Runoff becomes big problem in Alle-Kiski Valley, leading to pricey fixes
Although large amounts of water from state-owned roads inundate local sewer systems, it is still up to local communities to suck it up, literally, and foot the bills for multi-million dollar sewage projects.
The Kiski Water Pollution Control Authority is in the process of building a new $28 million treatment plant.
The extra capacity is needed to deal with old, leaky sewer systems owned by some of the 13 communities it serves.
A high volume of stormwater is one of culprits for sewage treatment problems, along with water draining from state roads, making the problem worse for a number of communities, according to authority officials.
PennDOT isn't helping as its sister agency, the state Department of Environmental Protection, forces these small towns to complete costly sewage projects.
“We addressed this with PennDOT — they basically said, ‘Too bad,' ” said David Heffernan, president of council in Apollo, which is finishing a $7.45 million sewage project.
The excess water that drains from Route 56, locally known as First Street, will go into the town's stormwater lines directly to the Kiski River.
Before the project, that water entered the borough's old combined sanitary and stormwater lines, contributing to partially treated sewage overflows to the Kiski River.
Same story with Vandergrift.
“We're very concerned about the quantity of water that flows into our system,” said Larry Loperfito, solicitor of Vandergrift, which is preparing for the second phase of a $10 million sewer project.
Stormwater draining at the Route 56 Bypass and Hancock Avenue accounted for 50 percent of the total flow of stormwater through the borough's combined sanitary and stormwater lines during storms, according to 2009 flow-monitor study by the authority.
The borough engineer estimates that water from the Route 56 drainage system contributes about 20 percent of the town's sewage overflows.
“At this point, the borough would like to get (a) contribution from PennDOT,” Loperfito said.
Not the state's problem
There has been no help from the state because DEP and PennDOT have absolved themselves of any responsibility for the problem.
The DEP has said before that stormwater from roads entering local sewage systems is a legacy problem.
When these state roads were built decades ago, there was scant attention paid to the connection to local sewage systems.
In the case of Vandergrift — and, likely, other communities — the sewer line belongs to Vandergrift, according to John Poister, the DEP spokesman in Pittsburgh.
“And because the PennDOT connection is adding additional run-off into the system — there is nothing standing in the way of Vandergrift approaching PennDOT directly,” Poister said.
DEP is the regulatory agency enforcing the federal Clean Water Act and other state laws that limit the amount of sewage that spews into local waterways.
“We can't speak for PennDOT,” Poister said.
It appears that the decision to connect the Route 56 bypass drainage to Vandergrift's sewage system was made long ago, he added.
PennDOT met with Vandergrift in April 2010 to discuss this issue, according to Erin Waters-Trasatt, deputy press secretary for the agency in Harrisburg.
“Because PennDOT does not maintain sewage systems, it was decided that we could not, and would not, participate financially in the project,” she said.
“Under state law, PennDOT will not address capacity issues caused by increased runoff from roadside development,” Waters-Trasatt said.
In the end, the households of Vandergrift and the rest of the authority's 14,000 customers will have to take on the costs associated with replacing the old lines and the extra drainage from state roads.
Some households are paying double: for their own town's sewage project and the expansion of the Kiski Valley Water Pollution Control Authority's plant in Allegheny Township.
Had all of the towns started the work for their own systems in the 1990s, when Authority Manager Bob Kossak first asked, the authority wouldn't need the expansion it is building today, he said.
“Because of the combined sewer overflow problems, we were required to do long-range plans, which showed that we didn't have the capacity at the plant,” Kossak said.
“Now, it's a non-issue because we were under the gun by the state,” he said. “We bought some time.”
The excess stormwater was “driving quite a bit of the issues,” Kossak said.
“The road surface of Pennsylvania roads is tremendous,” he said. “Nobody has determined what percentage, but I bet it's a significant part of the problem.”
And boroughs are saddled with this problem, according to Ed Knittel, senior director for education and sustainability at the Pennsylvania Association of Boroughs.
“It's a no-win situation for our membership,” he said.
His organization has taken up the problem of stormwater issues from state roads and drainage systems for more than 10 years.
“The boroughs are stuck with it,” he said. “Anything below the surface of the road, which includes catch basins, is the borough's responsibility.”
“I don't see anyone at the state level willing to make a change, and (the) borough will continue to do what they have to have to do to keep the roads usable for the public.”
Mary Ann Thomas is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 724-226-4691 or firstname.lastname@example.org.