By: Marshall Palm Issue: Rebuilding Our Infrastructure Section: Business
A Paradigm Shift
Natural light floods the central atrium and modern architecture of a newly constructed office building in Salt Lake City. Rex Plaizier, company president, stands on the broad teakwood staircase thinking back about his quarter century career with WesTech Engineering. Having worked in most every capacity during his tenure, he has witnessed the growth of a great company. From an initial group of several visionary men who mortgaged their futures to forge the beginnings of a small wastewater treatment engineering firm, the company has grown to now count global sales and a worldwide reach. The rows of drafting tables in the basement of a modest home have been replaced by a new glass-faced office building housing dozens of computer-aided drafting stations. The slide rules that were indispensible to perform calculations are an anachronism now, replaced by machines that complete hundreds of calculations per second. But the tenets that made the company great in the beginning still hold true today. Hard work, accountability, and pride of ownership still guide the company. As a recognized leader in a dynamic industry, Rex Plaizier relates an experience which was for him a paradigm shift in his understanding of the world and the legacy of his company.
In a scene that plays out daily in many parts of the world, he saw a glimpse of a larger picture. “A few years ago I took my family to Mexico. It was a marvelous cultural experience for them, and we were all enjoying our time there.” He recalls. “There were many different sights and sounds and environments there. One of the things that we started to notice were women and girls carrying large bottles of water on their heads. Curiosity got the best of me, and I stopped and chatted with one woman and her daughter, and I found out that this was their drinking water that they would take home two or three times a week. It was about a mile and a half journey each way.”
“My paradigm shifted considerably when about a block and a half later my little daughter, who was about the same age of that girl carrying the jug, looked up at me and said, ‘Dad, thank you for doing what you do so that me and mom don’t have to carry water on our heads two or three times a week.’ Then I realized what we do at WesTech is more than just a job, more than just manufacturing equipment; it is truly benefitting the lives of people.”
It is estimated that one billion people on planet Earth have no access to clean water, and instead are subject to the ravages of disease and misfortune from the lack of any infrastructure that would bring them relief. While Earth is the water planet, only a small two percent of it is able to be consumed as drinking water. And the human population is growing each year, increasing pressure on these finite resources.
While people in many countries take clean water availability for granted, it is bracing to consider that the mortality rate associated with waterborne disease in New York City and other major western population centers was staggering if we looked back just over one-hundred years. Advances in water and wastewater treatment have been arguably the greatest benefit to the human condition during the 20th century—equally as important as the great advances in medical technology because it affects the lives of us all.
Against this backdrop, WesTech Engineering finds reason to take great pride in each project that they design and manufacture as both an opportunity for environmental stewardship and for helping to build the infrastructure for a healthy society. Each project is a small step that may help one day to end the ongoing scourge of water scarcity.
With thousands of installations commissioned over the course of WesTech’s 38-year history, many are large municipal and industrial plants handling huge flow rates in the billion of gallons per day. Some more modest projects are counted as equally important.
Help for Haiti
When a massive earthquake struck Haiti in January 2010, the scope of the tragedy was overwhelming. WesTech began like many companies in their industry, working with charities and companies across the United States to provide an efficient and readily available means to provide safe drinking water to the rural areas of Haiti. WesTech has partnered with Cascade Engineering to transport to and set up water filtration sand filters for families. The inexpensive, cylindrical sand filters use easily-replaceable sand and gravel in a simple gravity filtration process which provides the daily drinking water requirements for a small family. With the help of many volunteers, WesTech continues to be instrumental in providing filters to rural communities of Haiti.
Operation of the sand filters is simple, inexpensive and effective. Water from their local source is introduced into the top of the cylinder, flows through a diffuser plate, then a biological layer of organisms which develop on the surface naturally. These ingest the bacterial contaminants present in the water. The water then flows down through separate levels of tight sand, separation gravel, and lastly, underdrain gravel. The resulting filtered water is pushed up and dispensed through a top-mounted outlet tube for use in the home and community.
With the onset of the cholera outbreak in Haiti that has claimed thousands of lives, WesTech continues in partnership with charities and companies to help bring more filters to Haiti. Over the past 14 months, WesTech has successfully provided a reliable means of water supply to hundreds of families.
Passion for Problem-Solving
CEO Steve Brewster has also been with WesTech since its inception and explains the passion that he feels for their work, “We want to bless the people across the United States and across the world. Water is such an important need. You can’t live without water. We want to bless the lives of our employees, and one of the best ways we can do that is through the core values we espouse.”
The core values to which he refers support the fact that the company is incorporated as an Employee Shared Ownership Plan, or ESOP. This mentality of ownership and accountability is the basis for every decision made by the board of directors on down to the man pushing a broom and has lent to their continued success over nearly 40 years.
The back of each employee-owner’s name badge is printed with the company core purpose. It reads “To pursue our passion for problem-solving by advancing and applying water technologies to benefit humanity.” This purpose defines the direction of each new project identified by the company.
A recent project in Mexico highlights the real improvements to quality of life realized by infrastructure improvements to water and wastewater systems. Partnering with Laval Tijuana, a construction contractor in Mexico, WesTech works closely with Rigo Laborin to provide long-term wastewater treatment solutions in northwest Mexico. Laborin was born in the area and knows firsthand the importance of clean water.
Laborin endeavored to build with WesTech a wastewater treatment plant near Rosarito, Mexico. Laborin’s first challenge was to convince local officials and residents that a treatment plant would benefit them.
