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Steel Valley communities eye green solutions for storm water runoff

| Monday, Feb. 3, 2014, 3:56 a.m.
Jennifer R. Vertullo | Daily News
A strip of land between the Norfolk Southern and CSX rail lines that span the Steel Valley communities of Munhall, Homestead and West Homestead could be suitable for a bioswale that could abate approximately 24 million gallson of rainwater per year.
Jennifer R. Vertullo | Daily News
The surface and slope of Hazel Waye in Homestead put it on the borough's list of necessary improvements.
Jennifer R. Vertullo | Daily News
Dilapidated structures such as this abandoned building along Hazel Way could be demolished to make room for greenspace in the Eighth Avenue business district.

Vacant properties and underutilized public lands could become a key part of solving storm water problems in the Steel Valley, according to local municipal planners. But those same planners say getting federal, state and county support to implement green solutions will be essential.

Last summer, Steel Valley Council of Governments in conjunction with member communities Homestead, West Homestead and Munhall applied for a county Gaming and Economic Development Fund grant to address crumbling infrastructure along Hazel and Boon ways.

The avenues constitute a continuous alleyway stretching, respectively, from West Homestead to Munhall, running parallel to Eighth Avenue. The service road has been a problem for properties along the Eighth Avenue corridor for years because of its elevation with respect to the buildings and its brick surface and sand base.

When it rains, water seeps from the raised roadway into area businesses that have reported ongoing problems with flooded basements and elevator shafts. The flooding issues are seen as an impediment to attracting future construction along the avenue.

The county didn't award Steel Valley Council of Governments the Gaming and Economic Development Fund grant, but planners say they will continue trying to get funding for the project from county, state and federal sources.

“It's a financial burden and hardship for people who have businesses there,” said Homestead borough manager Ian McMeans, who wants to see the service road fixed but argues it needs more than a quick coat of blacktop. “It needs to be rebuilt completely.”

Rebuilding it the right way would include tearing out old sewer lines and replacing them with lines to handle sanitary sewer flows and storm water separately. Sanitary waste and storm water flow into the same aging lines, which results in direct sewage discharges into the river during heavy rains.

The Allegheny County Sanitary Authority, which treats waste water for the three communities, has proposed adding $3.6 billion in improvements to its system over 20 years to comply with federal mandates to reduce combined sewage discharged into the watershed, a plan that is expected to significantly boost service rates for customers in coming years.

McMeans believes the need for some of that expanded infrastructure could be greatly reduced if communities in the Steel Valley kept more of their storm water out of the system. That could be accomplished, he said, if new lines under the service road channeled storm water to public and vacant lands within the three boroughs.

Notably, the plan calls for sending storm water to a bioswale that would be built in the central business district in the three boroughs and the Waterfront shopping center. Specifically, there is a strip of land between the Norfolk & Southern and CSX rail lines that spans the three boroughs, most of which is owned by the Steel Valley Council of Governments, that planners think would be suitable for a bioswale that could abate approximately 24 million gallons of rainwater per year.

The plan is that water from the rebuilt Hazel and Boon ways would be channeled to a storm water sewer that would be constructed under McClure Street and thus directed the bioswale between the tracks. If such a line were to be laid under McClure Street, storm water from other roadways higher up the hill in the boroughs could be redirected out of the combined sewers and into the bioswale.

McMeans said planners are also considering ways vacant properties within the boroughs and other public spaces like Frick Park in Homestead could be used to dissipate storm water naturally into the ground.

Geographically, McMeans said, the boroughs are well suited for such a project because most of the ground water flows downhill toward the Monongahela River.

Leaders from all three communities have shown interest in the project and provided support in the form of preliminary engineering, but finding outside funding for its approximately $5 million price tag will be essential if it is to come to fruition.

Alcosan has put Homestead on list of communities it is studying to determine if green infrastructure can reduce combined sewage overflows.

Alcosan spokesperson Nancy Barylak said the goal of the agency's source control study is to determine, “If communities want to do green infrastructure, do they want to partner with us and is there funding?”

Barylak said the most critical factor involved in the study is determining whether a given green project will reduce the overflows.

She said Alcosan officials are familiar with the proposed project in the Steel Valley but said it is too early to comment.

“We can't comment because there has been no in-depth meetings. It's just in a conceptual stage,” she said. “We're aware of it and we'll be looking forward to seeing how this concept develops.”

Alcosan is studying the potential for green infrastructure in Braddock, East Pittsburgh and McKees Rocks, and the Pittsburgh Water and Sewer areas of Nine Mile Run, Hazelwood, South Side and Saw Mill Run.

Barylak said Alcosan is looking to establish a partnership with communities where green solutions will work, but added those solutions have to be feasible.

“It isn't just a matter of going and putting in a rain garden,” she said.

The Alcosan study is expected to run through the end of this year. Steel Valley Council of Governments director An Lewis thinks the project has the potential to attract outside funding.

“This is like the poster child of a good and innovative approach” to solving overflow problems, she said. “It's integrated problem solving.”

Lewis said having multi-municipal support for a green solution to a storm water management problem will earn the project good marks on future grant applications. So will components of the project that address better use of vacant lots and brownfields.

She said the project is being assessed through a $600,000 grant the Tri-COG Collaborative obtained through the Environmental Protection Agency to study smaller brownfield sites.

“None of these projects are cheap,” Lewis said. “There are a lot of things that need to happen for it to come to fruition.”

McMeans said the project is one that will be accomplished over the long haul.

“We realize all the funding is not going to come from one source,” he said, adding, “Whoever gets the money, it needs to get done.”

Eric Slagle is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-664-9161, ext. 1966, or eslagle@tribweb.com.

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