The first Pasifika woman in New Zealand to study chemical and materials engineering, Watercare Senior Project Engineer Paula Steinmetz is a familiar face at Māngere Wastewater Treatment Plant.
At an open day in her final year of high school, Paula was intrigued by the chemical engineering displays.
“I was always interested in maths and science when I was at Onehunga High School, and in Samoan society becoming a doctor has real status so there was a lot of pressure to do medicine – but I hate hospitals!” says Paula.
“So although I was accepted into medical school, I was allowed a year’s deferral and persuaded my parents to let me do a year of engineering.”
By the end of that first year, she knew it was the career for her. After working for ExxonMobil and Shell, Paula joined Watercare five years ago.
“What we do really makes a difference,” she says.
“I’ve lived in countries where the water gave us giardia or the toilets were sheds on stilts built out from the seashore – think long bench seats with cut-out holes. This gives ‘communal’ a whole new meaning!”
Paula was recently part of a female-led team that completed a new air extraction system for the biosolids building at Māngere Wastewater Treatment Plan. Biosolids are types of sewage sludge, with all the associated smell.
The new system has improved the air quality in the biosolids building, making maintenance more flexible. Before the upgrade, work had to be done at certain times of day – after the odours from the biosolids had dissipated.
"The ducts are connected to two fans capable of pumping out 40,000 litres of air per second,” explains Paula.
“They are the largest fans in this plant but, amazingly, they are also very quiet. They use less energy and are less expensive than other options we'd investigated.”
Paula has been working on the $50-million solids stream upgrade at Māngere for the past year. “It’s a complex project,” she says. “The area is congested and we can’t stop the operations, so it involves a lot of communication and co-operation.
“When I started, wastewater was a new field for me, I’ve found the projects I’ve been involved in to be a real learning experience, I’m proud to have been a part of them.”
Exciting things are happening at Māngere, says Paula. “We’re starting to think of the plant as a resource recovery facility, not just a treatment plant. We’re continually looking at new ways of harnessing energy, along with water and nutrients to be re-used.
"At the moment the plant produces 56 per cent of its power needs. By 2025, we plan to be energy neutral, which would be a world-first for a plant of this size.
“There are no downsides to being sustainable and the work of wastewater engineers allows us to be innovative and improve lives at the same time.”