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AWA commits to digester project

The Altoona Water Authority on Thursday committed to its long-planned $36 million digester-dryer project at the Westerly Sewer Treatment Plant.

“This is the big one,” Director of Wastewater Treatment Operations Todd Musser said.

The board made the commitment when it approved a contract with Energy Systems Group, which has designed the facility and plans to build it — guaranteeing that the revenues it generates will at least cover the project’s 20-year debt service, in keeping with the requirements of the energy-conservation program of the Pennsylvania Sustainable Energy Fund on which the project is based.

The authority will borrow all the project money from Pennvest, which has agreed to provide a “letter of no prejudice” that assures the authority the money will be forthcoming, according to authority controller Gina DeRubeis.

To obtain that assurance, the authority on Thursday agreed to be responsible for any costs on an interim basis in expectation of being reimbursed with the loan, which Pennvest should approve formally at its October meeting.

ESG in turn has agreed to cover the initial $4 million to $7 million for construction, so work can begin in September, which is critical financially for the company because delays could cause price hikes, supply chain disruptions and weather-related construction problems, the firm’s senior business development manager told the authority in July.

The authority will reimburse ESG for those upfront costs when it receives the loan money.

Construction is expected to take two years.

The digester operation will take high-strength organic waste from food processors and from restaurant-grease haulers and break it down to generate biogas to fuel the dryer that will dewater sludge from the authority’s sewer operations as well as operations from other sewer plants.

Both the providers of the high-strength organic waste and the providers of the sewer sludge would pay for the disposal service.

Tyrone Borough recently declared its intent to become a sludge disposal customer.

Disposing of sewer sludge has become increasingly difficult and expensive.

The agreement with ESG explicitly requires the company to guarantee that the authority can get rid of the “exceptional quality” biosolids that will emerge from the dryer at no cost.

An initial version of the contract simply assumed the authority wouldn’t need to pay to get rid of the end product on farm fields.

But that was potentially an unsafe assumption, given “regulatory” possibilities, a consultant told the authority.

The sludge dryer would use about 60 percent of the gas produced by the digester, Musser said in April.

That would mean excess gas would need to be burned off, several thousand cubic feet per minute, Musser said.

A proposed second phase of the project calls for contracting with a company to buy the excess gas, “scrub” it and send it into the natural gas pipeline, thereby generating revenue, Musser said.

Mirror Staff Writer William Kibler is at 949-7038.

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