State fund proposed for sewer line repairs

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The idea of a municipality or sewer authority using public money to facilitate repairs to broken and leaking privately owned sewer laterals isn't new, but it's one whose time has come, said state Rep. Harry Readshaw.

The Carrick Democrat, in Pittsburgh on Monday afternoon to chair Democratic Policy Committee hearing, said he has sponsored legislation to speed repairs to the leaky laterals for a decade, but approaching federal deadlines for reducing untreated sewage discharges into streams and rivers across the commonwealth now make action on House Bill 703 and 704 a priority.

The two bills would allow municipalities or public authorities to go onto private property to fix broken sewer laterals when the leaks cause damage to public property or pose a threat to public health, and make public funds available to pay for the work.

"There hasn't been a lot of opposition to this idea, and most people are for it. It's just been off the radar screen," Mr. Readshaw said of the bills that remain in committee and have not advanced for a vote. "Now, with federal consent decree deadlines approaching, the recognition of this issue is elevated. Now people are realizing that something must be done."

Mr. Readshaw said a state-administered funding program could be established -- he suggested starting with $5 million -- to provide low-interest loans or grants for low-income families to do the repairs, which can be expensive. The state operates a similar $5 million program to help fund privately owned septic system upgrades.

According to testimony at the hearing, broken and leaking laterals can cause sinkholes that buckle streets and sidewalks, and allow sewage to contaminate groundwater or pool on the surface in neighborhoods.

Broken laterals can also be inundated with inflow from groundwater and stormwater and channel it into public sewer collection pipes where it significantly increases the amount of flow and cost of sewage treatment. It also contributes to sewage overflows.

Jim Good, interim executive director of the Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority, said there are approximately 100,000 privately owned sewer laterals connecting to more than 1,200 miles of publicly owned sewer lines in the city and more than one-half of the laterals leak.

Because they are privately owned, the ability of the PWSA or Alcosan to fix the laterals is very limited, he said.

"But House Bill 704 would give us both the carrot and the stick," Mr. Good said, voicing his strong support. "The stick gives the PWSA the authority to go in and make repairs to private sewer laterals that are endangering public health or damaging public property, and then bill the property owner."

The legislation also would establish a funding assistance program if the property owners can't pay the repair bills, which can range from $5,000 to $35,000 in the city, depending on the length and depth of the laterals, Mr. Good said.

"We're already working with the city to develop a program to provide grants or loans to cover some or all of the lateral repair costs," Mr. Good said. "The state legislation provides an additional tool in the arsenal to address these issues."

The Allegheny County Sanitary Authority is under a federal consent order to significantly reduce the 8 billion gallons of storm-caused sewage flowing a year into the region's rivers and streams by 2026. During dry weather 40 percent of the flow through the Alcosan system comes from infiltration and inflow through broken pipes. That increases to 80 percent during wet weather events.

"Source reduction is one of the big items that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency wants to see in Alcosan's ... plan," said John Schombert, executive director for 3 Rivers Wet Weather, a nonprofit promoting a regional response to the federal sewer system improvement mandate.

"This legislation provides the kind of tools that allows sewer authorities to start source reduction. Now they're treating a lot of clean water."

Don Hopey: or 412-263-1983.

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