By Cheyenne Ellis

A group of high school students trudge down the coastal forest path, swatting bugs away from their faces and grumbling as they make their way toward the beach. All at once, the woody debris beneath their feet turns to sand and the forest gives way to views of the Atlantic Ocean. The students let out a collective sigh, both at the scenery and the sea breeze keeping the bugs at bay.

These young people are on a field trip with the Seacoast Science Center (SSC) in Rye, New Hampshire as part of their participation in the Youth and the Environment Program (YEP). They set up sampling gear on the beach, including a long seine net for catching aquatic organisms, and a few students volunteer to get their feet wet. They grab the edges of the net and enter the water, dragging it through a submerged bed of eelgrass. As they make their way back to shore, the others gather around, waiting to see what has been caught.

The students lay the net on the beach and kneel beside it, picking through the seaweed in search of animals. As they sift, they get a glimpse of the coastal ecosystem: snails, crabs, small fish and even some invasive species. They collect the organisms in buckets and take turns examining each one. As the initial excitement winds down, Brian Yurasits, who is both an information officer at NEIWPCC and a community outreach manager for the SSC, explains to the students how their work improving water quality at wastewater treatment plants benefits downstream marine ecosystems like this one.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) created YEP in 1990 to introduce students to careers in the wastewater industry. Since then, NEIWPCC has received annual funding to run YEP, which provides paid positions each summer to underserved youths, allowing them to gain experience through hands-on work, educational lessons and weekly field trips.

“For a lot of young folks, wastewater treatment is not a career that they consider,” said James Plummer, an environmental analyst who got his start at NEIWPCC as a coordinator for YEP in 2016. Plummer now works in the Wastewater and Onsite Programs Division and is a supervisor of the YEP programs. “But it is a great profession. There are high paying jobs, and it is mentally stimulating.”

The Massachusetts-based program began in Lowell, before expanding to Lawrence. Both programs returned in the summer of 2023 for the first time since 2019, following a three-year hiatus due to the COVID-19 pandemic. A similar program also runs in New York City.

Plummer said that the goal of YEP is not necessarily to create the next generation of wastewater operators, but rather to give young people the opportunity to better understand the world around them and their relationship with it.

In addition to teaching students about wastewater, YEP serves as an introduction to the workforce for many of the participants, providing them with a way to learn professional skills and gain experience. The coordinators helped improve the students’ knowledge about writing a resume, applying for jobs and planning for careers. When the students received their first paychecks, they were given a lesson on financial literacy, because for many of them, it was their first paid position.

Last summer’s cohort of YEP participants arrived at their assigned treatment plants in July, apprehensive about working in an environment with such a strong odor. Nevertheless, as the summer went on, the students — and their noses — began to adapt to the challenges, complexities and the fulfillment of working at a wastewater treatment plant.

“Being employed alongside people who are much older than you can be intimidating,” said YEP Coordinator Daphne Short. “But by the end of the summer, the students were able to talk and work with anyone in the plant.”

The Massachusetts Programs

The YEP session in Lowell kicked off at the Lowell Regional Wastewater Utility, which receives wastewater and stormwater from the city and the surrounding towns of Chelmsford, Dracut, Tewksbury and Tyngsborough. The plant treats an average of 25 million gallons of water per day and discharges the water into the nearby Merrimack River.

Lowell’s YEP was led by Short, who had recently graduated from the University of Texas at El Paso with a bachelor’s in environmental science. Short said that her studies focused on water scarcity and geology, and she wanted to share her passion for environmental protection with others.

“I really value being a mentor for my students,” she said. “This program is so much more than just environmental literacy but encourages these students to grow into well-rounded young adults.”

The participants stationed at the Lowell plant were selected by MassHire Lowell Career Center, and included a biology student at Middlesex Community College, and a junior and a recent graduate of Lowell High School.

At the same time, a cohort of students began their YEP program in Lawrence, where they were stationed at the Greater Lawrence Sanitary District (GLSD), another treatment plant which discharges into the Merrimack River. GLSD treats around 52 million gallons of wastewater per day for Massachusetts communities including Lawrence, Methuen, North Andover, Andover and Dracut, as well as Salem, New Hampshire. This is the second year YEP was held in Lawrence.

The Lawrence students drew from Abbot Lawrence Academy and Essex North Shore Agricultural and Technical School. They were supervised by Evan Bartow, a recent graduate from the University of Maine with a bachelor’s in marine science. He said what drew him to the program was the opportunity to work with young people and teach them about environmental processes that most people are not aware of.

