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Alcosan says customers can't afford $3.6 billion plan

| Tuesday, July 31, 2012, 12:22 p.m.
Holly Milliner, 27, of Edgewood tests the water at the Alcosan water treatment plant on Tuesday, July 31, 2012 in Brighton Heights. Alcosan has offered a $2 billion plan to reduce overflows into area rivers during heavy rain. Stephanie Strasburg | Tribune-Review
In this photo from July 2012, Holly Milliner of Edgewood tests the water at the Alcosan water treatment plant in Brighton Heights.
Solicitor Chester Babst describes Alcosan's planned improvements for the sewer system on Tuesday, July 31, 2012 at the Alcosan water treatment plant in Brighton Heights. Alcosan has offered a $2 billion plan to reduce overflows into area rivers during heavy rain. Stephanie Strasburg | Tribune-Review
The Alcosan water treatment plant on Tuesday, July 31, 2012 in Brighton Heights. Alcosan has offered a $2 billion plan to reduce overflows into area rivers during heavy rain. Stephanie Strasburg | Tribune-Review
A map of Alcosan's planned improvements for the sewer system on display on Tuesday, July 31, 2012 at the Alcosan water treatment plant in Brighton Heights. The improvements are set to cost around two billion dollars. Stephanie Strasburg | Tribune-Review

Customers can't afford the $3.6 billion cost of meeting a federal consent decree to eliminate all sewage overflows into area waterways during wet weather, so the Allegheny County Sanitary Authority will seek to negotiate a $2 billion alternative, officials said on Tuesday.

“We think we have the basis to argue this, based on affordability,” said Chester Babst, Alcosan's solicitor, who noted the Environmental Protection Agency's Mid-Atlantic region never has renegotiated such an agreement.

Alcosan officials said the $3.6 billion plan — which would have built larger storage tunnels stretching along the rivers — would not meet the EPA's standards for affordability, which requires that sewage bills not exceed more than 2 percent of average household income. The plan easily would triple or quadruple current rates to an average of more than $1,000 per year, said Alcosan Executive Director Arletta Scott Williams.

The $2 billion plan — the region's largest public works project ever — still would double Alcosan customers' average annual bills of $265 per year, Williams said.

Adjusted for inflation, the bill could hit $2.8 billion by 2026, when the consent decree requires the completion of repairs, officials said.

“We would argue vigorously that it should not be more expensive than that. We do not believe the ($3.6 billion plan) is a responsible plan, given what our rate-payers can afford,” she said.

EPA spokesman David Sternberg had no comment and said the agency has not received a request to reopen the consent decree.

Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection spokesman John Poister also declined to comment on the Alcosan's proposal.

“This plan seems like a thoughtful analysis. There has to be some kind of balance or an extension of time with this plan,” said Mary Ellen Ramage, borough manager of Etna, among the municipalities that will pay a quarter of the cost.

“We don't want to drive people out of the community because they can't pay bills,” she said. “We are coming out of an economic crisis and may be headed into another one.”

In asking federal regulators to renegotiate the 2008 consent decree, Alcosan officials would seek permission to sharply reduce sanitary overflows by 2026, but not entirely eliminate them as the consent decree requires.

The $2 billion proposal calls for an increase of treatment capacity at Alcosan's Woods Run plant from 250 million gallons a day to 480 million gallons per day for primary treatment and 295 million gallons for secondary treatment. The plant expansion is expected to cost about $300 million.

It also calls for building underground tunnels to convey and store excess stormwater so that it doesn't overwhelm the treatment plant and send raw sewage cascading into the Ohio River. The excess water would be stored until it can be treated. Communities would not be required to separate combined stormwater and sewage lines.

The tunnels, as wide as 15 feet in diameter, would run along the Ohio River. At the Point, one tunnel would run along the Allegheny River to Lawrenceville, while the tunnel along the Monongahela River would stop at Panther Hollow. The cost to build them would be $800 million.

For cost reasons, the length of the tunnels has been shortened, said David Borneman, Alcosan's director of engineering and construction. The Allegheny tunnel was to reach Highland Park, and the Mon River tunnel was to reach Braddock.

Construction could start in 2016, he said.

Alcosan would pay for the bulk of plan.

Pittsburgh Councilman Patrick Dowd, who serves on the Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority board, said Alcosan's announcement will permit PWSA to refine its plan for addressing sewer overflows.

“PWSA has a clearer picture now of what Alcosan is considering, and we can consider the viability of our plan relative to theirs,” he said. “Maybe it's going to cost the city less, maybe not.”

PWSA engineers this month outlined their recommendations for 24 miles of new and bigger sewer pipes, separate lines for sewage and stormwater and a 6 million gallon holding tank to address stormwater problems. The estimated costs range from $164 million to $277 million for city residents and upstream neighbors.

Environmental groups say the plan fails to include green methods of stormwater management. Alcosan should make a bigger investment in eco-friendly infrastructure, said Barney Oursler, executive director of the union-backed group Pittsburgh United.

“We think if you do large-scale green infrastructure on public properties and encourage private homeowners to do the same, the overall impact will be a lot less expense than the gray infrastructure that they're proposing,” he said.

Alcosan, which serves 836,600 people in 83 communities, says such efforts — which include replacing concrete and asphalt with surfaces that can absorb rain and snow — have to start at the local level. Municipal codes address those projects, Babst said.

“Alcosan has no such authority,” he said.

There still is plenty of opportunity to use green infrastructure such as green roofs and rain gardens to direct water from hard surfaces, said John Schombert, executive director of 3 Rivers Wet Weather Inc., a nonprofit that helps municipalities address sewage and stormwater problems.

“We are trying to get a lot of that infrastructure into the municipalities,” he said.

The first public hearing on Alcosan's $2 billion proposal is 6:30 p.m. Aug. 16 at the Sheraton Station Square.

Municipalities will have to submit their plans to Alcosan by July 31, 2013.

The plan is open for public comment until Oct. 19.

On Jan. 30, federal and state environmental regulators and the Allegheny County Department of Health will review it for a year.

Staff writer Bob Bauder contributed to this report. Rick Wills is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7944 or

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