Alcosan expects approval of sewer plan

$2 billion project still looking to add green components

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This week or next, the Allegheny County Sanitary Authority expects federal approval of its $2 billion plan to significantly control, but not eliminate, wet weather sewage overflows into the region's rivers.

However, unless city and county officials convince the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to make a last-minute change, the OK won't give Alcosan the additional months it requested to study and add "green" infrastructure components such as rain gardens, trees, planted roof tops, permeable pavement and rain barrels to the plan.

"EPA has let us know in meetings we've had that they don't want us to delay," said Nancy Barylak, a spokeswoman for the joint city-county authority. "The agency has told us that green infrastructure will not be allowed to hold up the wet weather plan implementation schedule."

The Pittsburgh region is one of hundreds of metropolitan areas that have older sewer systems that were designed to overflow regularly during rainstorms as a way to prevent damage to treatment facilities.

Federal water regulations no longer allow such sewage overflows, and a federal court order in 2008 mandated that Alcosan stop all 52 illegal sanitary sewer overflows into the region's rivers by 2026 and significantly reduce discharges from 153 combined sewer overflows.

The Alcosan control plan, submitted to EPA a year ago, proposes only so-called "gray infrastructure" fixes, including construction of bigger collector pipes and two or three massive underground storage tunnels to hold wet-weather flows until they can be pumped through a much-expanded Alcosan treatment facility.

The $2 billion plan will capture and treat 79 percent of the region's combined sewer overflows. A more extensive $3.6 billion plan proposal would have captured more than 90 percent of that overflow, but was judged too costly for Alcosan's ratepayers, which include the city of Pittsburgh and 83 other municipalities.

Neither plan contained any green components, but when Alcosan submitted the cheaper plan in January 2013, it asked the EPA for an 18-month extension to study the feasibility of using the alternative overflow controls.

Green sewer system infrastructure is designed to hold and use stormwater where it falls instead of channeling it into collection pipes. It is a relatively new but proven water management strategy, endorsed by the EPA, to reduce the amount of stormwater that must be treated while at the same time beautifying neighborhoods and enhancing public parks and green space.

A number of cities -- Chicago, Philadelphia, Cleveland, Milwaukee, Minneapolis and Washington, D.C. -- have included green components in their overflow plans. But Alcosan has embraced such strategies slowly and reluctantly, said Barney Oursler, executive director of Pittsburgh United, a coalition of 13 environmental, union, community and faith organizations that has campaigned for green infrastructure components.

"We think Alcosan has learned how to do green washing, but isn't really interested in or capable of changing its old gray way of doing things," Mr. Oursler said.

The coalition said Alcosan lacks the vision needed to implement large-scale green infrastructure components in the sewer improvement plan, and has called on city and county officials to replace the authority's board of directors.

But Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald, who, along with Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto, supports green infrastructure strategies, said he expects the authority will more aggressively pursue those options.

"Even some of the Alcosan staff that have been reluctant to utilize green infrastructure have changed their attitudes and are now pursuing green," Mr. Fitzgerald said. "Gray will be a component of the plan -- it would be unrealistic to say it won't -- but we want to do as much with green as we can."

Mr. Fitzgerald and Mr. Peduto were in Washington, D.C., Tuesday, along with Alcosan executive director Arletta Scott Williams, for meetings on the issue with U.S. Rep. Mike Doyle, D-Forest Hills. A meeting with EPA officials scheduled for Wednesday was postponed to allow the city and county leaders to accompany President Obama on his visit to U.S. Steel's Irvin plant in West Mifflin.

David Sternberg, an EPA spokesman, declined to discuss the specifics of the Alcosan plan decision, but said the agency "supports flow reduction efforts by the municipalities of the Three Rivers Region through the use of green infrastructure as part of a comprehensive approach to achieving healthier waters."

Don Hopey: or 412-263-1983.

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