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Officials weigh turning shuttered Hempfield plant into forensics center

| Thursday, Dec. 27, 2012, 12:02 a.m.

Westmoreland County officials are exploring a proposal to convert a former waste-to-energy plant in Hempfield to a records and forensic center that would house new offices and a morgue for the coroner.

Commissioner Tyler Courtney said Wednesday that although funding for the rehabilitation was stricken from the county's 2013 budget last week, officials are continuing their efforts to find other uses for the two-story building, which was shuttered 15 years ago.

“It's a project that makes a lot of sense, but we need to find out how to pay for it,” Courtney said. “I hope to see that project move forward next year. It would really benefit the county.”

Initial plans indicated it would cost about $800,000 to gut the former energy plant and convert it into office space for the coroner's office and a warehouse for county records.

The coroner's office, which occupies space on the sixth floor of the courthouse, would relocate to the renovated plant site. An upgraded morgue would be constructed at the plant. The coroner's office currently uses six drawers in morgue space at Westmoreland Manor, the county-operated nursing home.

“It would certainly be easier for people we deal with to be all in one place and for them not to have to come to the courthouse,” said Coroner Ken Bacha.

The facility would include space for autopsies, although Bacha said there are no plans for the county to change its system of transferring bodies to Pittsburgh to be examined by forensic pathologist Dr. Cyril Wecht.

Detectives from the Westmoreland County District Attorney's forensics unit could be transferred to the former plant site, Bacha said.

In addition, the county's records management department, which stores old documents in the courthouse extension basement, could be relocated to the former plant site, according to Courtney.

In 1998, county commissioners shut down the waste-to-energy plant after more than 11 years of operation. At the time of its inception, the facility was considered to be a ground-breaking approach for county government to save energy costs by burning garbage and converting it into steam energy that heated the county jail, nursing home, juvenile detention center and a nearby state prison.

The plant never turned a profit and lost more than $400,000 during its last year in operation, prompting commissioners to close it. Since then, it has served as a storage facility.

Public works director Greg McCloskey said the shell of 13,400-square-foot building would remain.

“We would build a building within a building,” he said.

Money remains the missing piece to the project. Courtney said commissioners have identified no funding to move the project forward.

Bacha said his office has access to a $150,000 technology grant that would pay to equip the new facility.

“If this would happen, it would be great,” Bacha said.

Rich Cholodofsky is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 724-830-6293 or rcholodofsky@tribweb.com.

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