Wastewater Operator Certification: Frequently Asked Questions

Wastewater Operator Certification

Note: This informal question and answer format is not intended to replace a thorough review of state law, regulations or the formal application process. To view the Board's regulations, click here. To view the Board's enabling legislation, click here. 

  1. Do I need to be a certified wastewater operator in Rhode Island?
  1. If you are an operator at a wastewater treatment facility in Rhode Island, then YES, you will need to become licensed within one year of employment.
  1. What is Wastewater Operator Certification?
  1. Operator certification for wastewater treatment operators is the mandatory licensing requirement of a state law (Rhode Island General Law § 42-17.4) passed in 1979. That law set up the Board of Certification of Operators of Wastewater Treatment Facilities.
  1. What is the Board of Certification of Operators of Wastewater Treatment Facilities?
  1. The Board is responsible for protecting the hundreds of millions of dollars spent by the federal and state government to help local communities build and maintain Rhode Island's wastewater treatment facilities.

    The seven-member Board, which was established by Rhode Island General Law § 42-17.4 by the General Assembly in 1979 is comprised of representatives from the Rhode Island League of Cities and Towns, environmental educators, organized labor, public works, the Narragansett Water Pollution Control Association, the Department of Health and the Department of Environmental Management.

    Board members act on behalf of their respective appointing organization to provide guidance and expertise. Regular monthly meetings are generally held the first Wednesday of the month at 9:30AM at the offices of the Department of Environmental Management.
  1. How does the Board accomplish this?
  1. The Board of Certification of Operators of Wastewater Treatment Facilities licenses operators. They do this by following state law, developing regulations, setting criteria, offering exams and licensing individuals to ensure that only qualified individuals work at the state's municipal (and some industrial) wastewater treatment facilities.
  1. What's the difference between "licensing" and "certifying" qualified individuals?
  1. The terms "certifying" and "licensing" are used interchangeably.
  1. Who does the Board certify?
  1. The Board only has the authority to certify operators, and those other positions that DIRECTLY impact operations, or may as part of their duties perform operation tasks. Furthermore, the Board only has the authority to license individuals working in Rhode Island.
  1. Am I an operator?
  1. Rhode Island General Law § 42-17.4 defines operators as "an individual who is assigned the responsibility on one or more mechanical treatment units, processes, or other process functions at a wastewater treatment facility."
  1. What is the definition of a "wastewater treatment facility"?
  1. Rhode Island General Law § 42-17.4 defines such a facility as "an arrangement of devices and structures, excluding septic tanks, constructed for the purpose of treatment of wastewater from domestic, commercial or industrial sources or combinations thereof. Privately owned wastewater treatment facilities which treat predominately industrial wastes shall be excluded from the provisions of these regulations."
  1. What other positions besides an Operator can be certified?
  1. The Board will allow full-time maintenance and laboratory staff to be licensed up to Grade 2 only, as their roles may overlap or compliment facility operations. In order for these positions to be certified (or even allowed to take an examination) they must be a maintenance worker or lab worker ON-SITE at the wastewater facility and work full time in such a capacity.
  1. I work in industrial pre-treatment and a friend works full time in collection-system maintenance, can we become certified?
  1. No. Full time industrial pre-treatment and collections crews are not considered operators, and so the do not need such licensure. The Board has no authority to allow to these positions.
  1. I work for a private industry that discharges its wastes to the local sewer plant. Can I be certified? And I work for a private development's biological sewage treatment plant with that discharges its treated water into the ground (sub-surface disposal). Can I be certified?
  1. The answer to both questions is No. The Board only has the authority and ability to certify operators of those facilities that treat predominately sanitary wastes and also have surface water discharges.
  1. How do I go about getting my license?
  1. Simple. If you're working in Rhode Island, get an original Application for Certification from your facility and fill it out. (Every facility should have copies, if not email us and we'll send one to you. Photocopies or downloaded forms will not be accepted.) Make sure you follow all the instructions and mail the application with the correct fee to the address indicated in the directions.

    If you're applying for licensure through examination, applications can only be submitted during the official application periods. Exams are given two or three times a year, usually in May, August, and December. The Board will announce the exams at least six weeks before the exam date. This will include information as to when the application period begins and ends. The announcement is via email to all facilities and is posted on the Board's website. Once we receive an application during the approved application period, we will review the application and let you know if you meet the requirements for examination or not.

    EQUIVALENCY (OR RECIPROCITY): If you're applying for licensure through equivalency with another state, say so in the EQUIVALENCY section on the application and follow all instructions. The Board will review the application and notify you of its decision. You can apply for equivalency at any time.

    Either way, you must be working in Rhode Island to be licensed.
  1. How do I know what grade to apply for?
  1. There are four grades of licenses, 1 through 4.

    Grade 1 is the basic introductory license, and all operators are required to attain that license within one year of being employed as an operator.

    Grade 4, the highest, is reserved for managers in charge of Grade 4 wastewater facilities, or operators in direct responsible charge who meet the minimum experiential requirements.

    Within one year of employment, you MUST apply and pass the exam for the required license needed for your position. Once attained, you may apply for higher grades of examinations (and certification levels) for upcoming exams. To be allowed to take any exam, you MUST be able to meet the minimum requirements of the license, which are spelled out in the regulations.

    If you are in management, you will be required to attain a minimum of — and probably higher than — a Grade 2 license.
  1. How often can I take an exam?
  1. If you are approved for a higher grade of license than you need for your job, and IF you do not change that job, you may take that exam as many times as you wish when it is offered until you pass it.
  1. How often are exams given?
  1. Exams are given two or three times a year, usually in May and November. An additional exam may also be given in August.