Explains Laborin, “I was born in Tijuana, so I know about water shortages in this particular area of the country. It’s a major problem. The water quality was not even close to think about reusing it. So we searched for technologies to make that dream possible. It’s been an uphill battle. Nobody believed in water reuse. Trying to convince government officials to use the best technologies out there and not cut corners was difficult. …There were a thousand people not wanting the wastewater treatment plant there. Fortunately, we had worked with WesTech before on a wastewater treatment plant that was called Santa Fe Number One. It had a good start and a great result.”
Conchita Cantù, a local resident, along with many community members of Rosarito, Mexico were very upset when they were told that a wastewater treatment plant would be built close to their homes. “I said, when this started, that I didn’t want the plant there,” said Cantù. “Everyone in the community didn’t want the plant there. I thought it was going to be something really smelly and really bad.”
But with an attention to excellence in public works projects and a desire to improve the reputation of wastewater treatment plants and their operations, Laborin was able to help educate the Rosarito community about the importance of clean water in the local and world environments.
“When Rigo explained everything about the water and the treatment of the water, I began to think that it was something really good,” said Cantù. “And then, when the plant started working, everybody realized it was a good thing. I think that’s good because we have water, and we have sewer lines and everything, and our lives are better now. Everybody enjoys the park, and everybody is happy about the plant.”
Since the plant began operations, the quality of life in the Rosarito community has improved dramatically. Its residents now revere the work that Rigo has done and the vital role that the new water treatment plant plays in providing a better life for the Rosarito community.
“By getting running water and sewage lines into those houses, their way of life changed dramatically,” says Laborin. “Next thing we knew, they had a gorgeous park, a community center, paved roads, running water and a sewage system, just because a wastewater treatment plant was built nearby their community. This work is making a big difference in our communities. Wastewater treatment has changed people’s lives. It feels good to do something relevant; you know that you’re actually making a difference. You see cleaner beaches, non-contaminated wells. I know we’re doing the right thing.”
Conchita Cantù now gardens at the community park with children of her community, drives on paved streets and enjoys many other benefits made possible by the reclaimed water now available from the wastewater treatment plant and the new supporting infrastructure.
Larger and higher profile projects are also on WesTech’s resume. One example is the Hyperion Wastewater Treatment Plant Expansion Project in Los Angeles. The project provided Hyperion 20 mammoth 150 ft-diameter clarifiers, large sedimentation devices for water clarification which incorporate proprietary and highly efficient separations technology. Prior to the plant capacity expansion, releases of sewage into the ocean were recurring events with closure of the beaches as only one environmental consequence. The clarifiers were a large commitment for WesTech, who won the bid and supplied the equipment ahead of the contractors’ deadlines. The new clarifiers increased the treatment capacity at the Hyperion WWTP to 450 million gallons per day (MGD) average with peak flow capabilities of 1000 MGD. The importance and scope of the project led the American Public Works Association to name Hyperion as one of the top 10 public works projects of the 20th century. The plant services the entire population of the City of Los Angeles. Unintended releases of wastewater to the open ocean are no longer a menace to wildlife or to surfers and swimmers.
After the Hurricane
Current projects offer similar advances to communities and to the environment. In Florida, the Emerald Coast Utilities Authority oversees the water treatment needs for some of the most pristine and scenic parts of Florida, aptly named The Emerald Coast.
Hurricane Ivan was a category five storm at its peak that came ashore in Florida with sustained 130 mph winds causing major devastation. The existing water treatment infrastructure was not spared. Power was knocked out, and resulting pump failures at the plant flooded parts of downtown Pensacola with storm water and raw wastewater for several days. The deficiencies of the old plant were made apparent by the storm, and plans were made to upgrade the facility for future storm events and increased capacity needed for population growth. WesTech has provided advanced equipment for solids separation, sludge removal and biological treatment that increases plant capacity to 20 MGD. The new plant is the largest public works project in the history of Escambia County and services the entire population of Pensacola. It was commissioned in spring, 2011.
Santa Monica, California is a place of unparalleled beauty which embodies the carefree coastal lifestyle. When Methyl Tert-Butyl Ether (MTBE) was detected in the groundwater supply of Charnock Wells in Santa Monica, immediate action was needed. MTBE is a chemical compound which is a flammable and colorless additive to gasoline. It easily mixes with water with a resulting unpleasant taste and documented health issues including a known carcinogen.
WesTech worked with the city and with local environmental officials and Black and Veatch, a global engineering firm, to implement a solution. Granular Activated Carbon Contactors and Horizontal Pressure Filters were designed specifically for the project and deployed to meet strict project deadlines. The new plant is now in operation and services 90,000 permanent residents and nearly 300,000 daytime visitors. It has restored Santa Monica’s contaminated groundwater supply and renewed their self sustainability by reducing the city’s dependence upon imported water from Northern California and the Colorado River.
– Global Growth
Chicago and Atlanta are now home to WesTech offices alongside the headquarters in Salt Lake City. Offices also operate in China, Brazil, and South Africa, and the company recently opened new offices in India. WesTech India commenced business in spring, 2011 with offices located in New Delhi and Chennai, giving them reach into both northern and southern India. An additional office will soon be opened in Mumbai, giving WesTech additional reach into central India.
With capabilities in minerals production, industrial process, energy production, water and wastewater process, WesTech is well diversified. This diversification enables the experience from a broad spectrum of knowledge bases to be brought to bear in any liquid solids separation challenge.
CEO Steve Brewster smiles as he explains, “This company has grown from three to well over three hundred people during my time here. One of our core values is to achieve productivity through hard work. We know that being successful doesn’t just happen. As a company, we studied the notable business book, The Great Game of Business, by Jack Stack, and we believe its premise is true: “It’s pretty easy to stop one person, but it’s hard to stop a hundred.” WesTech is its people!
To learn more about WesTech Engineering, visit http://www.westech-inc.com or call 801-265-1000.