The Tribune Democrat, Johnstown, PA

February 23, 2013

Authority’s plant proposal stalls after promising start

Randy Griffith

JOHNSTOWN — With work under way on $2.4 million of road and drainage improvements for Johns­town Redevelopment Authority’s proposed “frack water” treatment plant, some community leaders want to know more about the plant and its promise of new jobs.

Questions about the Aspen Fluid Logistics company and its Johnstown project will be on City Council members’ list when they have the long-awaited meeting with authority leaders, council member Marie Mock said recently.

The Aspen project was announced last April at a press conference in the former SS. Casimir & Emerich Church rectory at 501 Power St. Aspen CEO David Reifsnyder said the project could bring a $100 million investment to former Bethlehem Steel Corp. property off Iron Street and create hundreds of jobs.

Msgr. Raymond Balta, who chairs the redevelopment authority board, joined Reifsnyder for the announcement at the former rectory. The house was purchased for Aspen Johnstown LLC’s local office.

“They’re here now,” Balta said at the time. “It’s not something in the future.”

Reifsnyder said the first step would be to build a demonstration plant to treat 35,000 to 50,000 gallons a day.

That plant was to be up and running last summer, but construction never got off the ground.

There is still no sign identifying the Power Street office, which was unoccupied all week. A phone number listed on some Internet directories is not in service.

Reifsnyder and Balta are not answering many questions. Contacted by The Tribune-Democrat on Feb. 8, Reifsnyder said he was late for a flight “out of the country” and agreed to talk when he came back last Monday. But instead, Reifsnyder sent an email with an update.

“We are very excited to be able to leverage our technology in this undertaking as it will help to make gas exploration and production in the Marcellus Shale an environmentally friendly undertaking,” Reifsnyder wrote.

Permit process continues

Permitting through the Department of Environmental Protection was taking longer than expected, he wrote.  

“Unfortunately, the timing places us in the dead of winter, but we anticipate that we will resume construction at the Iron Street site in a matter of weeks,” he concluded, adding that the pilot plant should be operational by mid- to late-summer.

John Poister, a DEP spokesman, confirmed that Aspen has applied for a permit to dispose of the “sludge” in a landfill. The state sent followup questions to Aspen in December and is waiting on the company’s response.

Aspen has not applied for a permit to discharge treated water, Poister added.

The pilot plant will demonstrate the process’s viability for drilling companies looking for treatment options. Many now ship waste water to sites in Ohio where it is injected back into deep wells, Balta said in December.

Others are developing on-site treatment systems, but Aspen’s website points out that those will require more inspectors to monitor.

“Aspen anticipates that a centralized facility that provides comprehensive water analysis of both incoming water and outgoing will be desirable from a regulatory perspective,” the website says.

Aspen “uses patented and proprietary technology licensed to the company,” but does not identify the patent holder. In another section there is a reference to “technology partner” that has been using part of the process since 1998.

The website lists the EADS Group of Altoona and Hunt Construction Group of Scottsdale, Ariz., as “project development partners.”

Steve Sewalk of EADS confirmed the local engineering and architectural firm is assisting with the DEP permits, but had no details about the actual process or business plan.

Messages left with Hunt’s public relations office were not returned, and Reifsnyder wrote Hunt is not authorized to comment on his project.

Calls to Aspen’s corporate headquarters go directly to Reifsnyder’s voice mail.

Questions about verification

In December, Balta said the pilot plant had been set up in New Jersey, Aspen’s corporate base, and that it performed as expected. It was to be transported and reassembled in Johnstown.  

The company website says the processes “were demonstrated in field tests performed in Pennsylvania’s Marcellus shale region.” It does not say for whom the process was demonstrated and does not identify any independent sources to verify the success.

The Tribune-Democrat last week submitted written inquiries to Reifsnyder and each of the five redevelopment authority members. The letters included questions about how the system’s results were demonstrated, including any independent verification.

In addition, Reifsnyder was asked how much volume of water will be required to make the venture profitable, and what the cost would be for treatment. That information would be crucial for drilling companies selecting treatment options.

His emailed response was:

 “Thank you for your interest in Aspen Johns­town. I would refer you to my earlier email and our company website, on which all information made available to the public can be found.”

The earlier email referred questions to the Johnstown office, but the second response noted, “Our staff is not in the Johnstown office this week.”

Of the five redevelopment authority members, only Brian Vuletich responded. He could provide no information about the Aspen process demonstrations or any economic requirements for success.

Jobs are the goal

“We see this as an opportunity to create jobs in a community that desperately needs jobs,” Vuletich said. “There are so many communities that would love to have this.”

Vuletich defended the investment of public funds to prepare Aspen’s proposed location in the authority-owned Rosedale Business Park on a plateau above the former Bethlehem plant site.

“To bring jobs, you have to make yourself very accommodating and attractive to anybody who wants to come in,” Vuletich said.

The authority members are behind their chairman, he added.

“We support Msgr. Balta,” Vuletich said. “He has done a great job to bring this in here.”

Reached at his home in the St. Mary Byzantine Catholic Church Rectory, Balta would not discuss Aspen’s business plans or qualifications.

“I am not going to get into all that with you,” Balta said. “I am trying to get someone to come into town and create jobs. I don’t have any more information I can give you.”

Authority members Karen Varga, M. John Mavrodis and Mayor Thomas Trigona did not respond.

In December, Balta said he went looking for opportunities in the Marcellus Shale industry because of its growth.

“I asked: What was the need?” he said in December “The gap in the whole industry is the treatment of water.”

With its rail link, Johnstown can serve a large area of the state, he said.

“We can receive 2.1 million gallons per train,” he said. “We can take 500 trucks off the road.

“That was my vision.”

Time is of the essence, he said, noting that other locations could develop treatment depots.

“Do it now,” Balta said. “And be straight down the line. No fiddling around. No deals.”

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