It’s getting more expensive to flush in southwestern Pennsylvania, and it costs much more to pull that lever in some places than others.
For example, the sewage rates paid by residents of Charleroi, Washington County, are among the lowest in the region, while the rates in Monessen, just across the Monongahela River in Westmoreland County, are three times higher and among the highest around.
And among the 82 municipal customers in the Allegheny County Sanitary Authority, last year’s basic sewage rates varied from under $90 a quarter in Peters, Verona, Ben Avon and Thornburg, to more than $230 in Neville.
Those wide disparities in sewer rates have developed as municipalities and sewer authorities move with varying speeds to make and pay for federally mandated sewer system improvements aimed at reducing the illegal and unhealthy discharges of raw sewage into rivers and creeks nearly every time it rains.
The total price tag for sewer fixes in the 11-county region was estimated at $10 billion more than a decade ago, with $2.6 billion of that in the Alcosan service area. And in most municipalities across the southwest corner of the state sewage service ratepayers will eventually be saddled with the bulk of those costs.
“It’s a pay me now or pay me later kind of thing,” said John Schombert, executive director for 3 Rivers Wet Weather, a nonprofit promoting a regional response to the federal sewer system improvement mandate. “Usually higher fees are associated with debt service as communities are being forced to make system improvements and implement long term wet weather control plans. Disparate rates even in the Alcosan system are not unusual.”
To pay for treatment plant expansion and improvements and and other components of a wet weather control plan that has yet to get final approval from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Alcosan’s rates went up 17 percent in 2014, 11 percent last year and 11 percent this year, to a basic minimum charge of $94.04 a quarter. They’re scheduled to bump up another 11 percent next year.
Most municipalities and municipal authorities in the Alcosan service area tack on their own charges on top of that to pay for improvements to their own sewer systems required by consent orders with the state Department of Environmental Protection, which is helping to carry out the federal mandate.
Last year, according to a rate survey done by 3 Rivers Wet Weather, residents of Upper St. Clair, Crafton, McDonald, Fox Chapel, Indiana (Middle Road Extension) and Neville paid municipal sewer fees that added more than $100 to Alcosan’s basic fee.
Pittsburgh residents paid minimum quarterly sewer bills of $134.37 last year, which included both the Alcosan and Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority charges.
According John Poister, a DEP spokesman, 61 of the Alcosan municipalities and municipal authorities have signed consent orders with the state, 19 of those since the first of the year.
“We intend to sign consent orders and agreements with the remaining communities/municipal authorities,” Mr. Poister wrote in an email response to questions. “We are awaiting the outcome of negotiations between Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority and the EPA before working on a COA with PSWA.”
Rate differences can be found outside the Alcosan service area too. Charleroi’s quarterly minimum sewer rate for approximately 4,000 customers is just $33 for three months, based on a 6,000 gallon water consumption limit. A $33 customer service fee doubles the quarterly total to $66, still far below this year’s new $144 a quarter minimum rate in Monessen.
“The gap between us and Monessen is sizeable, but my rates will be trending up too,” said Ed Golanka, general manager of the Authority for the Borough of Charleroi. “Monessen is further along on its combined sewer overflow abatement program and has done more construction and a considerable number of projects.”
Thomas Salak, general manager for the Mon Valley Sewage Authority, which provides sewage service for Monessen and Donora, acknowledged last week that he’s been catching flak about the higher rates.
“People have been talking to us. They aren’t happy, but we had to raise rates to handle the costs of the long term control plan,” Mr. Salak said.
Frank LoPresti is one of those who isn’t smiling. He owns a commercial property in Charleroi and just bought a foreclosed home in Monessen, where his sewage bill is “substantially higher.” He said many elderly residents, including his parents, are worried because they can’t afford the high sewage rates and afraid they will lose their homes.
Monessen Mayor Lou Mavrakis said he hears those same complaints every day and thinks the problem will only get worse.
“It already costs more to poop here than it does to eat,” Mr. Mavrakis said, “and because of all our old sewer lines that will need to be replaced, sewage rates will continue to go up.”
3 Rivers Wet Weather hasn’t completed its sewer rate survey for 2016 yet. The link to the 2015 sewer rates survey is at: http://www.3riverswetweather.org/resources/educational-reference-materials/sewer-rate-study
Don Hopey: firstname.lastname@example.org, 412-263-1983, or on Twitter @donhopey