The New England region of the Environmental Protection Agency has again recognized excellence at the town’s wastewater treatment plant: Paula Lynn Ely, the plant’s assistant operator and lab technician, has been named Operator of the Year.

Ely, who joined the plant staff in 2004, manages the quality of the town’s wastewater day by day, hour by hour. Depending on the data she finds, plant operations are adjusted and tweaked to ensure that the town’s treated wastewater is super-clean before being discharged into the Housatonic River.

In 2016, the town’s facility earned another regional EPA recognition: the EPA Regional Wastewater Treatment Plant Excellence Award.

Ely spends part of each day looking through a microscope, examining amoebas, flagellates, ciliates and other microscopic organisms that feed on, and breakdown wastewater, as part of the treatment process. The critters need oxygen to do their work, so oxygen, pH levels and other factors are under Ely’s constant eye. She calls a cupful of critter-filled treated wastewater “mixed liquor.”

“That’s the fun stuff, but we are slaves to the bugs,” said Ely. “We have lots of bugs doing the work for us.”

William Ingram, superintendent of the Bentley Street plant, said Paula’s data and analysis is at the heart of the town’s clean wastewater discharge.

Paula Ely, Award Winning Plant Operator

“Without that data, we can’t run this place,” he said. “Paula keeps it all together.”

Ingram and Ely note that clean wastewater is a public health privilege and benefit in most of the developed world, where dangerous water-borne illnesses such as cholera, typhus and other life-threatening illnesses rarely occur. This is not so in most of the world.

“I love my job, I feel like I am doing something good for the environment,” said Ely, a resident of Pittsfield.

According to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), data show that globally, over 80% of all wastewater is discharged without treatment.”

Ely received her award from the New England Water Environment Association, a professional coalition of wastewater management professionals, on Jan. 30 in Boston.

Said Town Manager Jennifer Tabakin, “I am so happy that Paula is recognized for her excellent lab work. With her impressive technical knowledge and dedication, Paula plays a key role in making our town systems function, and she is a role model for anyone seeking a career in civil infrastructure.”

(article images taken from the Town of Great Barrington website