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Can Lehigh County’s leaky sewer system handle more development, including the Keurig Dr Pepper bottling operation?

Dec 20, 2023

Monica Cabrera / The Morning Call

Developer Ridgeline Property Group has completed a 730,080-square-foot warehouse on the old Kraft Heinz site on Industrial Boulevard in Upper Macungie Township and is beginning work on an adjacent 811,200-square-foot manufacturing plant. Both buildings, which will be connected by a tramway so product can move to the warehouse, will be leased by Keurig Dr Pepper, which will invest about $220 million in the site.

Morning Call file photo

The Kline's Island Wastewater Treatment Plant in Allentown.

The $220 million bottling operation Keurig Dr Pepper intends to launch at the former Kraft Heinz site in Upper Macungie Township would create hundreds of jobs and considerable tax revenue.

It may also trigger some heartburn for area developers, environmental advocates and stewards of the Lehigh County sewage system.

In addition to at least 378 jobs, the beverage company’s eight high-speed bottling lines will generate a projected 400,000 gallons per day of sewage when the facility is fully operational in about three years, according to a regulatory document filed by Ridgeline Property Group, which owns and is redeveloping the former Kraft site.

That’s more sewage than any single customer sends to the Kline’s Island Wastewater Treatment Plant in Allentown besides Boston Beer Co., which owns 2 million gallons per day of treatment allocation — the capped amount it can send to the plant. Established beverage companies Ocean Spray and Nestle Waters each have 300,000 gallons per day in purchased allocation, while Coca-Cola has 274,000. By comparison, a new single-family home is allocated 223 gallons per day.

The project comes at a moment of already heightened concern about the Lehigh County sewage system’s capacity — especially in the western suburbs — to accommodate near-term development.

The bottling operation’s projected flows represent about 70% of the remaining new sewage allowance, or “development flow credits,” for the Western Lehigh Sewerage Partnership — comprised of Upper Macungie, Lower Macungie and five other municipalities. And it’s far from the only development in the works.

A Keurig Dr Pepper spokesperson did not respond this week when asked if the company is concerned about available sewage capacity. But both Upper Macungie and the Lehigh County Authority affirmed in Ridgeline’s sewage plan that the bottling operation’s waste will not overload the system in the next five years.

Ridgeline’s plan calls for four bottling lines producing 250,000 gallons of flow per day by mid-2020, then four more bottling lines producing 150,000 gallons per day in mid-to-late 2022.

Liesel Gross, the LCA’s CEO, said gradual construction of the bottling operation will give the western Lehigh consortium enough time to complete various repairs and upgrades to the system. That will replenish the available allocation.

The dwindling amount of flow credits poses some concern for landholders, said David Jaindl of Jaindl Land Co. The prominent developer is building 273 apartments, 230 single-family homes and 25 townhouses in Fogelsville, among other ongoing projects.

But he doesn’t expect Keurig Dr Pepper to provoke a mad dash for the remaining hookups.

“They won’t be looking for that entire allocation on day one, and by the time they do get there, you’ll see upgrades that will add to capacity,” Jaindl said. “Hopefully things will be just fine.”

The state Department of Environmental Protection is reviewing the Ridgeline sewage plan, which was approved Sept. 5 by the Upper Macungie Township supervisors. Colleen Connolly, a DEP spokeswoman, declined to comment on it or on concerns about regional sewage capacity before the department completes its review of the Ridgeline plan.

The problem

The western Lehigh flow credit pool is overseen by the DEP and is meant to curb overflows from the sewage system into the Little Lehigh Creek and its tributaries during intense periods of wet weather, when stormwater infiltrates deteriorating sewer lines and broken manholes.

Despite some repairs, the system still gets overwhelmed. There were more overflows in 2018 than any year in the past decade, and last fall the Lehigh County Authority — which operates the Allentown treatment plant and the city’s sewage network — declared an emergency to expedite repairs to an artery that was spilling sewage from manholes in the Trexlertown area, not far from the planned Keurig Dr Pepper operation.

Additionally, both the Allentown treatment plant and Fogelsville pretreatment plant, in the heart of the Lehigh Valley’s industrial corridor, exceeded permitted daily capacity in 12 of 13 months before August — an unprecedented stretch.

Abnormally wet weather, not an influx of development, is largely to blame for the bloated state of the system. During the 12 months preceding August, the region sustained nearly 80 inches of rain, 75% more than the average annual rainfall. Groundwater levels stayed high through the first half of the year, flooding the sewage system through leaky pipes the municipalities have spent tens of millions of dollars in the past decade sealing — with tens of millions more planned over the next five years.

During periods of more normal rainfall, the system has room to spare. In 2016 and 2017, the Allentown plant treated an average daily volume 20% to 25% under its permitted capacity of 40 million gallons per day. The Fogelsville pretreatment plant also operated at three-quarters capacity in those years.

In August, the region got less than 5 inches of rain, and groundwater levels finally began to recede. At least at the Allentown plant, average daily flows returned to permitted levels.

But western Lehigh leaders recognize the risk of basing assumptions on those historical norms. At a late August LCA board meeting, Gross stressed the need to make the sewage system less vulnerable.

