Kyle Dorsey, State Biosolids Coordinator at the Washington State Department of Ecology
Everyone can relate to being new to an organization, at the start of your career. Eager, motivated, and perhaps a little naïve – you can end up with some really interesting projects. Kyle Dorsey was a solid waste inspector with the Washington State Department of Ecology’s (Ecology) Water Quality group when his supervisor handed him one of those projects. He remembers thinking “You’re kidding me right? They do what with spfft?” All of a sudden, Kyle was in the biosolids world. He soon discovered that the projects that no one has time to do, the projects that no one knows exactly what to do with, are often the most interesting, challenging, and fulfilling projects. These projects take you to new and innovative places. And then one day you realize you’ve spent your entire career in that place.
Today, most of us think of the Ecology as more than our regulators. We think of them as our partners. They help us improve, so that we can achieve what Kyle has always envisioned for the future of biosolids management:
“That biosolids are commonly accepted as a genuine resource, that generators take the time and care necessary to prepare what they see as a valuable product of their work, and the public wants and uses biosolids on a par with, or in preference to, other forms of fertilizers and soil amendments.”
Read how Kyle became part of the biosolids world and what he envisions for the future of biosolids, in his own words, below.
Responses have been edited for clarity and abridged for length.
Why does this matter to you?
People are so quick to see everything they don’t have an immediate use for, or can’t easily imagine a use for, as valueless or a waste. The pressure on biosolids over the latest issue of concern – there has been a long string of them – is understandable to an extent, but is frequently badly misplaced and over amplified. Biosolids rules were originally put in place to jumpstart the national pretreatment program. To me biosolids quality is an index to a large range of environmental success stories. If biosolids are cleaner, then wastewater is cleaner, and if wastewater is cleaner, then people are doing better things for the environment. I want people to see biosolids as a success story.
How did you end up working with biosolids? What was your first job in the biosolids industry?
I originally hoped to work for the U.S. Forest Service or the Soil Conservation Service (now NRCS), but after a few years working at Ecology, I landed a position as a solid waste inspector with Ecology Water Quality in the northwest regional office. Biosolids were considered solid waste at both the federal and state levels then.
Since I was a solid waste guy in a water quality world, and also the new kid on that block, my supervisor assigned me projects from his “too hard” pile. It didn’t mean they weren’t important or not worth doing. It just meant that nobody else had time to deal with them, and most usually that nobody knew what to do with them. I’d had only a little exposure to biosolids (then sewage sludge). For my first major foray he handed me a draft environmental review for a biosolids project. I remember looking at him and thinking, “You’re kidding me right? They do what with spfft?” Then he looked at the pile again, so I thought I would get while the getting was good. When I cracked the book, I was intrigued, and that was kind of when the hook got set.
Why have you continued to work with biosolids?
There really wasn’t a lot of interest within Ecology at the time the federal (503) program was beginning to take shape. I like Aristotle’s observation, “Nature abhors a vacuum.” I always saw a vacuum as an opportunity. That got me started and a little help along the way kept me going. The learning curve is steep. For me it moves like one of those carnival rides that rotates eccentrically while it goes up and down. Honestly, I have never felt on top of curve. There is always more to learn, and I like that challenge. I especially like that we take something people tend to see as maybe the ultimate no-hope, waste product, and return something of value to a genuinely beneficial use. I sometimes muse that what begins at the finish, finishes at the beginning. It’s like hitting your own home run, and then running up into the stands to catch it, or just get a better view. How awesome is that? And the people I have worked with across the state and country, including Canada, are outstanding in so many ways. I find it very rewarding to work with them as a whole.
Some things you may not know about Kyle…
What’s your dream job (in or out of the biosolids world)?
I always wanted to be a pilot, but with my eyesight nobody wanted me near the runway, let alone in the cockpit (not even as a navigator!). So now I think volunteering to go fishing tops the list (somebody has to make the sacrifice).
What’s something most biosolids folks wouldn’t know about you?
I umpire baseball and fast pitch softball, and referee volleyball, from youth through high school. I guess there is a regulator gene somewhere in my DNA.
And last but not least, thank you to all the biosolids experts that have inspired Kyle - and the rest of us!
Who did you learn the most from over your career?
This is really, really hard. I learned so much from so many people, and not at all limited to biosolids. I am grateful to them all. If I am to identify some people in particular, Dave Hufford at the City of Tacoma was a genuine mentor early on. He helped me see biosolids in a positive light (not my initial perspective), but he was a great listener and always helped me think. He also helped me understand the politics around some issues. Mark Ronayne with Oregon Department of Environmental Quality and later the City of Portland was a great source of practical perspective, experience, and knowledge. Jim Smith with EPA’s National Risk Management Research Laboratory in Cincinnati was an enormous help and source of support, and Bob Brobst in EPA Region VIII. Greg Kester (then with the State of Wisconsin and now the California Association of Sanitation Agencies) and I grew up together in the program, although Greg had more hands on experience when I met him. He has often been a source of insight and a sounding board for me. Craig Cogger, Andy Bary, and Dan Sullivan (at Washington State University before moving to Oregon State University), and Chuck Henry and now Sally Brown (at the other school) were invaluable. And just as an organization, Northwest Biosolids has been the best partner I could imagine.