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Pittsburgh, Allegheny County plead for more time to plan sewer overflow compliance

Mayor Bill Peduto and County Executive Rich Fitzgerald are pleading for more time from state environmental authorities to update plans to fix the region’s antiquated and overburdened water and sewer system.

They are seeking some breathing room that they hope will enable them to come up with a plan they believe would be more environmentally friendly and less expensive.

When the region experiences heavy rain, storm water flows into the sanitary sewer, causing that system to overflow, with human waste then sloshing into area rivers.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has given Alcosan and its 83 member communities, including Pittsburgh, until 2026 to solve the problem. A federal consent decree was signed in 2008 and requires the municipalities to reduce overflows by 85 percent.

That deadline stands, but the EPA has said it is willing to listen to so-called “green” alternatives to stop the overflow.

With their backs against the wall, the city and county want to extend a deadline with the state Department of Environmental Protection, which has given them until March 30 to assess their water and sewer systems and submit plans on how to deal with the overflows.

“This is the largest public works project of our lifetime,” Mr. Peduto said Tuesday night.

“We have the opportunity to solve our combined sewer overflow problems in a manner that reduces storm water from entering the system, saving taxpayer dollars and fostering sustainable economic development in neighborhoods of the city that have been disinvested for generations.”

In related news, Coalition says people need help to pay increasing sewer bills.

A $2 billion wet weather plan that Alcosan proposed in July 2012. would address the region’s wet weather needs using predominantly “gray” infrastructure, such as huge underground storage tunnels and bigger collection pipes.

That was partly because “green” infrastructure did not enter into the planning process that dates back to 2000, Arletta Scott Williams, Alcosan’s executive director, said recently.

In the past few years, there’s been a movement from gray toward green infrastructure, which could include components such as green roofs, rain barrels, rain gardens and porous pavement.

In a letter to the governor’s office and the DEP, dated Feb. 20, Mr. Peduto, Mr. Fitzgerald and Alex Thomson, chairman of the Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority, said they “firmly believe that the regional wet weather program should be based on an approach using adaptive management, “green infrastructure first,” and integrated watershed management.

“During the requested one-year extension, we request that all parties enter into an agreement with DEP to oversee the process by which municipalities participating in the Alcosan system present their green infrastructure plans … and Alcosan have an additional six-month extension to incorporate these plans into the consent decree with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

“In total, we are requesting an 18-month extension to the combined federal and state process.”

Alcosan spokeswoman Jeanne Clark would not comment on their letter.

Mr. Peduto talked to federal officials about the request while he was in Washington, D.C., last week for meetings at the White House and with the National League of Cities. Timothy McNulty, a spokesman for Mr. Peduto, said the city had not heard back from either state or federal environmental officials about the request.

“We are working with all the people involved, Alcosan and the communities, to find a solution,” Mr. McNulty said.

Ms. Clark of Alcosan recently said Alcosan is investing $40 million in green projects. With the help of an EPA grant, for instance, part of Schenley Park is getting a makeover that will help keep 1.7 million gallons of water from the sewer system each year while restoring Panther Hollow Lake.

“Investments in green infrastructure and other flow reduction measures should be made first, and their flow reduction performance measured,” Mr. Peduto and the other officials said in their letter to the DEP. “Gray infrastructure can then be designed and sized to manage the remaining flows.”

Signing contracts before taking such steps, they said, “could result in two unfortunate outcomes: the local flow reduction and its various benefits will not be achieved; or local flow reduction will be achieved and the gray infrastructure will be both too costly and underused.”

The city and PWSA already have started to implement such an approach, the letter said, “with more than $1 million dedicated to green source reduction projects during 2014.”

And two large-scale projects targeting flow volume and water quality have been launched this year, the letter said. First is a citywide storm-water surface flow assessment to determine the best green infrastructure sites. The second project is Phase One of the Saw Mill Run Integrated Watershed Management Plan.

This represents “a fundamental change from the ‘take all flow’ assumption that was the cornerstone principle of the Alcosan Wet Weather Plan, the basis for various municipal feasibility studies, and the underlying requirement of municipal agreements with Alcosan,” the letter said.

“Instead of building a funnel, you build a sponge,” Mr. Peduto told the Post-Gazette’s news partner KDKA-TV. “You decide how much of the water can be retained. Then, you determine how much gray you need to build. It saves taxpayers millions, tens of millions of dollars if you do it that way.”

He said the “gray” plan would amount to building “the largest septic tanks in the world,” about the size of the Fort Pitt Tunnels, to hold storm water.

“We’re already way behind Cleveland, Philadelphia, Cincinnati, Washington, D.C. All have understood that if you limit the amount of water going into the system, it costs a lot less to build the system,” Mr. Peduto told KDKA.

 

This article was written by Dan Majors from Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.

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