Leesburg plant operator on board

LEESBURG, Ga. -- When Smyrna contractor Ruby-Collins Construction loads up its heavy equipment and temporary trailer offices and leaves the site of the city of Leesburg's new $6 million wastewater treatment plant, most likely at the end of next month, all eyes will turn to plant operator Bill Mitchell.

Mitchell came on board as a city employee Aug. 19, and he's been overseeing the final stages of the plant's construction. When it officially comes online and gets Environmental Protection Division approval, Mitchell will be in charge of the day-to-day operations and mandatory testing at the carousel treatment plant.

"I'm anxious to get this thing started," Mitchell said Thursday as he, Leesburg Maintenance Supervisor Randy Kirby and City Councilman Richard Bush talked about the pending opening of the plant. "We started up the process yesterday, tested a lift station, and things went well.

"All we've got to do is stock our lab and get chemicals, and the rest is up to the builder. They're at a point where they're doing a lot, but you can't see it. They're doing the inside stuff, getting everything ready to go online."

Mitchell was one of several candidates, including proposals by established companies, who applied to serve as the Leesburg plant's operator, and he quickly became everyone's favorite for the position.

"He made the best impression of all the people we talked with," said Bush, the chair of the council's Water and Sewer Committee. "Plus we visited the plant he was in charge of in Washington County and were impressed with the job he did there.

"We felt bringing Bill on as a city employee was a cost-effective and efficient way to operate the treatment plant."

Mitchell certainly is no stranger to the process. Except for a three-year period when he was out of his element, selling car parts, he's been involved in treatment plant operations. He started his career in 1975 at Central State Hospital in Milledgeville and was a plant operator with the city of Albany before overseeing the opening of a chemical precipitation treatment plant for the city of Milledgeville.

He opened a plant similar to the one in Leesburg for the city of Tennille and worked there for 12 years before coming south last month. Throughout his career he's maintained a Class 1 treatment plant operation license required of such operators.

"You have to get 18 continuing education units each time you get your license renewed, which is every two years," he said. "Things change in this business all the time, and you have to stay on top of the changes."

Leesburg Mayor Jim Quinn said bringing the new plant online will offer the city a number of pluses, not the least of which is the end of monthly EPD fines brought on by the overused -- and antiquated -- sewage system currently utilized by the city.

"It's not a huge fine, but I cringe every month when we get the notice from EPD," Quinn said. "What we're about to have is a much better system, and it's one that leaves us plenty of room for growth. In fact, this plant is planned to last through 20 years of growth.

"I feel like -- and I hope I'm right -- Mr. Mitchell can be a perfect fit for the city. I was shocked when the Water and Sewer Committee made its recommendation so quickly after interviewing all the candidates, but it needed to be made quickly. We needed someone on the site."

Kirby, who has worked with the city for 33 years, said the new plant would be operating at only around a quarter of capacity. "So there's plenty of room for residential and commercial growth," he said.

Mitchell, 56, has been staying with a friend since he's been in Leesburg, but he said he'll start looking for a permanent residence soon.

"I'm waiting for things to settle down a bit," he said. "As we get closer to going online, I expect us all to be running around like chickens with our heads cut off. There's a lot of lab work and testing to be done, and I try to always be prepared for a crisis.

"I took this job for the challenge, and I'm looking forward to it. I told (city officials) I was good for at least 15 years, and this better be the last job I ever have. I'm looking forward to making the changeover to the new plant, and I expect a smooth transition."