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Allegheny County communities struggle with sewer project's likely costs

| Saturday, Oct. 27, 2012, 8:43 p.m.

Etna borough Manager Mary Ellen Ramage is looking at a bill of $15 million for federally mandated upgrades to its sewer system — a price tag, she says, that may be out of reach.

“This is primarily a blue collar town. Who's going to move somewhere where sewer bills are several thousand dollars a year? People living in a $50,000 house just cannot afford that,” she said.

Etna and 82 other Allegheny County municipalities served by the Allegheny County Sanitary Authority must upgrade their sewer systems to comply with a federal order that they reduce raw sewage spilling into creeks and rivers during heavy rains. These towns not only face construction issues, but questions about who should pay the $500 million cost of municipal improvements and how much they should cooperate, officials said.

“The interests of so many different communities could slow things down significantly,” said Jim Good, interim executive director of the Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority.

In recent weeks, nearly all of the 83 municipalities submitted draft plans of their improvements to the authority, which is planning an upgrade of its system, putting the overall cost of all work at $2 billion.

“The model we have for a project of this size is not sustainable. Eighty-three towns and more than 500 elected officials,” said John Schombert, executive director of 3 Rivers Wet Weather Inc., a nonprofit that helps municipalities address sewage and stormwater problems.

Schombert is a member of a panel assembled by the Allegheny Conference on Community Development — a regional economic development group — that for the past year has studied ways to regionalize operations or even consolidate the county's entire sanitary waste system.

“We would like to see a real strong commitment to integrate systems,” said Brian Jensen, a senior vice president of the conference, who is overseeing the panel.

“There are lots of questions about how this will work, what it means for the environment, what it will cost and who will pay,” he said. “There are places that just don't have the community wealth to resolve it.”

The city of Pittsburgh has said it must install new and bigger sewer pipes, separate lines for sewage and stormwater and add a 6 million gallon holding tank to address stormwater problems. Good says the city's cost will be between $100 million and $200 million.

“The city's plans could change. We are holding meetings, at the request of the mayor, to incorporate more green technology,” he said.

In Monroeville, John Capor, general manager of the Monroeville Municipal Authority, is overseeing construction to bring the authority's 11,500 customers into compliance with the 1972 Clean Water Act, He expects it all to cost $30 million.

“Rates will have to go up a lot. By how much, I really don't even know,” he said.

Monroeville's hefty price tag is in line with what other municipal officials expect to spend — $24 million in Shaler and at least $10 million in the tiny blue collar borough of Millvale, for example.

Municipalities must submit final plans to Alcosan by July 31.

The $2 billion Alcosan plan will be submitted to the Environmental Protection Agency at the end of January.

Some preliminary municipal plans seem to raise as many questions as they answer.

“You might have four or five communities sharing a sewer that might not agree on how to split the cost. There are lots of questions and problems in this kind of multi-municipal situation,” said Jerry Brown, operations manager at the South Fayette Township Municipal Authority.

The sheer cost of the improving treatment of wastewater and storm water treatment makes some resist the sort of cost-sharing that would be automatic in a regional system.

“There's no way that my ratepayers in Monroeville should be paying for upgrades in other communities,” said Capor.

Yet Shaler's manager, Tim Rogers, says that communities like his are already sharing infrastructure – like a wastewater line that's shared by Shaler, Ross, Indiana and Millvale. The cost of repairing that line is about $40 million.

“These arguments are a waste of time. We are all upset about the price tag of this. Wastewater and stormwater do not stay in one community. And nothing has been done to address how poor communities are going to pay for this,” Rogers said.

He would prefer that Alcosan manage inter-municipal sewage tunnels.

“There are hundreds of them in this county. If Alcosan owned them, it would affect their ability to fix the problem,” he said.

Alcosan spokeswoman Nancy Barylak did not return a call for comment.

Right now, those tunnels would feed into tunnels Alcosan plans to build along the Allegheny and Monongahela rivers that would feed into its sewage treatment plant along the Ohio River.

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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