Pittsburgh mayoral candidates share views on environmental issues

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Three Democratic candidates for mayor were united in support for significant alterations to a multibillion-dollar Alcosan proposal to deal with the region's storm and wastewater runoff problem.

At a forum Wednesday night focused on environmental issues, city Councilman Bill Peduto noted that he and Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald had already called for changes in the plan to take advantage of "green'' techniques to contain runoff closer to its sources by using features such as wetlands. Some environmental voices have criticized the plan, mandated by a federal consent decree, to make a massive investment in structures, including massive storage tunnels, designed to staunch the recurrent flows of untreated wastewater into rivers and streams.

"I want the city of Pittsburgh to be the model for all the other Alcosan communities," Mr. Peduto said, maintaining that the incorporation of more green features could actually save on infrastructure costs.

Another candidate, Jack Wagner, the former state auditor general, denounced "this crazy tunnel proposal,'' saying more should be done to separate storm and wastewater runoff at homes and other sites. State Rep. Jake Wheatley, D-Hill District, who's also running for mayor, seconded the community-focused approach, saying that the city could encourage steps such as the widespread use of rain barrels in every neighborhoods.

The forum, sponsored by the League of Women Voters of Greater Pittsburgh and the Pittsburgh Greenspace Alliance and held at the Heinz History Center, produced no broad disagreements among the candidates of a party that prides itself on its vigilant approach to environmental issues. One difference did emerge on the controversial issue of natural gas drilling and fracking, although the candidates differed on the practical significance of their somewhat divergent prescriptions for regulation.

In response to a question, Mr. Wagner said he opposed drilling or any other mineral extraction on public lands or parks in the city. Mr. Wheatley offered a similar reaction but Mr. Peduto, pointing to his vote on a city council ordinance on the subject, insisted that drilling should be legally barred everywhere in the city, whether on public or private land.

Speaking just after the forum, Mr. Wagner emphasized that he, too, opposes drilling anywhere in the city and said that, as a practical matter, it was a moot issues as no one wants to drill within city limits. Similarly, Mr. Wheatley said that he has no reason to think anyone would propose a drilling pad in the city and that zoning laws should be sufficient to prevent such activity.

But Mr. Peduto insisted that a legal ban was appropriate, maintaining that drillers' agents had already been active in seeking leases in several city neighborhoods. Reflecting his years dealing with these issues and groups on council, his answers were often the most detailed of the three Democrats, and he took the opportunity to note his endorsements from an array of environmental groups, such as the Sierra Club.

Mr. Wagner recalled his work on local environmental issues during his years on council and pointed out that in state government he had been an advocate of making the state a pioneer in developing an alternative fuel infrastructure for the Pennsylvania Turnpike and other major highways.

Mr. Wheatley offered a personal perspective, saying that his experience as an avid runner had sensitized him to the need for more green spaces, particularly in some neglected urban neighborhoods.

Beyond that, there was broad agreement on most issues during the 90-minute exchanges before a packed house at the history center in the Strip District.

The Democrats echoed one another on a litany of issues including concern for global warming, the need to encourage a safe bicycling environment, and the importance of public art.

A.J. Richardson, another Democratic candidate, did not attend the forum.

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Politics editor James O'Toole: jotoole@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1562.


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