Contract Operations & Environmental Stewardship: New On-Campus Applications for a Time-Tested Concept

Outsourcing key services is an accepted approach on campuses, most prevalently in foodservice, and to a lesser extent in janitorial services and security. As colleges and universities face increasingly complex and demanding environmental laws and regulations, some administrators are beginning to implement a particular form of outsourcing called contract operations (ConOps). This outsourcing to firms that specialize in the operation and maintenance of environmental treatment facilities gives the institutions access to a breadth and depth of resources that the universities cannot afford to acquire and maintain themselves.

Relatively new to the campus, ConOps has been used by municipalities, other public entities, and corporations for decades. Functions that lend themselves to ConOps include wastewater treatment, water supply and distribution, and the handling and disposal of hazardous wastes.

Water supply and wastewater treatment are heavily regulated, often involving multiple permits that set strict standards. Violating those standards can lead to fines and other sanctions. Under a ConOps agreement, an O&M firm assumes total responsibility for the function. The firm obtains the necessary permits and operates and maintains the facility to meet permit stipulations for a predetermined annual fee. If there is a spill, malfunction, or permit violation of any sort, the O&M firm is responsible for fixing the problem and paying fines or penalties.

In the management and use of regulated substances, surprise EPA inspections of chemical laboratories and similar on-campus facilities have led to six- and seven-figure fines. Here again, the ConOps firm assumes total responsibility for compliance.

A Brief History
The O&M of public wastewater and water treatment facilities by private-sector professionals began in the 1970s with municipalities. As towns faced increasing regulatory pressure to operate more complex facilities in an environment of more stringent regulations, they turned to private-sector firms for their O&M expertise. Over the ensuing decades, cities and towns, water districts, and other public utilities turned to ConOps, and corporations began to follow suit. Today, hundreds of public and private entities have ConOps agreements, typically for eight to 10 years, with dozens of national and regional firms.

ConOps varies from more familiar forms of outsourcing. Contract operations of complex environment functions are more complicated than outsourcing, say, janitorial services. While cleaning may end when brooms are put away, the operation of a treatment system is 24/7. It requires manpower to oversee it and ensure that its systems are maintained in top condition to operate without interruption. Secondly, the systems almost invariably require an operating permit governed by state and federal regulatory agencies. With this permit come specific requirements and liabilities. While contract operations firms provide compliance guarantees, the permit is still in the university’s name and therefore raises the stakes for selection of the right firm in order to protect the university’s name. No institution of higher education wants to be known for discharge of improperly treated sewage to the local stream. Thirdly, the service provided is not a role that can be provided by others on the university staff. If a cleaning company skips a day or misses a hallway, other university personnel can compensate. In wastewater treatment operations, specially trained and certified staff is required to be on site. If an operator calls in sick, the university seldom has on-staff backup.

What’s Involved
When universities contract with a firm to operate and manage their treatment facility, they benefit in six key areas.

Labor. The operating firm provides full-time on-site labor along with management and technical support. The firm provides qualified staff to operate the facility during the state-mandated operating schedule. Depending on the facility, this staff needs to maintain required certifications. Additionally, the firm provides back-up support during planned and emergency situations when the on-site staff is not available. To make sure the staff is meeting the university’s performance and service expectations, the firm provides management and technical oversight in addition to the regular staff. Also, specialists in specific technology, engineering, or permit applications are available to address unique challenges that can develop during the year.

Laboratory. The on-site staff handles most of the analytical work required to make sure the facility is operating properly. However, all costs related to lab work, supplies, and equipment are included in the ConOps agreement and are the responsibility of the firm. Additionally, the firm is responsible for the monthly permit testing. This is often brought to an outside lab for the analytical work, but the firm still holds responsibility for the samples being taken appropriately and the tests being run properly.

Maintenance. All parts, tools, and subcontracted services necessary to maintain the facility’s condition are the responsibility of the ConOps firm. The on-site staff, supported by maintenance specialists, handles all maintenance responsibility. Usually the firm’s employees perform some level of predictive and preventive maintenance to make sure the facility does not experience unexpected failures.

