38 years and counting

Bob Bonnett leans back in his soft office chair, hands folded across his chest, smiling as he recounts stories of his early days at the Sewer District. his reflection is seen in the gloss of the office conference table, and in the foreground is a weathered and worn hard hat, the same one he wore as a foreman in the steel mills of the 1970s.
Bob Bonnett has 38 years of Sewer District experience and counting but he has held on to a memento of his past, a hard hat from his days as foreman at Republic Steel. Photo by Nicole Harvel.

Few staff have had as long and varied a Sewer District career as Easterly Superintendent Bob Bonnett. “I have all kinds of stories.”

Bonnett got his start in wastewater in 1973, as a summer student with the City of Cleveland’s Water Quality Laboratory. He soon transitioned into the Industrial Waste Section of the newly-formed Cleveland Regional Sewer District.

One of Bob’s early jobs was helping to develop Cleveland’s early industrial user charges, going door to door at metal-finishing plants and other companies to survey and document the waste products entering the sewer system.

“There was a lot of industry dumping to the treatment plants, and they weren’t paying their fair share like they have to today with the Sewer Use Code,” Bonnett said. He recalled visiting a sponge factory in what is now Battery Park. “The color of the influent at Westerly would change depending on what color sponges they were making that day,” he said.

It’s no surprise that some facility owners were not happy when Bob’s team showed up. “We didn’t call these places beforehand,” he said. “They knew right away what was up. They’d say, ‘Oh, there’s nothing going on in that room,’ but you could feel the heat coming off the door and you knew darn well there was bad stuff going down into the sewers.”

Bob Bonnett leads a tour of our 100-year-old Easterly plant for new employees. Photo by Nicole Harvel.

Suspicions were confirmed through use of around-the-clock automatic wastewater samplers that his section installed at these sites. “We learned which facilities were bad,” Bonnett said. “If a sample was blue and smelled like almonds, that would indicate cyanide. Those were the kinds of things they used in the plating industry.”

Bonnett explained that many owners of these companies came to this country after World War II, seeing opportunities in America and benefiting from little environmental regulation. Some companies put hazardous waste down the drain, while some discovered they could sell those by-products, such as benzene, which could be added to gasoline to increase its octane rating. When stricter air- and water-quality regulations came into play, some companies relocated to countries with little environmental oversight (and cheap labor).

With a goal of buying a house, Bob left the Cleveland Regional Sewer District for a higher-paying job at Republic Steel. “With my industrial waste background, I was hired as a foreman in the by-products section of the coke plant,” he said. “I was there for five and a half years, but it was a carcinogenic environment. My boss and his boss both died of cancer and I knew I had to find something better.” One day at work, he saw a group of people in white dress shirts and ties. “They were engineers,” he said. “That looked like a much better job than what I was doing, so I pursued a master’s degree in Civil Engineering.”

Bob Bonnett talks with his hands as he reclines in his office recounting his earliest days in his Sewer District career. Blurred behind him is book shelf filled with file folders, reports, and papers.
Photo by Nicole Harvel.

“[Companies] knew right away what was up. They’d say, ‘Oh, there’s nothing going on in that room,’ but you could feel the heat coming off the door and you knew darn well there was bad stuff going down into the sewers.”

To accommodate his classes at Cleveland State University, Bonnett had to say goodbye to rotating shifts. “I called the Sewer District and they said they’d love to have me back,” he said. In 1983, he joined Southerly as a Unit Process Manager at the newly-renamed Northeast Ohio Regional Sewer District.

When an Assistant Superintendent position at Westerly opened up, Bob’s experience with the physical-chemical wastewater treatment process at the steel plant got him the job. Based on the research he’d done for his master’s thesis, he helped change the coagulant used in the plant’s treatment process — from lime to ferric chloride. It was a risky move because it went against the consultant’s design, but it worked.

Master’s degree in hand, Bonnett switched over to Engineering, where he stayed for seven years. “I was able to design improvements to the treatment processes for the very plants I had worked at,” he said. “It was a dream job.”

Bob Bonnett in 1984, Bob Bonnett in 2022.

Then Bob was asked to return to Operations due to a shortage of Class IV operators. He took on Assistant Superintendent duties at both Easterly and Westerly, and worked in Operations & Maintenance administration before taking the helm as Superintendent at Easterly. “Moving around the District was a good strategy for understanding the process equipment and its capabilities.”

At Easterly, Bonnett has witnessed significant plant improvements, including an increased flow capacity of 400 million gallons per day (mgd). “The challenge is maintaining a biomass of microorganisms for our average flow of 75–80 mgd, but being able to expand that to 400 mgd, and then cleaning out the tanks afterwards so we don’t have odors, and then getting ready for the next storm. At any point, we can get hit pretty bad.”

Bonnett credits his shift managers and operators for coordinating through dry and wet weather and dealing with unforeseen situations and equipment failures. “We operate our treatment plants very efficiently,” he said. Easterly received NACWA gold awards in 2019 and 2020, and the plant saw zero employee accidents in 2021.

Over that same time, Bob Bonnett was presented with the Sewer District’s Lifetime Achievement Award in 2019, and in 2021, he received the Water Environment Federation’s William D. Hatfield award for “Outstanding Wastewater Treatment Plant Performance and Professionalism.”

But the Sewer District’s biggest achievement, according to Bonnett, is the reduction in combined sewer overflows. “What used to go into the environment is now going into storage tunnels for us to treat later, which is great.”

In a hard hat and bright yellow safety vest, Bob Bonnett gestures off to the distance as he looks toward and past the camera. He stands in an industrial setting, the inner workings of our Easterly wastewater treatment plant.
Photo by Nicole Harvel.

A significant challenge now, according to Bonnett, is people retiring. “Our workforce is getting older and we’re losing some veterans who learned their trade at a steel mill or auto plant and brought their skills to the District,” he said. “It’s crucial that we transfer that knowledge to our younger staff.”

Story by Mike Uva. Photos by Nicole Harvel.

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Official Medium channel of the Northeast Ohio Regional Sewer District in Cleveland, OH

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Northeast Ohio Regional Sewer District

Northeast Ohio Regional Sewer District

Official Medium channel of the Northeast Ohio Regional Sewer District in Cleveland, OH

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