“The uncertainty over future conditions is a big concern for utilities nationwide trying to prepare infrastructure that can last for the next 40 to 50 years,” Gross said. “These projects cost a significant amount of money, so we want to get them right.”

Since leasing the treatment plant and city sewer system to LCA in 2013, Allentown has frequently clashed with the authority over its management. But in this case, city Managing Director Joe McMahon agrees with Gross’ assessment.

“There’s no doubt the peak flows are changing as the weather changes, but LCA recognizes this and is working to address the problem,” he said.

Michael Siegel, a retired planner who lives along Spring Creek in Lower Macungie, worries that the LCA and its municipal partners have waited too long to make significant upgrades and won’t be able to avoid major disruptions to development or the environment.

“It’s going to get a lot worse before it gets better,” he predicted. “They could have resolved these capacity issues years ago, but they put it off, and now there are going to be a lot of ticked-off developers.”

Could rain wash out growth?

The Lehigh Valley has long been a beverage manufacturing hub, with western Lehigh County boasting the highest concentration of beverage-processing activity in the state.

Keurig Dr Pepper is expected to add hundreds of workers to a subsector that already employs more than 2,400. In addition to its anticipated 800,000-square-foot bottling operation under construction, the company will lease an adjacent warehouse that will employ 200 and has already bought 11,400 gallons per day in sewage allocation.

Unlike warehouses, bottling operations consume a lot of water and produce a lot of wastewater. And sewage hookups in western Lehigh are getting scarce.

Entering 2019, western Lehigh had about 653,000 gallons per day of available flow credits. Gross estimates the balance is down to 570,000 gallons.

Kraft Foods, which closed in 2016, generated about 350,000 gallons per day in wastewater. Its allocation was returned to the pool, not reserved for the next owner of the property.

Keurig Dr Pepper will build an on-site pretreatment facility, giving its waste a preliminary clean. But that won’t affect the volume it sends southeast.

Rick Koze, president of prolific residential development company Kay Builders, said the growing uncertainty of available sewage hookups is a challenge developers have to factor in when deciding whether to build in much of Lehigh County.

He’s finishing up the Trexler Field land development in Breinigsville and has two projects in Upper Milford Township, which is part of the western Lehigh consortium. But Koze says he’s reluctant to tackle more enterprises in the western suburbs because of the sewage issues.

“You definitely have a greater risk than five years ago,” he said. “If I were starting a big project, I’d be a little nervous about it.”

Per a decade-old DEP corrective action plan, flow credits are renewable. Western Lehigh municipalities can earn about three gallons of credit for every 10 gallons of stormwater they remove from the sewage system by sealing leaky pipes.

They did not earn any credits in 2018, but Gross expects that to change next year when the LCA has a system in place to better monitor the flow.

They can also earn credits by building temporary sewage storage tanks called “flow equalization basins.” They received 900,000 credits earlier this decade by building a 3-million-gallon tank near the pretreatment plant in Upper Macungie.

Later this fall, LCA will look into building another tank or something similar, Gross said.

Some say putting the brakes on development wouldn’t be a bad thing. Deana Zosky, who lives on the Little Lehigh Creek in Lower Macungie and is a former LCA board member, said the DEP shouldn’t allow new sewer hookups as long as the system is overflowing during heavy or prolonged rains.

“There should a be a moratorium until the pipes and overflows are fixed,” she said. “How will it ever be fixed if additional capacity is constantly added to a system that is already surcharging?”

Options on the table

Though the DEP review of the Ridgeline plan is ongoing, the Wolf administration is already invested in the project. The state Department of Community and Economic Development offered Keurig Dr Pepper an incentive package worth about $2.8 million to expand in Pennsylvania, according to a Monday news release.

In that same news release, Don Cunningham, president and CEO of the Lehigh Valley Economic Development Corp., took the unusual step of thanking the LCA for its support in making the Keurig Dr Pepper deal possible.

“Relatively modest” engineer work on the sewer system will keep the region open for business, he said later.

“It’s just going to take coordinated effort between the many players involved to work through some of the challenges,” Cunningham said.

There might be a short-term way to addressing the capacity issue. Over the past year, both the Allentown and Fogelsville plants have maintained quality standards despite working overtime.

That prompted the LCA’s board last month to authorize a study to determine whether the Allentown plant’s capacity ceiling should be increased. LCA is considering a similar reevaluation of the pretreatment plant’s capacity.

It’s considering longer-term solutions, too. A five-year capital plan approved earlier this year calls for numerous projects that would increase capacity in western Lehigh. Among other things, LCA is looking at building a 2-mile-long pipe parallel to a clogged artery in Trexlertown to aid sewage flow from Upper Macungie.

Gross also wants to pull off the shelves 5-year-old engineering studies on expanding capacity at the Allentown treatment plant and the possibility of upgrading Fogelsville to a full-treatment facility.

At the time, the DEP directed the western Lehigh partners to instead focus on stopping stormwater from infiltrating the sewage system during heavy rain, Gross said. A consultant told her that according to future growth projections, the region would have up to five years before revisiting the plant upgrades.

“And here we are,” she said. “The pressure on growth has continued, and the system is nearly full. … It’s not something we can put off.”

Morning Call reporter Jon Harris contributed to this story.

Morning Call reporter Andrew Wagaman can be reached at 610-820-6764 or [email protected].

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