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AWA readies stream testing

Water authority buys equipment to conduct 5-year analysis

The Altoona Water Authority recently bought equipment needed to begin a five-year regimen of testing for bacteria downstream from its Combined Sewer Overflows, to determine what effects the CSOs have on streams.

That could help determine whether environmental agencies eventually begin to pressure the city to eliminate its combined storm-and-sanitary sewer system serving the central area of the city — work that years ago was estimated could cost $75 million.

“We hope to have (the equipment) installed and running this spring,” Mark Glenn, president of Gwin Dobson & Foreman, the authority’s consulting engineer, said at a recent meeting.

There will be 20 sampling sites — 11 along Mill Run and the Beaverdam and Frankstown branches of the Juniata River downstream from the CSO at Tuckahoe Park and nine along the Little Juniata River downstream from the CSO near East Sixth Avenue and Kettle Street, according to a map provided at the meeting.

Both automatic and manual sampling will take place between the CSOs and Petersburg, where the Frankstown Branch and the Little Juniata meet to form the Juniata River — a 40-mile stretch of Mill Run and the Beaverdam-Frankstown branches and a 31-mile stretch on the Little J, according to the map.

Samples will be taken after rains that lead to discharges from the CSOs, so workers will need to mobilize “at any time,” said authority General Manager Mark Perry.

The testing will focus on E. coli and fecal coliform bacteria, according to Glenn.

The work will involve stream modeling and will endeavor to separate out information about “background” contaminants not related to the CSOs, Glenn said.

There are about 860 municipalities in the U.S. with combined sewer systems, which are an environmental problem during wet weather, when storm surges can overwhelm the capacity of treatment plants to handle flows, leading to CSO discharges.

“Combined sewer overflows contain untreated or partially treated human and industrial waste, toxic materials, and debris as well as stormwater,” states a 2020 Environmental Protection Agency publication on the topic. “They are a priority water pollution concern.”

Around 1990, Altoona installed tanks upstream from each of the CSO discharge points to mitigate the amount of contaminants released during storms by taking and holding the “first flush” from streets and parking lots.

Since then, authority workers have emptied those tanks after storms abate, pumping their contents to the sewer plants for treatment — to the Westerly plant from the Tuckahoe Park tank and to the Easterly plant from the Sixth Avenue tank.

But if the storms are large enough, the tanks fill, and additional storm surge water — along with any sanitary effluent that happens to be in the pipes at the time — go into the streams.

“I think we will have good answers,” Glenn said at the meeting, when asked how likely it may be that the test results of the five-year analysis will lead to pressure to undertake a costly separation of the sanitary and storm sewer systems. “As long as the tanks are there, I don’t see the combined sewer system going away.”

One indicator that the current setup is not a problem is the existence of plenty of aquatic life downstream from the plants, as reflected in the increasingly improved quality designations of those streams over the years, Glenn said in 2019.

There is no certainty, however.

“I think ‘I don’t know’ is the correct answer,” said solicitor Dave Consiglio.

“I have no idea,” said Todd Musser, director of wastewater treatment operations. “That’s what doing all this five-year analysis is to determine.”

Some people have argued that the current arrangement — CSOs with tanks to catch the first flush — may actually be better than separate systems that include storm water running directly into streams, Musser said.

Such an argument is plausible if one believes that the benefits of capturing the oil, grit, litter and other debris from streets and parking lots more than offsets the harm done by the diluted sanitary effluent that goes into streams after the tanks fill up, Musser said.

There are other potential fixes less drastic than separating the systems, if testing shows that additional improvements are needed, officials have said.

One would be to install parallel outfall pipes from the CSO holding tanks to the sewer plants, staff engineer Michael Sinisi said in 2019.

Both plants now have the capacity to handle most storm flows, but the pipes aren’t large enough to carry those heavy flows to the plants, Sinisi said then.

Another potential fix would be installation of ultraviolet disinfection units in the channels that take the CSO discharges, Sinisi said then.

The authority needs to do the sampling in order to renew its National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System permit for the CSOs.

The current permits expired eight and nine years ago.

The authority has $150,000 in the budget for this year for the program.

The equipment expense that is part of it is a one-time expense, but the rest of the costs will be ongoing, Musser said.

Mirror Staff Writer William Kibler is at 949-7038.

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