The cost of Clean Water Act is an unequal burden

Price of eliminating rainwater in sewer lines tops $2 billion



His father's house on Pioneer Avenue in Brookline was an investment Dale Redpath depended on for retirement. He bought it from the estate in 2004 for $45,000 and rented to tenants. When he decided to sell, he had a buyer at $39,000.

Two days before closing, he learned that the house, sitting as it does in a sanitary sewer area, needed a dye test to prove the sewer pipes were indeed separate from the pipes that carry rain.

They weren't. The dye that his crew hosed off the roof flowed fluorescent under the manhole cover.

His fix is going to cost maybe a third of the price of his house, but as part of the region's massive mess of water issues to fix, it is a sliver among billions that ratepayers, municipalities and Alcosan will have to spend to comply with the Clean Water Act, as required by a 2008 federal consent decree.

The dye test ordinance of 2006 prevents Mr. Redpath from legally selling the property without a remedy acceptable to the Allegheny County Health Department. Retaining water is a remedy if rain can be absorbed on that property through the use of rain barrels, swales, sumps or gravel pits. Mr. Redpath's property is a few yards off Pioneer Avenue and has a steep-sloped backyard.

Popping out the downspout and pointing it down the hill is not an option; there are neighbors down there. The county rejected a gravel pit he proposed. That would have cost more than $9,000, one-fourth of what his house might sell for but less expensive than the solution the county wants.

"They're asking us to tap into a storm drain under Pioneer Avenue," he said. "We would need people to draw up plans, the police to stop traffic, permits everywhere. Plumbers don't want to talk to me. I can't get anyone to [estimate the cost], except to say, 'Oh, that's a lot.' "

He found a new tenant -- the remedy is necessary only with a property sale. But one of these days, "when I get desperate," he said, "I'm going to have to go into foreclosure."

Another "small fish," who owns a property next to Mr. Redpath's in Brookline, is Barbara Mazzella of Jefferson Hills. She said she expects to have to board up the property, which belonged to her father-in-law, and walk away. There are roughly 4,000 small fish in the Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority's service area -- people whose properties are supposed to be sending only household wastewater to Alcosan but are also sending rain. Most are in the city's South Hills neighborhoods, where homes were built during an era of water and sewer reforms.

"No rain" is the edict in the big picture, too.

The federal consent decree locked the Environmental Protection Agency and Alcosan in an agreement to eliminate sanitary sewer overflows and to reduce overflow from combined sewers by 2026. Concurrent state and county orders went to municipalities.

$2 billion and counting

In the big picture, the majority of city properties have combined rain and sewer lines and are off the hook on the dye test, but each contributes to stormwater overflows. And the price tag on the big picture -- between $2 billion and $3.6 billion -- is fraught with inequity.

The separation of sewer lines from stormwater lines in the 1940s was a modern correction of a system that itself had been an improvement on an environmental nightmare.

Before Alcosan or municipal water and sewer bodies, Pittsburgh was a hotbed of typhoid, with raw sewage running down streets to streams and rivers. Conveyance pipes to prevent that led from homes to municipal lines, taking wastewater and rain together. Those combined systems were considered great progress in the city's first era of health reform.

Combined lines weren't ideal, since adding rain to the mix has proved a bad idea. But it took much more rain to overburden the system before the advent of inner-city highways, massive parking lots and big box stores that now feed the torrent. In fact, less than one-tenth of an inch of rain will overrun the system today.

Seventy-seven percent of properties in the city of Pittsburgh predate the sewer separation era. Their combined pipes are the oldest. Many are the original terra cotta -- and that type of ceramic cracks. There's a joint every several feet. And some of their configurations are bizarre, as Etna found out in its underground adventures in remediation. (See accompanying story.)

Alcosan submitted a remediation plan to the EPA earlier this year. Municipalities have their own wet-weather plans. But the overriding sentiment, that this problem cannot be solved by municipalities individually, brought a committee of entities together under the leadership of Alcosan and the Allegheny Conference on Community Development. They have recommended a regional approach.

Eighty-three municipalities feed wastewater to Alcosan for treatment and some use other municipalities' lines to get there. PWSA conveys flow from 24 municipalities. Some lines are too small for the burden, the cost of which falls to downstream municipalities. Many of those are older than outlying ones and have lower tax bases.

A recommendation of the committee is that Alcosan take over main trunk lines that connect its system to municipalities around it. That would account for 37 miles of sewer pipes across municipal boundaries, according to Kathy Risko, executive director of Connect: Congress of Neighboring Communities, a coalition of municipalities adjacent to and including Pittsburgh.

Connect is studying the recommendation "to see what that liability transfer would look like," she said. The study is expected to be completed next summer.

If Alcosan takes over care and liability of trunk lines, municipalities would still deal with backed-up basements and maintenance of their own lines. But Alcosan could alleviate a good portion of costs they now have.

Citing Etna, Nancy Barylak, Alcosan's spokeswoman, said taking over one trunk line "would free up money they can put into other lines."

She anticipates push back from some municipalities, though.

