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EPA willing to consider renegotiating Alcosan consent decree

| Wednesday, Aug. 1, 2012, 2:37 p.m.

The Environmental Protection Agency said on Wednesday that it's willing to consider changes to a costly consent decree that requires the Allegheny County Sanitary Authority to eliminate sewage overflows into rivers — signaling that a tough economy might be making the agency more flexible, observers say.

“EPA is always willing to consider requests to modify the terms of a federal consent decree based on new and relevant information that can improve the remedies,” the agency said a day after Alcosan said it would not go forward with a $3.6 billion plan to meet the 2008 EPA agreement.

Reopening such agreements is unusual but not unprecedented. The EPA renegotiated consent decrees with Indianapolis, Atlanta, Honolulu and Toledo, Ohio.

“EPA is being more flexible about how communities can meet these requirements. They do recognize there is an economic downturn in the country and are certainly aware of how costly these projects are,” said Nathan Gardner-Andrews, general counsel for the National Association of Clean Water Agencies in Washington.

Alcosan on Tuesday presented a $2 billion plan to sharply reduce sewage overflows into waterways during wet weather.

The authority rejected as too costly a $3.6 billion plan that would have eliminated sanitary-sewer overflows. That plan could have tripled or quadrupled current rates to an average of more than $1,000 per year, said Alcosan Executive Director Arletta Scott Williams.

The plan would not have withstood EPA standards for affordability, which says sewage bills should not exceed more than 2 percent of average household income, said Alcosan officials, who were pleased with the EPA's remarks on Wednesday.

“We have had an open and cooperative relationship with our regulators. This is good news for our ratepayers,” said Nancy Barylak, an Alcosan spokeswo man.

Two years ago, the EPA reached an agreement with Indianapolis to modify a 2006 consent decree, which resulted in major reductions of sewage-contaminated water that saved about $444 million, according to the federal agency.

In the case of Atlanta, the EPA twice extended the time the city had to complete sewer upgrades — once in 2004 and again in May.

The EPA has become more open to both negotiating with municipalities under consent decrees and considering alternative technology, Gardner-Andrews said.

More and more communities and sanitary authorities are likely to ask to reopen federal clean water consent decrees, he said.

“A lot of these consent decrees are some what outdated in terms of the technology they recommend. There have been improvements in technology and more use of green technology since they were issued,” he said.

Last month, EPA released its In tegrated Municipal Stormwater and Wastewater Planning Approach Framework, which it says gives states and local governments more flexibility in developing and implementing water treatment plans.

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.

Alcosan's plan does not make use of green infrastructure and technology, relying instead on adding capacity to its sewage treatment plant and building huge underground tunnels and storage tanks to hold storm water until it could be treated and disch arged.

Many Allegheny County municipalities have combined underground lines that handle both sewage and storm water. During heavy rains, the combined overflow can overwhelm Alcosan's treatment plant and send raw sewage right into area rivers.

Some advocates say that reopening the consent decree presents an opportunity to install more environmentally friendly approaches, such as rain gardens and roof gardens that keep storm water from entering sewers.

“Alcosan could and should adopt green technology, and reopening the consent decree is a chance to do this. The plan that they put forward relies entirely on gray technology,” said George Jugovic president and CEO of PennFuture, an environmental group.

Rick Wills is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7944 or at rwills@tribweb.com.

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