Green to the rescue? The rebuff for Alcosan’s plan is an opportunity

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When one door closes, another opens, as the old saying goes. For the Allegheny County Sanitary Authority, that saying holds promise for a better future for the region.

Under the terms of a 2008 federal consent decree, Alcosan must have a plan to eliminate all illegal sanitary sewer overflows into local rivers and reduce outflow of combined sewers by 2026. The authority submitted a $2 billion wet weather plan a year ago but wasn’t itself satisfied with the proposal.

Its plan proposed using conventional “gray infrastructure,” such as construction of larger collector pipes and underground storage tunnels, to capture and treat 79 percent of the region’s combined sewer overflow. But it wanted more time to draft a plan that includes “green infrastructure” — rain gardens, tree planting, grass rooftops, permeable pavement and rain barrels.

Late last month the door closed on the former, but not on the hope of something better. Although the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency did not formally reject the plan, the EPA did signal that it was deficient because “it does not demonstrate that full implementation will result in compliance with all of the requirements” of the consent decree by 2026. Officials wondered whether green solutions could be tried in a revised plan.

On Friday, a letter from the Justice Department arrived at Alcosan indeed declaring a willingness to renegotiate the consent agreement. The Justice Department “contemplates a high level of regional cooperation and coordination” in a process that it wants to be complete by the end of April. That is the other door opening.

It now may be possible to add green remedies to the plan to capture more of the overflow.

At this stage, nobody knows what effect this will have on future rates for Alcosan’s customers — and today’s rates are already going up to pay for improvements. But a century-old problem can’t be fixed on the cheap and a first-rate city can’t have sewage spill into its rivers every time there is a big storm. As it stands, Pittsburgh’s rivers are its pride but also its shame.

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