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Commissioners expected to award pacts for $1M forensics center in Hempfield

| Wednesday, July 24, 2013, 12:01 a.m.

Work to convert the shuttered waste-to-energy plant in Hempfield into a state-of-the art forensics center could begin next month.

Westmoreland County commissioners on Thursday are expected to award a series of contracts to build the 18,000-square-foot facility that will house a new coroner's office, morgue, crime labs and records storage areas.

The nearly $1.1 million project is expected to be completed by June 2014, said county engineer Gary Vautard.

Commissioners said they will pay for the center with proceeds from a $55 million financing package they approved in April that included $8 million earmarked for new capital projects.

“It's a piece of real estate that if we don't do something with that building, it will continue to deteriorate,” said Commissioner Tyler Courtney. “It will be converted to meet the county's needs.”

For more than a decade, the building served as a waste-to-energy plant where garbage was incinerated to produce steam energy that heated the county jail, nursing home, juvenile detention center and the now-closed state prison, all nearby.

The plant was once seen as a ground-breaking initiative to save energy costs. But it never turned a profit, and county commissioners closed it in 1998. It lost more than $400,000 during its last year in operation.

For the past 15 years, the building served as a storage area for equipment for Westmoreland Manor and other county buildings.

Commissioners now plan to recast the former energy plant.

“We're essentially building a building within a building,” said Commissioner Charles Anderson.

The county will construct a two-story facility within the outer shell walls of the energy plant. The ground floor, which had held the incinerator, will be used to store records.

A new, 11,000-square-foot second floor will be built for the coroner's office and will include an autopsy suite and a morgue with a walk-in cooler that can store up to 30 bodies.

The facility will house crime labs used by county detectives.

“This will put us all under one roof,” said Coroner Ken Bacha. “It's a smart move, and it will improve our efficiency.”

The coroner's office now occupies space on the sixth floor of the courthouse and operates a six-drawer morgue at Westmoreland Manor. County forensic detectives work out of a county-owned building on Donohoe Road in Hempfield.

Bacha said a $180,000 state grant will be used to purchase equipment and to create an autopsy suite.

The coroner's office now contracts with Dr. Cyril Wecht in Pittsburgh to conduct autopsies. Bacha said Wecht will continue to work for the county.

The new autopsy suite will be sparsely equipped for now.

“We're not making any plans to switch from Dr. Wecht. We're satisfied with Dr. Wecht, but it gives us an option in the future,” 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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