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No green light yet for Allentown waste-to-energy plant

By Randy Kraft, WFMZ.com Reporter, RKraft@wfmz.com
Published On: Dec 11 2012 10:54:43 PM CST
Updated On: Dec 12 2012 04:24:52 AM CST
ALLENTOWN, Pa. -

Developers of a controversial waste-to-energy plant did not get the final approval they hoped for from the Allentown Planning Commission Tuesday afternoon.

But it’s not that planners delayed, because they found flaws in the land development plans.

It’s just that they were advised not to proceed because the city has not yet received a review of those plans from the Lehigh Valley Planning Commission.

Allentown planning director Michael Hefele explained LVPC has 30 days to comment on the plan, and that 30 days had not yet expired. While acknowledging it is a technical issue, Hefele the city legally cannot approve the project until it hears from the regional planning commission or after the 30 days have passed. “We expect their letter at any time,” he said.

“We probably ought to defer final approval until the next meeting,” said planning commission chairman Oldrich Foucek.

Atty. Marcel Groen, the developer’s lawyer, said Delta Thermo Energy, Inc., is arranging financing for the $49 million project and told planners: “It would be helpful to us if we at least have some kind of preliminary approval.”

But Hefele indicated the planning commission has to follow the rules, partly to avoid “an appealable issue.” Foucek told developers “you can tell your bond counsel and others that we’re inclined to approve it.”

Planners anticipate giving the project final approval in January. Allentown City Council already approved it earlier this year, despite vocal opposition from many residents. No residents spoke at the planning commission meeting.

If the project gets final planning commission approval in January, construction of the plant will begin in March or April, said Rob Van Naarden, chief executive officer of Delta Thermo. After completion and testing, he predicted the plant will go into full commercial operation by August 2014.

Van Naarden said Delta Thermo will produce electricity from 108 tons of municipal solid waste and 42 tons of sewer sludge consumed every day. Although staffed by a total of only 22 people, the highly automated plant will operate round-the-clock, he said.

The 48,000-square-foot plant will be built on 3.07 acres of land, between Union Street and Allentown’s wastewater treatment plant along the Lehigh River. That property is being leased from the city. The Delta Thermo plant will be built along a driveway that serves the sewage treatment plant from Union Street.

Van Naarden provided an overview of the project during the planning commission meeting.

“We’re taking all your municipal solid waste that is residentially collected and all your sewage sludge and turning it into clean electricity,” he told planners.

He also said everything burned to produce that electricity “is only from Allentown.”

Nine to 11 truckloads of municipal waste going to the plant every day will be collected in the city, planners were told.

Van Naarden said about three trucks a day will deliver sewage sludge to the plant from the neighboring sewage plant. 

Glass and metal manually will be removed from solid waste brought to the energy-producing plant. That waste is shredded, mixed with sewage sludge, then lifted via a crane into a series of high-pressure vessels that “are like pressure cookers.”

“We break down the materials molecularly and create a pulverized fuel, which is completely clean, inert and bacteria free,” said the Delta Thermo CEO.

Van Naarden maintained that process means “potential emission problems go away.”

He said that pulverized fuel then is burned in a combustion chamber to produce electricity right inside the plant. “There is practically no use of fossil fuels here,” he said, “and practically no emissions.”

Planners were told the developer already has an air quality permit -- “the most important one” -- from the state Department of Environmental Protection.

Because sewage sludge contains 80 percent water, dirty water from the pressure vessels will be treated and returned to the waste water treatment plant.

Allentown public works director Richard Young said no jobs will be lost because trucks drivers who hauled sludge from the city’s sewer plant will be reassigned.