    Beyond that, the Board sponsors a course at the for Grade 1 operators, which is offered by the New England Interstate Water Pollution Control Commission. While anyone in the general public can take this course, you must be working at a wastewater treatment facility in Rhode Island to be licensed. If you pass the Grade 1 course, you must still apply to the Board for certification showing proof of passing.
  1. What are the requirements for each grade?
  1. Check the regulations for specific details, but in general:

    All Grades require a minimum of a high school degree (or GED). Grades 1 and 2 require one year's experience.

    For Grade 3, a high school graduate (or GED holder) needs 5 years of employment as an operator, 3 of which are in direct responsible charge; a holder of a 2-year college technical or environmental curriculum needs 4 years experience as an operator, two of which are to be in direct responsible charge; and a holder of a bachelors or higher degree in science or engineering needs only 2 years experience, both of which are in direct responsible charge.

    For Grade 4, a high school graduate (or GED holder) needs 6 years of employment as an operator, 3 of which are in direct responsible charge; a holder of a 2-year college technical or environmental curriculum needs 5 years experience as an operator, 3 of which are to be in direct responsible charge; and a holder of a bachelors or higher degree in science or engineering needs only 3 years experience, all of which is in direct responsible charge.
  1. What is Direct Responsible Charge?
  1. As defined by the regulations, Direct Responsible Charge (or "DRC") is the authority of a position that supervises two or more operators FULL TIME during a shift. Such a position is termed in the regulations as a "Shift Supervisor." If you supervise two or more Shift Supervisors, your position is listed as an "Operations Supervisor."
  1. What about the superintendent and assistant superintendent?
  1. Both positions are in direct responsible charge, as they oversee all operations and operators.

    The superintendent is defined as "an individual who is an operator who is assigned the direct responsibility for the management, operation and maintenance of an entire wastewater treatment facility during all work shifts at the facility and who shall also hold a certificate equal to the grade or classification of the wastewater facility." The definition "does NOT apply to any official who does not work at the wastewater treatment facility as an operator."

    The assistant superintendent has the same definition of duties in the absence of the superintendent. There can only be ONE assistant superintendent at each facility.

    Both the assistant superintendent and the superintendent must be full-time employees and on site during normal working hours.
  1. So I need direct responsible charge for a Grade 3 or 4?
  1. Yes, you need direct responsible charge for a Grade 3 or 4 license.

    For the Grade 3, however, there is a provision under Section 12(f) of the regulations that will allow someone meeting ALL the requirements of Grade 3 examination EXCEPT direct responsible charge to take the exam. HOWEVER, if the individual passes the exam under these conditions, they will NOT receive a Grade 3 license. Instead, they will receive a notice of passing that is good for two years.

    If they secure a position of direct responsible charge within those two years, they can at that time apply for a Grade 3 license. If they do not secure a position of direct responsible charge (shift supervisor, operations supervisor, assistant superintendent or superintendent) in those two years, they will have to retake the Grade 3 and pass for another 2-year "if and when" status.
  1. Can I take an exam if I am a little short of my experience requirements?
  1. You may apply and possibly be allowed to take an exam and receive a license if you are short of experience, as the Board has the authority to issue an "operator in training" certificate for up to 2 years. So from your first day on the job as an operator, you could apply for the Grade 1, and if you passed the exam get a Grade 1 "OIT" for the length of time needed until your one-year experience is met.
  1. Once I get a license, is it mine forever?
  1. The physical license is the property of the Board of Certification of Operators of Wastewater Treatment Facilities.

    Your status as an operator of a grade license issued to you is good for at least two years. All licenses expire on December 31 of every odd calendar year (2015, 2017, 2019, etc.)

    The Board does have the authority to revoke a license if it is found that an individual has performed their duties in a negligent manner or that they have practiced fraud or deception.
  1. What happens when I need to renew my license?
  1. Prior to the renewal period of licenses (usually in November of the renewal year), the Board will mail renewal information to each operator's address on record. Simply follow the instructions and mail in the form with the $10 fee. Licenses not renewed by December 31 will be charged late fees. If the original fee and the late fee are not paid, the license will expire.
  1. Am I required to take training courses to be renewed?
  1. No. There are no requirements to take training for renewal. However, those operators who wish to demonstrate a commitment to the profession may voluntarily take twenty hours of approved training in a two-year renewal period. Any operator who renews by also submitting evidence of twenty hours of approved training during the expiring renewal period will be issued a "Tier Two" version of their license. A Tier Two license of a certain Grade helps indicate that an individual has a high degree of commitment to the wastewater operator profession. For the purposes of the Board, a license of any Grade meets the legal requirements of that Grade no matter if it is renewed at a Tier Two license or not. An operator may choose to seek Tier Two licensure during any license renewal. And since it is a voluntary program, an operator is not required to maintain Tier Two licensure from one renewal period to the next. See the Board's training guidance for more information.
  1. If my license expires because I fail to renew it, can I get it back?
  1. No. If you fail to renew your license, re-certification is through examination only.
  1. Can I renew my license if I no longer work in Rhode Island or at a wastewater facility?
  1. Yes. A license holder can renew a license even if they are no longer employed at a wastewater facility or if they move out of state.

    As long as we have your correct and up-to-date address, we will send all operators renewal forms in November of renewal years (2015, 2017, 2019, etc.)
  1. What if I move and forget to tell you?
  1. If the Board cannot reach you by mail or at a facility in Rhode Island, then we will revoke your license via expiration. So if you move, let us know as soon as you can.