The Allegheny County Sanitary Authority will seek to renegotiate a 2008 federal consent agreement requiring it to stop most wet weather sewer overflows. The authority said its ratepayers can't afford the $3.6 billion in systemwide improvements needed to fix the problem.
To meet a deadline imposed by the consent agreement, Alcosan Tuesday publicly released a lesser, $2.8 billion wet weather control plan that includes construction of new storage tunnels and sewer lines and expanded treatment facilities to capture and treat 5.4 billion gallons of raw sewage and stormwater overflows a year.
Paying for even Alcosan's lesser, "recommended plan" -- which does not meet the consent agreement's minimum goals for wet weather control -- will eventually require doubling the current annual average rate of $262 paid by customers in the authority's service area of 83 municipalities, including Pittsburgh.
The $3.6 billion plan, which does meet water pollution control goals, would more than triple the current Alcosan billing rate, moving it significantly higher than the 2 percent of median household income an EPA affordability index indicates ratepayers can afford.
"Our recommended plan scales back in terms of timing and priority," said Arletta Scott Williams, Alcosan's executive director. "The $3.6 billion is not affordable for our ratepayers, not a responsible plan. You can't get blood from a turnip."
She said Alcosan would be open to negotiating a second phase plan aimed at capturing additional overflows if necessary after 2026, the end date for completing work under the consent agreement.
While acknowledging that Alcosan's proposed plan "doesn't meet the terms of the consent agreement," Chester Babst III, Alcosan's solicitor, said the agencies involved "should look for ways forward that are both affordable and provide the best environmental impact."
It took seven years of negotiations with the EPA to reach the existing consent agreement, but Mr. Babst said he anticipates renegotiating a revised agreement will be a quicker process, taking months instead of years. But it could move back Alcosan's January 2013 deadline for submitting its wet weather plan to the EPA, he said, and also delay other deadlines for final plan approval.
He said there are precedents for renegotiating consent agreements and indicated Alcosan will cite the EPA's own affordability calculations as support for the less expensive approach. But in the Mid-Atlantic region, the EPA has never renegotiated a consent agreement to remedy sewage overflows on the basis of affordability for ratepayers.
Alcosan has been meeting informally with the EPA during the planning process, but the EPA has not responded to the request to renegotiate. David Sternberg, an EPA spokesman, said the agency hasn't reviewed Alcosan's recommended plan and therefore, "It would be premature to comment."
Barney Oursler, executive director of Pittsburgh United -- an association of 13 environmental, union and community organizations -- said Alcosan's request to review the consent order provides an opening to insert "green infrastructure" components like permeable pavements, street and roof gardens and tree plantings into the all "gray" plan. Those components, endorsed by the EPA, capture stormwater where it falls, reducing the need for storage and treatment.
"I see it as an absolute opportunity," said Mr. Oursler, who is also a coordinator of the Clean Rivers Campaign. "Green infrastructure can be cheaper and can be built more quickly. We're asking Alcosan to join us in our EPA-funded study of its potential for use locally."
"We know the EPA is paying attention, and we know that they favor plans that maximize green stormwater controls," said Brenda Smith, executive director of Nine Mile Run Watershed Association, one of six member organizations in the Clean Rivers Campaign.
Mr. Babst said Alcosan supports use of green infrastructure by member municipalities to reduce stormwater flows into its collection system, but doesn't own the land or have the legal authority to implement such projects in municipalities.
Alcosan's recommended plan would expand daily treatment capacity at the Woods Run plant to 480 million gallons of sewage for primary treatment and 295 million gallons for secondary treatment. Current capacity for primary and secondary treatment is 250 million gallons a day.
The plan also includes construction of stormwater storage and 10 miles of conveyance tunnels upstream from the plant. A new conveyance system and treatment facility expansion will reduce illegal sanitary sewer overflows by 90 percent and capture 79 percent of combined sewer overflows. Approximately 5.4 billion gallons a year in wet-weather overflow volume would be removed from the region's rivers and creeks.
The consent agreement requires elimination of the system's 52 sanitary sewer overflows and reduction of 153 combined sewer overflows by 85 percent. The EPA regulates those overflows because they can contaminate rivers and streams, damaging aquatic life and putting public water supplies at risk.
Alcosan also announced Tuesday it will hold 13 meetings from mid-August to mid-October to gather public comments on its proposed plan. The first meeting is scheduled from 6:30 to 9 p.m. Aug. 16 at the Sheraton Station Square on the South Side.
A full list of meeting times, dates and locations is available on the Alcosan home page at www.alcosan.org. Click on the "Wet Weather Plan" page, then go to the Public Meetings heading and download a complete listing.
Don Hopey: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1983. First Published August 1, 2012 4:00 AM