Health & Safety. Required reports, manuals, and training to ensure a safe work environment are responsibilities of the firm. This responsibility should include inviting staff to participate in health and safety training when possible, providing further value to the university. The plant staff’s safety record becomes that of the firm’s record, and affects the firm’s insurance rates. Shifting this from the university may help secure better insurance rates for the university.

Chemicals & Energy. Often, chemical and power expenditures are the responsibility of the contracting firm. In this way, they have a vested interest in optimizing facility performance and minimizing these costs; all the while remaining responsible for permit compliance. One thing your firm will not guarantee is the power rate. Contracts typically hold them accountable for energy usage but not the specific rate, which can fluctuate widely.

Specialized Expertise. In addition to the basic expertise in treatment facility operations, universities can also benefit by having broader expertise available at a moment’s notice from their ConOps firm. Environmental auditing, capital planning, site civil engineering, structural engineering, and hazardous materials management are some examples of other specialized services that can often be provided through a ConOps agreement.

Worth Consideration.
A well-written agreement with an experienced O&M firm with broad capabilities allows a college or university to take advantage of the firm’s expertise to create improvement plans, implement Best Management Practices, and maintain certified staff. Most critical, this approach can reduce the likelihood of non-compliance with permit conditions and improve the community image as a good environmental steward. In the right situation, ConOps can save a college or university time and money and enhance peace of mind.

Douglas McKeown is senior vice president, business center manager for Woodard & Curran of Portland, ME (, and has more than 20 years of experience drafting, executing, and managing contract operations agreements with municipalities, counties, water districts, and other public entities. He can be reached at 207/774-2112 or

Selection Factors for a ConOps Firm

  • A demonstrated track record in achieving clients’ objectives, sustaining high performance, avoiding regulatory problems, and maintaining fiscal control. Client references should always be provided and the buyer should always contact them.
  • Financial stability, as evidenced by time in the business, the type of facilities managed, and an established reputation as a good employer and a good partner — responsive and creative. Firms that plan and invest for the long term value client service and build a record of stability.
  • Organizational stability as measured by the extent to which the firm has been bought, sold, or merged with other firms. While“business is business,” it is relevant and meaningful to know that the firm you hire today won’t change its name, ownership, culture, and management philosophies in the near future. Can and will they be willing to discuss this with you? What is their long-term business and ownership philosophy?
  • Depth of technical and managerial expertise, as evidenced by services available from other areas of the firm. Firms that offer a blend of process engineering, instrumentation, and controls skills present a strong team to complement their managerial and O&M programs. These skill sets are invaluable resources when inevitable technical issues arise.
  • Commitment of the firm to your business, as evidenced by other universities that they work for. Do they understand the priorities at universities? Have they proven their ability to meet the expectations of university facilities departments? Do they have systems established to support the kind of services that universities need?

  • SIDEBAR How ConOps Is Working on Campus
    Wheaton College
    Norton, MA

    Facing a new, more restrictive permit on its wastewater treatment facility, Wheaton College in Norton, MA, called on ConOps experts to evaluate, design improvements, and operate the facility under an annual contract. After an initial evaluation, the firm worked to design and implement key improvements to Wheaton’s undersized and aging facility. The firm operated the facility throughout construction and implementation of these engineering improvements. The firm worked with university officials on extensive on-campus efforts to reduce pressures on the facility, such as reducing the amount of food waste flushed down the drain and improving the kitchen grease-trap system. The efforts allowed the college to meet the terms of its new permit and allowed more time to evaluate future options. To ensure sustained performance, the college has renewed the O&M contract with its ConOps experts.

    University of New England
    Biddeford, ME

    The University of New England (UNE) in Biddeford, ME, contracted with a ConOps firm to operate and make improvements to its 60,000 gal.-per-day wastewater treatment facility. During the first four months of operation, a series of modifications to the facility were jointly made by UNE and the firm to work around design limitations. Simultaneously, management systems were set up including lab QA/QC, process control, Maine Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) reporting, safety, communications, collection system monitoring, maintenance management, and capital planning. Environmental compliance was greatly improved, resulting in a better relationship with the Maine DEP, and the restoration of confidence among the campus community in its ability to pursue excellence in its environmental practice campuswide. The relationship between UNE and its contract operator has been strong and growing for nearly 15 years.

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