Alcosan gets more time to create green solutions to overflow problem
Decision gives region until at least 2036 to comply with sewage discharge limits, incorporate "green infrastructure" into retention plans.
March 9, 2016 11:14 PM
The EPA extended the deadline for Alcosan to comply with federal limits on sewage discharges into the rivers.
By Don Hopey / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has signaled its willingness to give the Allegheny County Sanitary Authority much more time to implement a “green first” flow reduction strategy and significantly reduce the billions of gallons a year of illegal wet weather sewage discharges that foul the region’s rivers and streams.
According to a letter sent Wednesday by the EPA to the city and county, the agency’s proposed modifications of Alcosan’s wet weather control plan would extend the authority’s compliance deadline, now 2026, by more than a decade.
The EPA said the extended time line could also “lower service rates to Alcosan customers” by spreading out construction costs.
The EPA letter is a positive response to requests made last month by Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald and Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto for opportunities to incorporate natural water retention methods — so-called “green infrastructure” — into Alcosan’s plan to significantly reduce the untreated sewage overflows.
“We’re happy with this because now Alcosan, the mayor, the county executive, the Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority, and our municipal partners are all on the same page,” Mr. Fitzgerald said. “We’ll do green [infrastructure] first, we’ll do adaptive management and we’ll have more time to plan the underground holding tunnels if needed.”
The EPA letter proposes modifications to its existing consent decree with Alcosan that would establish a more flexible, three-phase plan that relies first on the $300 million expansion of Alcosan’s Woods Run treatment plant along the Ohio River, and second on the use of “green infrastructure” to reduce stormwater flows from the authority’s 82 member municipalities and the city of Pittsburgh.
All of those flow reduction projects must be completed by September 2032, according to the letter’s timeline. The effectiveness of those measures would determine whether the deadline would be extended to add so-called “gray infrastructure” — underground tunnels and holding tanks for excess stormwater and sewage flows.
“This modification represents a consequential change in direction from the existing Consent Decree which will benefit public health, the environment, and the rate payers of Alcosan,” said the letter signed by EPA Region III Administrator Shawn Garvin.
But EPA notes that a final agreement on an amended wet weather plan must be completed soon. Negotiations between EPA and Alcosan on modifications to the authority’s plan, which relied heavily on expanding the stormwater collection and treatment system, have dragged on for more than two years. If quick agreement isn’t reached, Mr. Garvin wrote, “all parties must live under the existing Consent Decree and the Selected Wet Weather Plan option developed by Alcosan. As you know, this ... could have higher costs, a shorter schedule, and lack green infrastructure.”
Use of “green infrastructure” — such as wetlands, green roofs, neighborhood parks, bioswales, and permeable pavements and parking lots — captures stormwater where it falls rather than funneling it into sewers, where it swells flows and treatment costs, and causes unhealthy sewage overflows into rivers and creeks.
“This is going to be the biggest public works project in the history of Western Pennsylvania, and we have been adamant that it implement green-first solutions to our sewage overflow problems. I’m happy that the EPA agrees with us,” Mr. Peduto said in a statement.
Alcosan proposed a $2 billion stormwater control plan that relied on massive, miles-long underground tunnels to collect and hold the mixture of sewage and stormwater, but that plan was judged deficient by the EPA in 2014 because it did not control and treat enough of the wet weather flow.
The EPA has signaled its support of green strategies in other cities with similar overflow problems. Local environmental and citizens organizations have also lobbied hard for the flow reduction measures.
The EPA proposal, if Alcosan agrees, would amend a 2007 federal court approved consent order that mandates ending illegal wet weather discharges from 53 sanitary sewer overflows into the region’s rivers, and significantly reducing the sewage overflows from 153 combined sewer outfalls.
The EPA said Wednesday that such an amendment would provide a framework to a regional solution to wet weather discharges that includes flow reductions by Alcosan’s member municipalities and the city. The agency said it will soon begin talks with Pittsburgh on a separate consent agreement to develop a schedule “to meet these targets using green infrastructure and other flow reduction techniques.”
Don Hopey: firstname.lastname@example.org, 412-263-1983, or on Twitter @donhopey
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