knows West Point like home turf. At 33, he’s been in this line of work more or less since he was a 15-year-old intern. He checked some seals on the dewatering tank, tweaked some bolts on the pumps, and did a number of oil level checks.
The centrifuge is a giant bowl that spins off liquid from sludge. It’s the final step in a long chain of processes that turns wastewater from Seattle’s homes and businesses into renewable, clean resources.
Perched at the far edge of Discovery Park, West Point treats millions of gallons of wastewater each day, sending clean water into Puget Sound and processed solids into a nutrient-rich soil amendment that is applied to farms and forestland across Washington State. It’s part of a larger system of plants, pumps, and pipes that make up King County’s Wastewater Treatment Division, serving almost 2 million people in the Puget Sound region.
Invariably during these routine maintenance checks something needs a bigger fix. “It’s like if you go to get your oil changed, and you find out you need a bunch of other repairs,” Shane says. He’s got his spotting eyes on.
Few days are the same, including this one. The afternoon before, the maintenance crew found a wear strip out of place in one of the primary treatment tanks, leading to the tank needing to be drained. All 722,000 gallons of it. The staff call this unexpected interruption in their maintenance schedule a “break-in.”
Problems like this can easily turn a quiet day into an eventful one. That day, another mechanic on staff wearing a durable jumpsuit was fixing a pump that had seized at a hypochlorite storage tank, an enormous container of industrial bleach used to kill off remaining pathogens in the wastewater. The primary tank problem was now on Shane’s schedule. “Shane is one of our most talented mechanics,” says his lead supervisor, Keegan Carriveau.
Standing on a small beam over the tank, Shane eyes the scummy, opaque mixture below. Shane is often on-call nights and weekends. The tank was draining so slowly he reconsidered his evening plans.
Shane grew up in Federal Way. In high school, his friend’s father was Mike Lindsay, an industrial maintenance mechanic at South Treatment Plant in Renton. Mike saw in Shane a hard worker who was willing to learn, and when time came for Shane to do a job shadow for school, Mike worked out an internship at South Plant. It ended up lasting two years.
“We had him cleaning parts. We taught him to write manuals for repairing equipment – some of them are still in use at South Plant,” says Mike. “We worked on everything. We were in the gas room rebuilding compressors. I taught him how to weld…”
Shane graduated and took a course on wastewater treatment at Green River Community College. A quarter-semester in, the class was cancelled; he dropped out and got a job at Best Buy.
The work suits
Skilled tradespeople are in short supply across the country, as few young people are resupplying the wave of retirements. Cuts to vocational education have certainly not helped, but the trades themselves seem to have lost their sheen. “We’ve spent a lot of time in the U.S. saying we have to get kids to college and if you go into the trades you’re stupid,” says Sean Baldeschwiler, an industrial maintenance mechanic at West Point. “That couldn’t be further from the truth.”
King County’s Wastewater Treatment Division (WTD) is bridging the gap in tradespeople through efforts like the Operator in Training Program, which brings in young recruits with little to no experience and offers on-the-job training and a path to employment. The program is popular and successful, so much so that WTD is considering ways to expand it to other trades.
Shane found his way through. At another job, this time honing his mechanic skills at an aerospace company, he got a call from Mike in 2016. There was a short-term job opening at West Point. Seven years later, on permanent staff, the work still suits him. “I like West Point because I constantly have something to do. I’m part of a team and everyone has each other’s backs. The money and benefits are pretty nice too.”
Recently he’s been reflecting on the bigger meaning of his work. “Most of the time we’re hands in and hands on making all this stuff work, and we’re not really exposed to the larger value of it. But without this system, we’d be swimming in poop out there,” Shane says, gesturing toward the Sound. “We’re kind of environmentalists.”
Back to his immediate duties, Shane stopped by one of the raw sewage pumps scheduled for inspection the following week. These massive pumps are the heart of the system. “It’s more than 60 years old and it still runs because we work on it.” When the time comes, he will crawl in there in a Tyvex suit, N95 mask, and face shield to clean it out and check for wear and tear. A colleague will keep watch. It’s a two-person, 10-hour job.
- Learn more about West Point Treatment Plant
- Learn more about WTD’s career opportunities in the trades