Alcosan set a record yesterday when 1,775 people turned out to learn about sewage overflow, recycling and other watershed issues at the sanitary authority's fourth annual open house.
The event, an educational fair and picnic on the grounds of the North Side plant, is really "a proactive outreach" to the public for its help, said Nancy Barylak, spokeswoman for the Allegheny County Sanitary Authority.
For four years, Alcosan has been drawing crowds of singles, parents, children and senior citizens who find out how rain barrels collect storm water, the role recycling plays in the watershed and what Alcosan is doing -- from robotic maintenance to recycling feces.
Alcosan's service area is made up of the City of Pittsburgh and 82 neighboring municipalities in Allegheny County and parts of communities in Washington and Westmoreland counties.
Rachel Kleister, of Carnegie, attended with her two daughters, saying, "I home school them, so this is a field trip. We looked through a microscope at bacteria they use to clean sewage, and we took the garbage I.Q. test."
At the "Recycling Challenge," children gathered around Sheila Long, an Alcosan employee, who held up a paper plate, a cough drop bag and a plastic bottle, with each one asking, "Garbage or recycle?"
Another Alcosan employee, Megan Gieslak, manned a big clear box with the product Alcosoil crumbled inside. It is sewage, treated to be used as fertilizer, and Alcosan sells it to farmers, she said. A heavy glove extending into the box through a hole lets the public feel the product without getting it on them.
Alcosan is taking a further step to produce a higher grade of fertilizer -- one without the aroma of Alcosoil -- by contracting to have it blended with other compost and the ash that results from its burning of sewage waste.
By giving its ash to a contractor, it does not have to pay $20 to $25 per ton at a landfill, said Bob Martire, the residuals program manager.
The authority sold the soil blend last year to raise funds for the family of an employee who died and Elaine Price, of Hazelwood, bought a 5-pound bag. She returned this year and found Mr. Martire, who stood behind a table filled with free little bags of the mix and wildflower seeds.
"I need a big bag," she told him. "I used it with my little houseplants and they grew into big houseplants. I had to re-pot them several times."
"Good to hear," said Mr. Martire, whose job it is to find markets for Alcosan's residual products.
One of the most critical issues facing the county's health and economic future is a federal consent decree to reduce sewage overflow into Pittsburgh area rivers and streams.
Alcosan signed the agreement in May to, ultimately, eliminate 85 percent raw sewage that overflows as a result of heavy rain. The overflow now comes to about 22 billion gallons a year.
As part of the agreement, the sewer authority will make comprehensive, systemwide upgrades over the next 20 years.
Diana Nelson Jones can be reached at email@example.com or 412-263-1626.