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Officials: Lehigh County Needs More Sewage Capacity To Attract Companies

South Whitehall Township will get a chance to vote on wastewater facility upgrade with $50 million price tag.

Lehigh County is full of crap. That is, its infrastructure for treating sewage is nearing capacity, and it needs an expansion if the county expects to attract more large companies to the area, officials say. 

That was brought home to the county when a Fortune 500 company showed interest in moving to the Macungie area only if it could be guaranteed access to enough water and wastewater capacity. On Feb. 9, County Executive Don Cunningham told Patch that the business – which he declined to name -- was considering putting a manufacturing plant in an Upper Macungie Township industrial park.

 The company would require about one million gallons of water a day and discharge about 200,000 gallons of wastewater, according to Aurel Arndt, general manager of Lehigh County Authority, which operates water and sewer systems. The company is expected to provide about 165 jobs and create another 100 jobs in development of a $30 million facility. 

 Manufacturers in Upper Macungie discharge their wastewater to a pre-treatment plant in Fogelsville for initial processing. It’s then sent for further purifying to Allentown’s Kline’s Island wastewater treatment plant off Hamilton, which is nearing capacity, Arndt said. The plant discharges the treated water into the Lehigh River.

 To find enough capacity for the prospective company, the authority asked a manufacturer in Upper Macungie if it could spare some of its allotted wastewater capacity that it has yet to use, according to Tom Muller, county director of administration, who sits on the authority board. The manufacturer agreed so long as more capacity would be available should it need it in the future.

Frank Kane, Lehigh County chief of staff, said that he still could not release the name of the prospective employer but added “it’s looking more and more promising everyday.”

 So the county dodged a bullet this time but finding unused sewage capacity isn’t the solution in the long run, Muller said. “That’s not a good spot to be in,” he said.

 The authority is exploring four options to expand sewage capacity by about 4 million gallons a day, all with roughly the same price tag of about $50 million, Arndt said. One solution would be to expand the Allentown sewage treatment plant, and the authority is in discussions with the City about that, he said. Another option would be to upgrade the Fogelsville pre-treatment plant to allow it to fully treat wastewater and discharge that water into the Jordan Creek.

 A third option would be to upgrade the Fogelsville plant to full treatment and discharge the wastewater into the Lehigh River. Finally, the authority could upgrade the Fogelsville facility and use the wastewater to irrigate farms or deposit it in ponds or other so-called “land applications.”

 In each of the options the treated wastewater would be very clean before it was discharged, Arndt said.

 The authority expects to decide on one of the options this year, and all the municipalities affected will get a chance to vote on its choice. The authority provides wastewater services to part or all of the boroughs of Emmaus, Alburtis, and Macungie and the townships of Salisbury, Upper Macungie, Lower Macungie, South Whitehall, North Whitehall, Upper Milford, Lowhill, Weisenberg and Heidelberg. 

 The county needs to get moving because it will take at least five years to design the project, get all the necessary regulatory approvals, the financing and to do the construction, Arndt said.  

 It’s possible there will be some grants available to help pay for it but Arndt predicted that the lion’s share of the cost will be funded by loans, connection fees and service charges.

 Meanwhile, the authority is continuing to reassess wastewater capacity allocations to existing companies with an eye to borrowing back capacity if necessary, he said. “Our goal this year is to see if we can obtain another 600,000 gallons of capacity,” Arndt said.

 The weak housing and commercial real estate market bought the authority some time as developers’ plans stalled for some proposed construction that was already allotted wastewater capacity. But there’s no doubt the county will need more when the economy turns around, Arndt said.

 “We don’t want to be the thing that prevents employment from coming to the valley,” he said.

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