Waste no time

The region must beat an old environmental hazard

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It's the modern-day equivalent of Pittsburgh's postwar clean-up of air and water pollution. Although today's environmental hazard is less visible, it is still unhealthy and insidious.

Allegheny County's multibillion-dollar sewer overflow problem is real. Just wait for a heavy rain, and untreated sewage spills into rivers and streams, fouling drinking water sources, ruining recreation areas and threatening aquatic life. What was good enough for the 19th century is no good anymore.

A federal consent decree calls for a major construction project that will keep sewer waste separate from stormwater runoff. In February the Allegheny County Sanitary Authority submitted a $2.6 billion plan to the Environmental Protection Agency that would eradicate 79 percent of the sewer overflows. That proposal, which would cause customer rates to double in 13 years, is under review.

In the meantime, the Allegheny Conference on Community Development, the broadbased civic and economic development group, released on March 15 the results of a six-month study that says the way to address this costly challenge is through regional cooperation. It makes perfect sense, particularly since the problem involves 83 communities that are part of Alcosan. Cooperation could speed up the work and reduce the cost.

Carnegie Mellon President Jared Cohon, who chaired the committee put together by the conference, outlined several recommendations that could lead to a solution: the Alcosan board's makeup should be changed to reflect the broader community more than the city of Pittsburgh; the county should name a coordinator for wastewater planning who can build cooperation; and municipalities should transfer multi-community trunk lines and facilities to Alcosan, consolidate collection systems and find ways to reduce the amount of water that infiltrates the system.

This is not the end but the beginning of taking on a regional environmental challenge. Although the solution will be costly, it is also necessary and will be accomplished only with forward-looking leadership and the kind of partnership Pittsburghers can deliver.

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