Water treatment training program could be cut

By Kelsey Landis, The Alton Telegraph

A university water-system operator training program is on the chopping block due to a lack of federal student loan money and state funding, even as headlines about the disastrous effects of negligent water system operators continue to appear daily.

The Environmental Resources Training Center at Southern Illinois University-Edwardsville is one of the few of its kind in the nation. The year-long program certifies personnel in the operation, maintenance and management of drinking water and wastewater treatment systems for work in Illinois and Missouri.

Because the program, founded in 1977, does not offer a degree — only a certification — the U.S. Department of Education said no more student loans for the program, thus the state will not release the funding. Students were notified in December that they would no longer be eligible to receive federal student loans.


“It doesn’t fit the mold” with other university programs, said the program director, Paul Shetly. “It’s inexplicable that they wouldn’t want to support these students.”

Students in the program go on to secure jobs at water treatment plants, jobs they will likely hold for many years, if not until retirement, Shetly noted.

Many of the program’s students are men and women, who have been laid off from coal mines or steel plants, and are looking for a new job. Others are out of high school and want to start a solid career.

Rick Simmons is a student in the program. He plans to graduate in the summer, but said he is disappointed that future students will not be able to access financial aid. He said his classmates would struggle to pay for the program, which costs $10,600 without federal loans.

Shetly said the cost of the program is much less than a traditional four-year degree, and with an 80 percent job placement rate, students who graduate from the program, are able to pay back their loans with a living wage.

Employers come to the program specifically to look for potential employees, said instructor Drew Hoelscher. He worked for American Water for more than 13 years after completing his certification at SIUE.

“I wouldn’t have gotten that job if I hadn’t gone here,” Hoelscher said.


State Rep. Dwight Kay, R-Edwardsville, toured the training facility on SIUE’s campus Wednesday afternoon. He said it would be unfortunate to see students go without funding and miss out on good jobs.

“The upside here is you’re getting something you can take away and get a job with,” Kay said.

Funding withheld

With or without loans, the program may have to be scrapped altogether if the state’s budget impasse is not solved. Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner has not released funds to the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency, which takes money from the U.S. EPA and gives it to the program for operating costs. The funds are mostly used for salaries.

Thus, the program will not receive the “hundreds of thousands of dollars” it is owed by the agency until the governor releases the funds, supposedly when the budget impasse comes to an end, said Marci Webb, program office manager.

“We’re seriously at the brink of disaster. We’re almost at the point of actually having to close down after all these years,” she said.

Shutting down the program would mean there are less-qualified individuals in Illinois and Missouri to operate and maintain water systems, Simmons said.

“This program trains water operators who could help solve some of those problems you’ve seen up in Flint and Chatham,” he noted in reference to disastrous effects of lead-poisoned water in Flint, Michigan, and a new treatment plant in Chatham, Illinois, that has left residents questioning the village’s water quality.

Though the state EPA has said there is no lead in Chatham water, a water-quality investigation is underway, according to The (Springfield) State Journal-Register.

“It’s a double-whammy,” Shetly said of the lack of state funding and federal student aid.

The director hopes local representatives will help shake loose money from the state. Shetly said he and his colleagues also will try to divide the program from the university, into a separate vocational program, by next fall so that its students will be eligible for federal student loans.

For now, he’s having to warn potential students that they may not have access to those loans.

“Some are saying, ‘Well, that’s a problem,'” Shetly said.

Reporter Kelsey Landis can be reached at 208-6460, Ext. 1396 or on Twitter @kelseylandis.


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