“The YEP program shows students an almost hidden industry,” said Bartow. “None knew what happens to water after it goes down the drain and this was an eye-opening experience for them.”

While working at the plants, both groups of students learned from staff across all departments at the facility including operators, lab technicians, engineers and electricians. In addition, they participated in a variety of tasks involved in maintaining a wastewater treatment plant such as hosing down settling tanks, cleaning dissolved oxygen probes and inspecting city infrastructure.

After spending the day in the field, students continued their learning through hands-on lessons led by Short and Bartow, which ranged in topics from climate change and renewable resources to water scarcity and environmental justice. Typically, presentations on each unit were followed by group discussions, interactive activities and small presentations, which allowed students to consider how the topics overlapped.

“As the youths learned about different aspects of environmental science, they saw how so many of those areas linked together and you could see their wheels turning,” said Short.

Exploring Careers in the Surrounding Areas

While the students gained experience working at the plants and learning in the classroom, several stated that the highlight of the program was the weekly field trips. Both Massachusetts YEP sections visited locations including local aquariums and science centers, the EPA Region 1 Lab, a wetland and other wastewater treatment plants including Deer Island in Boston, the second largest in the country.

“On our field trips, we met people who were willing to help and teach us, not just about wastewater, but skills that we can use in school and jobs as well,” said Rachel Diep, a senior at Abbott Lawrence Academy.

The trips gave students the opportunity to learn hands on techniques like seine netting, testing water samples and classifying soil types. Additionally, they were able to meet and work with professionals from various environmental careers.

“I learned about networking,” said Chelsea Truong, also a senior from Abbott Lawrence Academy. “On the field trips, people would tell us the importance of meeting new people and building connections.”

On one trip, YEP partnered with a wastewater operator training group based in Boston. X-Cel Conservation Corps aims to provide people of color with the opportunity for a career in wastewater management through workforce development. The Lowell cohort met up with X-Cel at locations along the Neponset River, where the students were taught to take water samples and measure pH, electrical conductivity, temperature and the presence of E. coli. Short noted that this field trip was easily a favorite among the group, as the students resonated with the organization’s goal of diversifying the industry. “My group was all students of color, so I think it was really nice for them to see people like them in the industry,” she said.

New York City YEP

Nine young people, including three college students, participated in the New York City program. They were selected from the South Bronx area by the Woodycrest Center for Human Development, which has a contract with the city’s summer youth employment program.

The group received placements at four different wastewater treatment plants throughout the city: Wards Island Wastewater Treatment Plant in Manhattan, Newtown Creek Wastewater Treatment Plant in Brooklyn, North River Sewage Treatment Plant in western Manhattan and Hunts Point Water Pollution Control Plant in the Bronx.

The students were assigned a mentor and tasked with supporting a specific division. Some assisted with pre-treatment sampling or plant operations and maintenance, while others were stationed in the process control lab or the central office. Additionally, they all attended an Environmental Career Opportunities workshop, which was held at the EPA Region 2 office.

The Future of YEP

At the end of summer program, the EPA held a graduation ceremony for the students. In Massachusetts, the ceremony involved participants giving a tour of their wastewater treatment plants and leading a recap presentation of their experience to representatives from the EPA.

One of the participants, Billy Sonfack Dongsan, who is a biology student at Middlesex Community College, was offered a part-time position working in the laboratory at the Lowell Regional Wastewater Utility through connections he made from YEP.

Whether or not the rest of the students pursue careers in the wastewater industry, they now have an experience they can share with others in their communities. “YEP has definitely changed my view of wastewater,” said Diep. “I did not know that treatment plants existed and had no idea this plant was right in my backyard.”

The program was also an educational experience for the two coordinators, who spent the summer learning about the industry alongside their students. “My time as a coordinator has really reaffirmed that I want to do something with environmental science, communication and outreach,” Bartow said.

As for the wastewater industry’s future, programs like YEP could help recruit young workers into the industry, with many job vacancies soon to open up as the aging workforce begins to retire. This presents opportunities for students seeking to avoid the expenses of a college education, as many of these positions require only a few months of training. Plummer said that he is exploring options for evolving the program into more of a workforce pipeline.

“I have been connecting with utilities to explore opportunities and obstacles to starting YEP-like programs from scratch,” said Plummer. He believes that pairing utilities with local career centers, technical and vocational schools and funding sources is a crucial first step to creating avenues for young people in this field.

This article was originally published in the Spring 2024 edition of Interstate Waters magazine. Cheyenne Ellis is a NEIWPCC information officer.