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Environmental groups, public officials tell Alcosan its plan should go green

| Thursday, Aug. 16, 2012, 10:27 p.m.
Tribune-Review
Kiyarra Jones, 11, of Hazelwood holds a sign at a news conference of regional environmental groups preceding the public hearing conducted by Alcosan regarding its $2.8 billion wet weather plan to reduce sewage overflows into area rivers. Jones is a member of Action United. Stephanie Strasburg | Tribune-Review
Tribune-Review
Dr. Colleen Hughes, vice president of CDM Smith, the engineering firm that wrote the $2.8 billion wet weather plan to reduce sewage overflows into area rivers, speaks during a public hearing conducted by Alcosan about the drafted plan. Stephanie Strasburg | Tribune-Review

Environmentalists and some public officials Thursday said plans for the region's biggest-ever public works project are out of date and lag behind innovation in other parts of the country — all before the Allegheny County Sanitary Authority has started on the $2 billion overhaul of the region's sewers.

“Alcosan must look forward and consider our future. They must keep pace with the rest of the country and so many in our region. This can be a smart, sustainable, and positive investment if done the right way,” Allegheny County Controller Chelsa Wagner said during the first of 13 public hearings Alcosan is conducting on its proposed plan to reduce sewage overflows into waterways during heavy rain to comply with federal mandates.

About 300 people attended the hearing at the Sheraton Station Square in the South Side.

Alcosan's critics say that large, underground water storage tunnels the agency wants to build should be a last resort, and that increasingly effective and reliable green technology should be used as much as possible.

Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald wants green water treatment options explored and said the county's many divisions of local government should not obstruct use of state-of-the-art water treatment technology.

“We can't use fragmented government as an excuse. We have to get all the stakeholders involved, including even maybe people outside of the county. Once rainwater gets into the sewer system, it's not free,” Fitzgerald said.

Some even question the cost of what Alcosan has proposed.

“Alcosan is proposing a very expensive plan that does not even meet the terms of the consent decree. The tunnels they plan to build are like the North Shore connector on steroids,” said Jennifer Kennedy, director of the Clean Rivers Campaign, a group that advocates for storm water runoff and sewage overflow issues in Allegheny County.

The plan Alcosan submitted to the Environmental Protection Agency last month makes no use of green infrastructure or technology. Instead, it relies on adding capacity to its sewage treatment plant and building huge underground tunnels and storage tanks to hold storm water until it can be treated and discharged.

While environmental groups have criticized Alcosan's so-called “gray” approach that relies on building new or expanding existing facilities, they have offered no formal proposal to replace it.In asking federal regulators to renegotiate the 2008 federal consent decree, Alcosan officials say they want permission to sharply reduce sanitary overflows by 2026 but not entirely eliminate them as the consent decree requires. The authority says that directive is too expensive.

The plan, which expands capacity at Alcosan's Woods Run treatment plant, was developed as it is because Alcosan treats water from 83 communities that each own sewer lines, said Nancy Barylak, a spokeswoman for the authority.

“To have a green plan, you have to own the property. We don't,” she said.

Green technology, which the EPA considers increasingly viable, makes use of rain gardens, porous pavement, green roofs and wetlands to prevent large amounts of runoff water from getting into sanitary systems.

Cities that have adopted green technology have also changed, or plan to change, the way they charge for water usage

“There are ways of incentivizing better water use. When it rains, parking lots create lots of runoff but their owners are not billed for it. Billing them would encourage lot owners to install permeable pavements,” said John Schombert, executive director of 3 Rivers Wet Weather, an environmental organization formed to support Allegheny County municipalities in solving the region's wet-weather overflow problems.

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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