Gray and green: Sewer project should aid environment

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It won’t be easy going green, but the region’s best chance to pull it off may be at hand.

We’re talking about green in the context of the enormous, multibillion-dollar sewer system improvement project on the horizon for the Allegheny County Sanitary Authority and the 83 communities that it covers, including the city of Pittsburgh. There’s a tendency to go gray instead on such undertakings, and that means construction of huge concrete tunnels, catch basins and related hard infrastructure to prevent sewer overflows from polluting the region’s rivers.

Alcosan’s plan, now being reviewed by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, has been criticized for relying too heavily on gray and not enough on green — more water-permeable streets and parking lots, rain gardens, trees and green roofs. An effort to revise the plan was rebuffed earlier this year, but it may not be too late to go greener.

George Hawkins, general manager of the District of Columbia Water and Sewer Authority, was one of the speakers who made a pitch to Pittsburgh City Council on Monday for green options. Advocates say they create opportunities for ongoing employment rather than temporary construction work, improve the ambiance of public spaces and contribute to cleaner air.

That approach didn’t seem feasible 10 years ago when D.C.’s project was in its infancy, but Mr. Hawkins said he believes it now is both doable and something the EPA may be willing to consider, if the agency sees solid support from local political leaders.

That means incoming mayor Bill Peduto and Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald have a role to play, perhaps by penning a plea to the federal regulators. Local congressional representatives should add their voices, too.

The problem of sewer overflows must be solved, and the project will cost water customers a lot of money. Creating a system that does more than handle the water flow is a course worth pursuing, before it’s too late.

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