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DEP reviewing city water authority’s practices

Penalty uncertain for waste rule violation

It’s uncertain what — if any — penalty the Department of Environmental Protection might impose on the Altoona Water Authority for its recently discovered practice of drying lightly contaminated debris from Combined Sewer Overflow trash racks and other material in pits at the Westerly Sewer Treatment Plant, before its transfer to a landfill.

“DEP will review all the information, including the cleanup activities, before making a final decision on any possible penalty,” said DEP Southcentral Region spokesman John Repetz on Friday, a day after authority Wastewater Operations Director Todd Musser explained the authority’s remediation plan. That plan calls for drying the material with sawdust, moving it to a storage pavilion and then trucking it to a landfill as residual waste — work that is well underway.

The DEP defines residual waste as “nonhazardous industrial waste,” which can vary in level of risk to public health and the environment from “very little” to “high,” according to the DEP website.

“The material from the trash racks was exposed to raw sewage,” Repetz wrote in an email Friday, explaining the main problem with the authority’s long-standing practice of drying the debris in pits.

Upon being alerted to the presence of the drying pits, DEP inspected the site Nov. 4, then issued a violation notice Nov. 8, citing the Solid Waste Management Act, which prohibits the placement “of any solid waste onto the surface of the ground without a permit.”

The exposure of the trash rack debris to sewage happens in the central section of the city, where storm and sanitary lines are combined. During significant rains, leaves and litter from the streets wash into the lines, mixing with the sanitary residue in those lines.

Much of the leaf and litter debris ends up on the trash racks when the combined flow threatens to grow beyond the capacity of the sewer plants and is diverted to the 1-million-gallon-plus tanks at the CSO facilities, one at Tuckahoe Park and one on Bellwood Avenue. This is a mechanism designed to capture the most-polluted “first flush” — which is later pumped out for treatment at the sewer plants.

The trash racks or screens, with their 2-inch openings, filter the water before it enters the tanks.

In addition to the leaf and litter debris, the pits at Westerly — two of which have been used under normal circumstances and one dug recently into a disposal pile of dirt from utility diggings in the city streets — were also used for drying grit and other debris collected from both combined and sanitary lines that are being rehabilitated as part of a $12 million sewer renovation project, according to Musser.

And the pits were also used for silt removed from tanks at Westerly after it settled out of “mudpuddle water” brought to the plant from borings under streams for the Mariner II East pipeline project.

The pit dug in that utility diggings pile overflowed during a recent rainstorm, but “it was determined during the inspection that none of the waste from the pond overflow made it to a nearby waterway,” Repetz wrote.

Perhaps the main environmental concern with the debris in the pits was the potential for groundwater contamination, according to Musser.

“(But) currently there are no plans to require the drilling of any (test) well,” Repetz wrote.

The authority never had any intention of burying the material permanently, Musser stated in the remediation plan he submitted to DEP.

The authority was planning to move biosolids produced by the Westerly plant to the Easterly Sewer Treatment Plant to ensure there’s enough room at the Westerly pavilion to shelter the residual waste before it’s trucked to a landfill.

Rolloff containers are another option for temporary storage of the residual material before it’s landfilled.

“The AWA is fully committed to ensuring the practice of storing material in uncovered areas is eliminated,” Musser wrote in his remedial plan.

Authority Chairman Bill Neugebauer, who is a member of City Council — the city owns the water and sewer systems and leases them to the authority to operate — said he has “complete confidence in (the authority) staff.”

“I trust him,” Neugebauer said of Musser.

Mirror Staff Writer William Kibler is at 949-7038.

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