A Morning in Middletown

This morning as I turned down River Road and came upon The Water Pollution Control Facility my immediate thought was “is this really it?” I was headed to the Wastewater Treatment Plant, and I expected something much bigger. But, as I turned in the driveway and smelled that distinct smell of…well…poop—I knew I was at the right place.

The smell was strong, especially as I parked my car near a screening spot that was holding a lot “material.” I had come to meet Superintendent Alton Sanders, head of one of Middletown’s wastewater treatment facilities, and I knew as I stepped out of my car that I was going to breath through my mouth and not say a word about the smell.

Alton walked up to greet me with a big smile. I had heard from a friend that he loved his job and gave a great tour of the plant. I was really excited to meet him. He did not let me down. I think I thought of about 5 dances just in our short 45 minute meeting.

Alton has spent his career in waste water. He has built a number of treatment plants- 5 to be exact. He and three other employee manage and run the plant. A plant that processes ⅔ of Middletown’s wastewater. 4 employees! (really 3…Alton says one is out sick all the time so he just thinks of them as 3 full time employees).

I left understanding that the plant itself is its own entity, or even being unto itself. You know what Alton told me. He said, “All plants are not the same. Listen to the plant—It will tell you what it needs.” WHAAAT? Then I really started jumping up and down because THAT is nearly the exact same thing my mentor Liz Lerman told me about dancers and teaching. I asked her, “Liz, how do you know what to teach?” “Just look at them,” she said, “they will tell you what they need to know.” AMAZING.

Sewage treatment lab

Alton’s lab area

Alton loves the science of his work and showed me, with beakers and water samples, a basic look at the water cleaning process. He walked me along the tanks…starting with the screening process then to removing sludge then to where the bugs take over to eat the rest of the whatever is left in the water. He showed me restaurant grease being removed, and we looked inside an empty tank that was being repaired. I met Vinny, the man who loads a tanker 7 times a day with sludge that is driven to New Haven to be incinerated. We ended our tour walking to the final stop where bleach is added to the water to kill any remaining bacteria, and then the water is pushed out into the river.

treatment plant tank

Pools where air is pumped in and “bugs” do the cleaning

The plant processes 6.75 million gallons per day- sometimes much more than that. It processes all of Wesleyan’s wastewater. He gets a 98.3% removal rate, which is unheard of in a plant that is 40 years old.

Alton told me you have to watch, listen and smell a plant to get that kind of removal rate. He is old school. He learned his job doing it. You can’t teach what he knows in a classroom.

In two years when the plant is finally retired, he wants to be the one to throw the main switch to cut it off. He wants to throw the switch, lock the gate, and retire. I doubt they will let him go that easy.

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