Alcosan plan to fix overflowing sewer system focuses on 'gray' construction

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The Allegheny County Sanitary Authority's proposed fix for its overflowing sewer system will be the biggest and most expensive public works construction project in the region's history, but the plan contains no "green infrastructure" that proponents say could reduce costs, create more jobs and improve community quality of life.

Instead, Alcosan's $3.6 billion draft wet weather plan, which will be officially released Tuesday to meet a federal deadline, focuses exclusively on "gray" construction -- massive underground storage tunnels, new pipes and expanded treatment facilities -- to capture and treat almost all stormwater flows.

Paying for the plan over the next 15 years could eventually increase the average annual sewage bill for every household in the Alcosan service area to $860 or more. The average annual household sewer bill now is $260.

The release of the wet weather plan kicks off what promises to be a loud and contentious six-month public comment period that will end Jan. 31, 2013, when the plan plus the public comments it generates must be submitted to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Nancy Barylak, an Alcosan spokeswoman who estimated the cost of producing the wet weather plan since 2008 at around $30 million, said the authority anticipates there will be some "adjustments" as a result of those comments "but not any wholesale changes."

But Alcosan can expect to get an earful about the plan's cost and its exclusion of green infrastructure, a proven stormwater management strategy, endorsed by the EPA, that includes use of permeable pavements, parking lots and road surfaces, street and roof gardens and tree plantings to keep or capture more of the rain where it falls and significantly reduce the amount of stormwater runoff that must be treated.

Pittsburgh United, a consortium of 13 environmental, union, community and faith organizations, is pushing for significant changes in the Alcosan plan that will emphasize green infrastructure over gray, said Barney Oursler, the group's executive director.

"We're trying to fundamentally change the way Alcosan is doing this," said Mr. Oursler, whose consortium was awarded a $75,000 EPA grant earlier this month to evaluate the costs and benefits of using green infrastructure projects.

"Alcosan didn't fully explore green infrastructure and we think it's time to take a hard look at its capability to reduce the need for gray construction," he said.

Mr. Oursler said green infrastructure components are included in federally mandated sewer system improvements in Chicago, Philadelphia, Cleveland, Milwaukee, Minneapolis, Kansas City, Syracuse, N.Y., and Washington, D.C.

A Pittsburgh-based study is needed, he said, to determine if their use here will save money, enhance business and residential property values, improve air quality, reduce the city "heat island effect" by providing more shade, beautify communities and produce more jobs.

"We do hope that by the time Alcosan gets to a final plan that green infrastructure will be included," said Paul King, president of the Pennsylvania Environmental Council, a coordinating organization for the Green Infrastructure Network, a partnership of more than 50 organizations, businesses, academic representatives and government units.

"We recognize that it can't solve 100 percent of the problem," he said, "but it can be a significant, progressive, sustainable, cost-effective part of any solution."

'It's their choice to make'

Allegheny County is one of several hundred metropolitan areas, most of them in the Northeast and Great Lakes region, that have older sewer systems that were designed to overflow regularly during rainstorms as a way to prevent damage to treatment facilities.

But EPA studies show that such storm-triggered overflows contaminate the region's creeks and rivers with bacteria, pathogens and chemical pollutants that damage water quality and aquatic life. Subsequent changes in federal regulations have made sanitary sewer overflows illegal and require much stricter limits on combined sewer overflows, too.

In a typical year, there are 60 to 70 rainstorms that produce raw sewage overflows into the Pittsburgh region's streams and rivers; each rain event can produce overflows that last for several days.

Because about 90 percent of the water provided by public water suppliers is drawn from the region's rivers and streams, the stormwater overflows also have the potential to harm human health.

According to Alcosan's January 2008 consent agreement with the EPA, the authority must stop all 52 sanitary sewer overflows and significantly reduce the number and frequency of overflows from 153 combined sewer outfalls by 2026.

The EPA has endorsed green infrastructure in a series of policy statements dating to 2008 as a preferred option to address sewer system overflow problems, but the Alcosan consent order doesn't mention or require its use.

