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AWA seeking flexibility with fees

Water Authority may consider letting staff set rates for liquid waste processing

The Altoona Water Authority may consider letting staff set fees for processing landfill leachate and other liquid wastes that the authority accepts as part of a program to make extra money to keep regular sewer rates down.

The change is needed so staff can be nimble, adjusting fees quickly based on the market and client needs, thus helping to increase program income, according to Todd Musser, director of wastewater treatment operations.

“We need more flexibility” — lacking now because of the “cumbersome” requirement that the board approve any changes at one of its monthly meetings, Musser told the members recently.

A landfill recently needed to get rid of its high-ammonia leachate quickly, because the state Department of Environmental Protection was pressuring it to make room in its tank, but the current price the authority charges is too low, as that excess ammonia requires a process adjustment and more oxygen, Musser said.

The authority’s current two-cents-per-gallon fee applicable for a food processor’s spent caustic soda is “ridiculous,” given that the processor would need to pay $5 a gallon elsewhere, Musser said.

The hauled-in waste program is important, because it brings in “a boatload of money” and “affects rates in a positive way,” said General Manager Mark Perry.

The staff would like to be able to give volume discounts and a company that is building a digester at the Westerly Treatment Plant for the authority would like to give early-commitment discounts for the digester, Musser indicated.

The pricing decisions would be made by a staff management committee, if the authority agrees, according to Musser.

“It won’t be just me out there picking and choosing,” he said.

Last year, the authority received $1.8 million for treating hauled-in waste, Musser said.

That waste included landfill leachate, runoff brine from salt piles and liquid from food processing plants, local bakeries, slaughterhouses and biosolids from small municipal sewer facilities, according to Musser.

The added cost of processing equals about 20% of the income the work generates, so the net was about $1.4 million, according to Musser.

Given that the authority serves 18,000 sewer customers, that translates to about $80 a year in customer benefits, theoretically keeping rates that much lower than they would have been otherwise, Musser said.

For the month beginning Dec. 20, the authority averaged 500,000 gallons of leachate per day, along with about 100,000 of the other hauled-in products, Musser said.

That is a 5-1 ratio, which contrasts with the normal 2-1 ratio of leachate to other hauled-in products through the year, Musser said.

Because of the recent snow and rain, the run on leachate is likely to continue for a while, he said.

The leachate and brine have no organic energy value to extract, according to Musser.

But the food waste and biosolids do have energy value, and they will be processed in the digester, when it’s complete at the end of 2022, he said.

In addition to high-strength food waste that the company building the digester is seeking through negotiation of supply contracts, the digester will process the biosolids produced by the authority’s own two sewer plants, Musser said.

Biosolids are a “wet-cake” end product that is now applied to farm fields under strict environmental guidelines.

They are often disposed of in a landfill at great expense by some facilities.

The digester will turn such biosolids, as well as the high-strength food waste — oils, fats, sugars included — into a powder that can be used freely as fertilizer.

The digester uses those high-energy inputs to produce gas that is burned to generate the heat to dry the material.

It’s possible it will also generate excess gas that can be sold to the grid.

After the digester begins operating, the authority’s two sewer plants will continue to process influent from homes and businesses, as well as the leachate and brine, Musser said.

The authority has been receiving leachate from places as far away as Maryland, Virginia, West Virginia, New York and Ohio, Musser said. In various cases, haulers are passing several other sewer plants on the way to Altoona, he said.

The authority is receiving that leachate and the other hauled-in products because it accommodates the haulers, because the authority staff is willing to do the work necessary and because the facility has the capacity to handle it, according to Musser.

Many facilities only permit deliveries during narrow appointment “windows,” which, if missed due to traffic or other delays, can mean trucks waiting idly for 24 hours, Musser said.

“(But) we’re very open,” he said, indicating that the authority is willing to store and pretreat waste when necessary. “Trucking companies are more than willing to pay a little extra not to have to sit in line,” he said.

Eventually, Musser would like to see a rail spur constructed off of the Norfolk Southern line that passes next to the Westerly property on its way to Wye Switches — although for now that is probably “pie in the sky,” he said. A rail connection to the outside world would make shipping in waste cost-effective to additional distant landfills, he said.

Mirror Staff Writer William Kibler is at 814-949-7038.

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