"Let's say community 'A' invested $1 million in upgrading," Ms. Barylak said. "They might say to us, 'OK, Alcosan, are you going to pay us back?' All these issues are being flushed out. They cross the line on governance, financial, legal but the county executive endorses this and all three regulatory agencies [the EPA, state Department of Environmental Protection and the Allegheny County Health Department] do."

Rain inundation forces the issue of regional cost sharing because rain overflows are what triggered the EPA's costly decree. But without the repair of leaky pipes, taxpayers will keep pouring money down the drain.

On a dry day, Alcosan treats 200 million gallons of water. Most of that is water leaking into pipes from the ground. There's capacity left over for one-tenth of an inch of rain.

Alcosan's remediation plan did not include green infrastructure to keep rain out of the system, but a number of advocates for green solutions hope to get an amendment to the Alcosan plan.

"In combined sewer systems, green infrastructure will go a long way to reducing overflows," said John Schombert, executive director of 3Rivers Wet Weather, a demonstration project that has been funded over the years by the EPA and foundations. "There are barriers to some green infrastructure in municipal codes, such as [specifications for] curb cuts" that would prevent rain collection along sidewalks. "We need to change these ordinances and codes uniformly.

"One of the things the EPA has said clearly is that we need source reduction" -- rain not entering into underground lines. "Everybody has to get involved in that to prevent overflows."

PWSA's wet-weather plan, based in part on three public input meetings, calls for a stormwater utility to review stormwater management plans and possibly generate revenue for maintenance, including green infrastructure maintenance. The plan calls for installation of tree boxes with reservoirs, bioswales and pervious pavement in the Saw Mill Run watershed "to demonstrate the efficacy of green infrastructure," said Jim Good, interim executive director of PWSA.

"One reason we chose that area had to do with practical issues that include cooperation among neighbors," he said. Twelve municipalities feed into those city lines. "This idea [of working across boundaries] is relatively new. We're going in with an open mind and we hope the other municipalities do, too."

The Saw Mill Run project will begin next year with money from a $9 million bond issue and foundations, he said.

If having 12 communities work together takes hope, talk of regionalization makes many people positively squirm.

But local governments are not water experts, said Mr. Schombert. Without regional cost-sharing, he said, "we will never get there."

Case in point: Wilkinsburg has the lowest tax base of all the municipalities in the Nine Mile Run watershed, but if each one had to pay the cost of the wastewater and rain it contributes, 45 percent of the cost would fall to Wilkinsburg, he said.

At the same time, many contributors of rain to the system, notably the owners of parking lots, are not ratepayers but should be paying a share of the remediation cost, he said.

"Municipalities don't have a legal way to charge parking lot owners [for stormwater] but the amount of rain off parking lots could be calculated, he said.

Depending on whether the big-picture fix costs $2 billion to reduce overflows or $3.6 billion to eliminate them, ratepayers will pay it.

"We mapped the entire system," Mr. Schombert said. In places, it shows "150 years of deferred maintenance. How many times has someone running for election promised not to raise sewer rates? Alcosan had the cheapest rates in the country. Tiny user fees over the long haul could have fixed the problem."

With hindsight, pennies on the dollar would seem a no-brainer. But if fixed most comprehensively, $3.6 billion would be a legal hardship for ratepayers under EPA criteria. A hardship rate hike would be more than 2 percent of the area's median income.

"That wouldn't give us a pass but it could give us time," said Mr. Schombert. He said the EPA likely built urgency into the 2026 deadline, which will be impossible to meet. "This is a 50-year fix."

Looking at neighborhood fixes

For Mr. Redpath, for Ms. Mazzella, for all the municipalities and Alcosan, the future demands the cleanup of a mess started long ago.

In January, PWSA expects to get the results of a study it commissioned "looking at the South Hills neighborhoods parcel by parcel where homes are failing dye tests to see if there might be neighborhood solutions we can implement," Mr. Good said.

The consent order required that PWSA dye test 18,000 properties, 5,000 of which tested positive for sewage contamination. About 1,000 of those properties have remedied the problem and of the other 4,000, about 1,800 have "an easy fix," he said, "raising the vent on the driveway to keep rain from running into it."

More complicated scenarios, like Mr. Redpath's, could cost in the tens of thousands. You have to get a street opening permit from the city, hire a master plumber registered with the Allegheny County Health Department, file a plan with PWSA, get the plan approved by the county, get the work done, get it inspected, maybe more than once, and then pay to restore the street.

"I talked to the county and the city," said Mr. Redpath, who lives in Munhall. "The health department gave me information for a gravel pit. I measured my roof and figured out how big it should be. When I went to talk to the county they said they were at the property and I can't do a gravel pit because of the property behind me.

"I understand. But what happens to a community" when houses go vacant when people can't afford to fix the problem? He said about five homes within view of his property on Pioneer are vacant for that reason.

He has the bum luck of owning a property that was built in 1928 with combined sewer lines in an area that was later defined by sanitary sewers.

It's unfair, he said, "but I could walk away with my loss. A lot of people are going to be hurt worse than me."


Diana Nelson Jones: djones@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1626. Read her blog City Walkabout at www.post-gazette.com/citywalk.

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