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Laboratory technician Jim Werder is pictured Tuesday inside the lab at the city of Willmar's Wastewater Treatment Plant. Tribune photo by Gary Miller

Treatment plant lab is complying with new standards

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WILLMAR -- Laboratory workers at Willmar's Wastewater Treatment Plant will face more paperwork after the lab's standard operating procedures and quality assurance manual are rewritten this year to comply with new national lab accreditation standards.

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The rewrite is needed to comply with National Environmental Laboratory Accreditation Certification (NELAC) standards. The rewrite will increase the number of pages of regulations from 110 to approximately 265, according to Jim Werder, laboratory technician.

The lab tests the wastewater to ensure the plant is complying with state and federal treatment standards. Werder says the purpose of NELAC is to make sure every certified lab, such as the lab at the treatment plant, reports quality data. Willmar reports its data to the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Werder says Willmar has always been reporting quality data.

"But they want it traceable now, documented and reported accurately,'' he said. "There will be a paper trail. There will be more thorough procedures, demonstration of capability. It's all about documentation and traceability.''

Werder said the new standards will guarantee the numbers being reported are accurate and can be proved with documentation.

"When we run a procedure now, you will be able to go back five years from now and trace the serial number of the pipette (a piece of equipment used to measure volumes), the serial number of the thermometer we used to record the temp in the incubator.''

Willmar's treatment plant lab has been certified by the Minnesota Department of Health since the 1980s.

In 2008, plant staff revised and rewrote the standard operating procedures and quality assurance manual as part of applying to renew the biannually-required certification. The Minnesota Department of Health approved the revised standard operating procedures and quality assurance manual and renewed the lab's certification for two years.

Then, in July 2009, the state Legislature adopted the NELAC standards for certified laboratories. In order for Willmar's lab to comply with the NELAC standards, a complete rewrite was needed of the standard operating procedures and the quality assurance manual.

Werder and lab staff realized that they did not have sufficient time or experience with NELAC standards to do the rewrite themselves and proposed the city contract with environmental services consultant Graham Connections of Hutchinson at a cost not to exceed $17,000 to perform the rewrite. The agreement was approved by the City Council in January.

Werder thinks the new standards are actually a good thing in the sense that all labs will comply with a uniform standard. Once these standards are implemented, extensive updating will be much less frequent, he said.

"Once the standards are implemented, it will be a new norm,'' he said. "It'll be a little bit more work for us, I think, in the end but not all that much more. But just getting there is the biggest hurdle.''

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David Little
David Little covers the Willmar City Council, Willmar Municipal Utilities and other city news.
(320) 235-1150
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