Consent decree 'best deal' possible, Alcosan says
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The Allegheny County Sanitary Authority will pay a civil fine of $1.2 million for decades of illegal sewage discharges into Pittsburgh area rivers and creeks. That's much less than the $275 million fine it was threatened with in 1997.
Under the federal consent agreement Alcosan announced Monday -- which none of the federal, state or county agencies involved will discuss until it is filed in federal court next month -- the sewer authority will also make comprehensive, systemwide upgrades over the next 20 years that will greatly reduce the sewage overflows and ensure long-term compliance with the federal Clean Water Act.
Those improvements will cost approximately $1 billion, with much of the money coming from the authority's rate-payers in 82 municipalities and the city of Pittsburgh.
"Alcosan feels we got the best deal for the ratepayers, public health and the environment," said Nancy Barylak, Alcosan spokeswoman, who declined to discuss the substance of the agreement. "These are federal mandates and we had to make the best of the situation. We feel we did that for the ratepayers because they are the ones paying for the whole thing."
Alcosan won reductions in the fine by agreeing to take the lead in a required, year-long municipal flow monitoring program and for enacting some supplemental environmental programs.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency had threatened the sanitary authority with a $275 million fine if it failed to stop the 53 illegal, untreated sanitary sewer overflows into area creeks and rivers that occur every time it rains, and reduce the overflows from 259 combined sewers by 85 percent.
Another 153 combined sewer overflows come from sewers owned by Alcosan member municipalities, which must control those discharges and signed their own federal consent orders three years ago. Improvements to the city- and municipal-owned sewer lines and facilities will cost another $2 billion.
All those discharges during the region's 75 wet weather events each year allow an estimated 16 billion gallons of untreated sewage and storm water to flow into the region's rivers, contaminating them with bacteria, pathogens and other harmful pollutants that degrade water quality, kill aquatic life and threaten public health with diseases that include cholera, dysentery and gastroenteritis.
The Alcosan consent agreement ends a prolonged negotiating process that started in December 2000, when the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency issued a consent decree to Alcosan that Ms. Barylak said "wouldn't work because of the fragmentation" of its 83-member community service area.
The negotiations were put on hold for two years while the EPA negotiated agreements with the municipalities and resumed in 2003, with the state Department of Environmental Protection and the Allegheny County Health Department joining the negotiations with the EPA and the authority. The Alcosan board approved the settlement agreement Thursday and Alcosan Executive Director Arletta Scott Williams signed it Monday afternoon.
After the Alcosan settlement agreement is signed by all of the government agencies involved and filed in federal court, probably in mid-June, a public comment period of 60 days -- twice the normal length -- will begin. Adjustments could be made to the final document based on those comments before the court accepts and finalizes the agreement.
"People need to know how they're impacted by this settlement. It doesn't just affect those who live near or use the rivers," Ms. Barylak said. "If you turn on a faucet or flush a toilet, you're impacted. We're looking forward to extensive public input."
Although the final 275-page document has been called "too detailed," and "too prescriptive," Ms. Barylak cautions that it is more of a planning agreement to produce a system that can handle wet weather sewage overflows.
John Schombert, executive director of 3 Rivers Wet Weather, the nonprofit organization formed to work on the region's sewer problems, said a map of all 4,000 miles of municipal and city sewers has been completed, and the municipalities have already assessed sewer problems and started fixing the worst of them.
The next step is a comprehensive flow monitoring program that was supposed to start in June under the municipal consent agreements but will be delayed slightly to coordinate with Alcosan's flow monitoring.
"The impact on the rate payers is a near 50 percent savings on the original plan to have each municipality monitor its flow," Mr. Schombert said, noting the cost of one month of flow monitoring will be reduced from $1.8 million to around $1 million.
Alcosan will install flow meters on its river outfall sewers -- sewers that overflow into the rivers -- in October, and in municipalities by February, before the spring thaws and rains. The meters will collect flow data for a year, and Mr. Schombert's organization will verify the data.
The flow monitoring delay will allow municipalities extra time to make EPA-mandated repairs of their most severe sewer problems, which, Mr. Schombert said, are much more common than anticipated. Those repairs alone will cost municipalities that own their own sewer lines up to $400 million system-wide.
"All municipalities are doing tune-ups on their own systems, like the tune-up a mechanic has to do on your car before he can tell you what's wrong with it," Mr. Schombert said. "After the flow data is collected, Alcosan will decide how much flow it can accept from each municipality."
Alcosan, aware of EPA's Clean Water Act enforcement mandate and its crackdown on sewer system problems in Baltimore, Boston, Louisville, Washington, D.C., Chicago, New York, Atlanta and Seattle, has already done much to upgrade its collection and treatment capacity.
Ms. Barylak said it has spent more than $200 million identifying and removing streams from the sewer system, building overflow control facilities in the service area, inspecting and cleaning its collection lines and building extra storage and treatment tanks at its Woods Run treatment plants along the Ohio River. The authority also recently floated a $170 million bond to pay for some of that work.
In 1999 Alcosan estimated that a long-term overflow control plan would cost the authority $1 billion and its member municipalities $2 billion. While collective efforts on mapping and flow monitoring have produced economies of scale, inflation has also taken a toll, Ms. Barylak said.
"So those figures still hold," she said. "As we get into more concrete projects, the numbers will firm up and the rate impacts will get clearer."
Alcosan is charging is residential customers $2.98 per 1,000 gallons of water used this year, an 8.5 percent increase over 2006, when rates went up 10 percent. There was no rate increase in 2005, but rates jumped 12 percent in 2004.
"Will our rates continue to go up? Absolutely," Ms. Barylak said. "Will they jump 25 percent in one year? No. They will go up slowly and steadily, as will the charges by the communities. The biggest challenge in all of this is not the work but the funding."
As a tax-exempt, public authority, Alcosan cannot raise its rates without justifying the increases using project plans and operating cost projections.
"As we get into the process we'll do an economic feasibility study to determine the priority of the work, its schedule and what the region can bear," she said. "We'll look at what's good for public health and the environment. We don't want to spend $300 million and have only a negligible effect on water quality."
Correction/Clarification: (Published May 24, 2007) The Allegheny County Sanitary Authority was incorrectly identified in this story as originally published May 23, 2007.
First Published May 22, 2007 11:21 pm