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Sewage overflow a peril for swimmers in Alle-Kiski Valley

| Thursday, July 3, 2014, 1:01 a.m.

Sewage is contaminating local waterways more days than not recently because of the powerful storms that have lashed the region.

However, if the region doesn't get pelted too badly with rain on Thursday, and the predicted sunny weather for the weekend holds, local rivers should be safe to swim in this holiday weekend, according to sewage authority officials.

Combined sewer overflows occur when heavy rain overwhelms waste water lines and many treatment plants release untreated sewage and storm water into local waterways, violating a number of environmental laws.

In addition to high, swift and debris-littered waters, boaters and swimmers are seeing a higher than average number of sewer overflow days this year, according to the Allegheny County Sanitary Authority.

Anyone with a weakened immune system or open cuts or sores is especially vulnerable to infection from exposure to contaminated waters, according to the Allegheny County Health Department.

As sewage outfalls dot the banks of the region's rivers and streams, boaters and swimmers are advised to minimize contact with the water for two days after a major rain, according to the Department of Environmental Protection.

The sewage overflow alert flags at major outfalls along rivers in Allegheny County have been flying nearly two-thirds of the time since early May, according toAlcosan.

During that time, the authority issued overflow advisories on 39 out of 62 days, said Timothy D. Prevost, manager of the authority's Wet Weather Program.

Some sites don't always fly the flags and don't always take them down when an advisory is over, said John Schombert, executive director of 3 Rivers Wet Weather Inc. People need to visit the authority's website or receive email alerts to know when there's a overflow alert, he said.

Although overflow advisory flags are posted at major outfalls in Allegheny County, there isn't such a notification system for smaller waterways and less populated regions such as the Kiski River.

“The rule of thumb is, if it rained recently, you can be sure that there are (overflows) on local rivers,” said John Poister, DEP spokesman.

And there are many, as Pennsylvania has the highest number of sewage overflows in the country, according to the 2014 Report Card for Pennsylvania's Infrastructure from the American Society of Civil Engineers.

Change is slow but is coming.

“The condition of the local waterways has a certain high quality in comparison to what it was before these treatment facilities went into operation in 1959,” said Arletta Scott Williams, Alcosan executive director.

The authority has a $2 billion plan to reduce sewage overflows from its system and the 83 communities in Allegheny County it serves. The authority expects to spend $3.6 billion in 20 years to fully comply with federal requirements.

DEP is one of the environmental agencies that makes agreements with communities to clean up and update their sewage systems.

“Everybody is in agreement that we don't want (overflows),” said Poister. “The problem we face is money. This is very expensive, with communities having to come up with millions of dollars. They have to look for grants, and they have to raise rates.”

Mary Ann Thomas is a staff writer for Trib Total Media.

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