"It's their choice to make. We won't reject a plan because it lacks a green infrastructure component," said Jon Capacasa, director of the water protection division at EPA's Region III office in Philadelphia. "Remember too that the public has a role to play here on the choice of a control strategy."

Ms. Barylak said green infrastructure options have been popularized only within the last year or so, too late for Alcosan to present evidence to the EPA that it will work locally.

"It's not that we don't support it," she said. "But the timing was off for inclusion in this plan."

Ms. Barylak said Alcosan is also limited in its use of green infrastructure because it doesn't own any property where such projects could be installed and doesn't have jurisdiction to implement such projects in municipalities.

'Rainwater is not free'

The 83 municipalities in the Alcosan service area must also eliminate or reduce hundreds of overflows from the sewer systems they own, and that mandate may hold the key to local use of green infrastructure.

The municipalities' municipal sewage conveyance plans must be submitted to the EPA next July, and they should lean heavily on green infrastructure solutions to reduce municipal stormwater flows, said Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald. Such flow reductions could decrease the size and cost of Alcosan's gray construction projects.

"The idea up until now has been to build big enough stormwater pipes, storage tunnels and treatment facilities to handle all of the flow, but green infrastructure is something we need to revisit," Mr. Fitzgerald said.

He said 60 percent of the 200 million gallons treated by Alcosan on a dry day is "unmetered" flow from leakage and illegal sewer tap-ins and that percentage and volume increase significantly when it rains.

"Rainwater is not free because when it runs off, we have to pay to treat it," said Mr. Fitzgerald. "We need to engage all of the folks upstream, the municipal officials, developers, homeowners and businessmen to consider and include green infrastructure in their planning."

Several municipalities have already started down that permeable path. Moon, Fox Chapel and Shaler have installed rain gardens to mitigate runoff problems, and in Pittsburgh roof gardens installed on the County Office Building, the David L. Lawrence Convention Center and a host of privately owned buildings are capturing rainfalls of up to 1 inch.

Mr. Fitzgerald praised the local municipal efforts but said the "patchwork" approach could and should be improved.

"We need to incentivize individuals, businesses, developers and municipalities to capture rainwater," he said. "Unless we put an economic incentive on it, people don't make those kind of choices."

Mt. Lebanon recently became the first municipality in the county to charge residents and commercial properties a stormwater fee to fund and upgrade stormwater retention projects. Philadelphia and Washington, D.C., have instituted similar "rainwater utilities" on a much broader scale.

John Schombert, who, as executive director of the 3 Rivers Wet Weather Project, has led a push for combined regional plans to address sewer overflows, said use of green infrastructure locally depends on its acceptance by the municipalities.

"We're working to get green infrastructure components into the municipal portion of the plans that will be released next July," Mr. Schombert said. "There is a real place for green infrastructure where it's cost effective and strategically appropriate. But I understand completely why Alcosan is doing what it's doing. The key will be how all of it gets blended together with the municipalities' plans in the end."

It's all about the money

The cost of the plan is another key and controversial factor.

Alcosan officials, in recent speeches and meetings, have focused on a $3.6 billion plan that has raised eyebrows and concerns about what Alcosan customers can afford to pay.

An EPA guidance on wet weather plan affordability recommends limiting customer sewage bills to 2 percent of the median household income, or in Alcosan's service area, $860 a year. That's enough to fund a $2.1 billion sewer overflow control plan.

"Rates won't be part of the release and we won't know what they will be until the agencies sign off on the plan," said Ms. Barylak, who refused to discuss the $860 rate figure. "We won't even turn the plan in for another six months."

But Alcosan has been meeting informally with the EPA for months to explore options for completing and paying for the required sewer system upgrades. Those options could include the phased construction of specific overflow controls on a priority schedule and spreading out construction schedules and costs over additional years.

Mr. Capacasa said phased approaches have not been approved before for affordability reasons. He didn't rule it out for Alcosan, but said it's too early to have that discussion.

"The authority has an obligation to propose a feasible, doable and affordable plan, but the EPA will not force a plan that is unaffordable," he said.

"It's premature to talk about extensions or phasing because we haven't yet seen the final plan. We remain open to working with Alcosan after receiving its plan to determine what needs to be done."


Don Hopey: or 412-263-1983.


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