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Solar remediation project eyed

Water Authority receives proposals from five firms

The Altoona Water Authority has received proposals from five companies to install solar panels on old filter beds that have been a longtime environmental liability at the Westerly Sewer Treatment Plant.

Such a project could result in remediation of the filter beds at little or no cost, although with a requirement that the authority buy the power the panels produce.

Authority staff will evaluate the proposals based on quality and price, potentially interview company representatives and make a recommendation to the board on whether to hire one of them, according to Todd Musser, director of wastewater operations.

“Green energy” tax credits obtained by the chosen firm would pay for the remediation of the 40-acre filter beds, which contain a variety of hazardous materials, including polychlorinated bi­phen­yls (PCBs), volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and metals, as documented by various investigations and studies under orders from the federal Environmental Protection Agency and the forerunner of the state Department of Environmental Protection, as well as the city, beginning in 1976.

The potential project grew out of a solar firm’s inquiry about the possibility of installing an array on the filter bed acreage, after which Musser explained the environmental history of the tract.

A company representative then told him about the possibility of using environmental remediation as leverage for the project, according to Musser.

A request for proposals outlines the authority’s requirements, which include resolving the environmental issues by capping the site or by other means to obtain clearance from the state, followed by construction of the solar array.

“The area in question is now a brown field site and is basically excess property not necessary for the function of the Westerly Water Pollution Control Facility,” the RFP states. “It is believed that if a solar array were to be constructed on the area, the land in question would become eligible for PA Act 2 — The Land Recycling and Environmental Remediation Standards Act.”

A successful project would comprise “release of liability and return the land to the authority with an installed solar array after an appropriate time period,” the RFP states.

The project would include battery backup for “bad weather days” and for power outages, according to the RFP.

One of the proposals received by the authority calls for supplying electricity only for the treatment plant, while others call for supplying it to the surrounding area, a “micro-grid,” Musser said.

Some proposals call for doing the project at no cost to the authority, Musser said.

There are four filter beds, all within the 100-year flood plain of the Beaverdam Branch of the Juniata River, according to the EPA final site inspection report.

The use of the sanded filter bed area for disposal of raw sewage and sludge began in the late 1800s, according to the report.

After construction of the first version of the treatment plant in 1952, the sludge produced by that plant was dried in greenhouses, then spread on one of the filter beds, which consisted of sand with a tile drainage system, according to the report.

Three of the beds received liquid sludge from the early 1970s through the early 1990s, according to the report. Those beds have a natural soil base and are unlined, according to the report.

After a 1991 plant renovation, the authority discontinued pumping sludge to the filter beds.

Elevated levels of contaminants have been found in sediment in the river downstream from the plant, according to the report.

The report says low levels of PCBs have been found in groundwater with monitoring wells at the site.

The nearest residential well is about a quarter mile away, and five are within a half-mile according to the report.

There are no drinking water intakes within the “target distance limit” along the river downstream, although there are “fisheries” along that stretch, according to the report.

Mirror Staff Writer William Kibler is at 949-7038.

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