"We are at a point where we are seeing a better quality of effluent," said Julian Shafer, the plant manager. "I wouldn't drink it, but it looks clear."
The new upgraded advanced treatment plant is being built in three phases on the same four-acre site as the former plant, according to Joseph Maiorano, vice president at Betz, Converse, Murdoch Inc., the plant designers. Phase one of the $17 million plant expansion was completed on Jan. 16, and the waste is being treated more effectively than in the last decade.
The Conshohocken plant, built in 1937, is nestled in a neighborhood of homes, industries and commercial businesses along Elm Street. The plant has been in trouble with the state for improper wastewater treatment and deficiencies since 1970.
Shafer said he began using a new chemical treatment in December that settled more solids and brought the discharge into compliance with DER standards.
In mid-January, the new equipment started helping to clean the water and reduce odors, he said.
New open-air sludge-digestion tanks could become an odor source, Shafer said, but "so far in phase one, we don't have an odor, knock on wood."
Project officials say that by the fall of 1990, the old plant will be almost completely replaced.
The plant processes 1.36 million gallons of sewage a day, and the discharge does not consistently meet minimum clean-water standards. Once most of the new equipment is installed, the plant will process 2.3 million gallons daily in a way that DER officials believe will bring the plant wastewater into compliance.
The additional capacity would be adequate to accommodate sewage from Conshohocken, West Conshohocken, Plymouth Township and some of Whitemarsh Township but not the new waterfront development in Conshohocken, according to Maiorano.
The human waste smells that waft up the hill - which residents such as Tim Hallman and G.G. Scribbick of Spring Mill Avenue have complained to government officials about for years - will diminish, township and DER officials say.
Hallman and Scribbick said that with the recent rash of chemical odors in the neighborhood at night, it's difficult to tell whether the sewer odors are waning.
Hallman said he smelled plant chemicals one night and human waste odors drove him inside on another night.
Scribbick recalled an "open sewage smell in the summer, but not in the last month or so. The sewer bill went up about $26."
The new plant was a necessity. In 1983, the DER ordered the Conshohocken Sewer Authority to comply with wastewater standards by September 1990.
DER officials Joseph Fiolla and Steve O'Neil said the plant was designed to remove pollution.
O'Neil said DER staff would normally check to make sure the plant is running properly with a minimum of smell, he said.
"The new plant should assist greatly in any odor problem," Maiorano said.
Perry L. Schafer, manager of odor control and corrosion control services with Brown & Caldwell Consulting Engineers in Sacramento, Calif., said odors can be controlled "if proper attention is given to the problem and the plant is designed and run properly."
Eliminating or pre-treating the odor source, such as industrial discharges, is the first line of attack, according to Schafer, who is chairman of the Odor Control Task Force for the Water Pollution Federation, a nonprofit environmental organization based in Virginia. Treating the sludge with chemicals is also a remedy.
In general, covering equipment and filtering and scrubbing the foul air is effective, he added. "That is not cheap," he added. "Municipal and authority officials tend to be very cautious when they get into that area."
The Montgomery Planning Commission has questioned whether the plant was adequate to handle the 2.6 million square feet of office and commercial space in the proposed riverfront development in Conshohocken.
The plant was designed in 1986, predating the riverfront projects in Conshohocken and West Conshohocken, Maiorano said.
"We've satisfied the West Conshohocken developments" by transferring capacity from Conshohocken, he added. "Conshohocken, West Conshohocken and Plymouth Township have the capacity of the plant. We've left room knowing that something is coming (in Conshohocken).
"With all the development on the Conshohocken side, we have built in space to build additional facilities to add capacity. We will probably be adding those facilities pretty shortly."