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Alcosan proposal likely not final

| Friday, Aug. 3, 2012, 12:25 a.m.

Thirteen years after Atlanta embarked on a water-treatment project to handle heavy rain, the average resident in Atlanta now pays $150 per month in water and sewer bills.

“We have the highest rates in the country. This has been a long and expensive haul,” said Janet Ward, a spokeswoman for the City of Atlanta's Department of Watershed Management, which has overseen the capital's $4 billion wet-weather plan since 1999.

That's exactly the sort of financial scenario that the Allegheny County Sanitary Authority says it wants to avoid.

The average customer pays about $22 a month to Alcosan, plus municipal charges that vary.

Alcosan this week presented a $2 billion plan to sharply reduce sewage overflows into waterways during heavy rain. The authority rejected as too costly a $3.6 billion plan that would have eliminated such overflows during storms — which federal law requires it to do by 2026 — but which it said would have tripled or quadrupled rates to an average of more than $1,000 per year.

Atlanta has raised water and sewer rates for each of the past 10 years, has borrowed about $2 billion and added a penny to the city's 4 percent sales tax — all to pay for federally required upgrades.

With 25 percent of its residents living below the poverty line, the city has underwritten bills for many customers who can't pay.

Atlanta is waiting for a federal judge to approve a 13-year extension of the project's 2014 finish date, which the EPA and the Justice Department already have approved.

“The Atlanta project and its financing were based on economic predictions that were undermined by the economic downturn. The city was diligent but got caught in a perfect storm,” said Nathan Gardner-Andrews, general counsel for the National Association of Clean Water Agencies in Washington.

The EPA said it is willing to consider Alcosan's proposal when it formally receives it in late January.

“EPA does, under certain conditions, modify the terms of federal consent decrees based on new information that can improve the remedies. It is premature to speculate as to what EPA would do in this case because we have not received a proposal from Alcosan. The Department of Justice would also need to be involved in any decision to reopen a federal CD,” the agency said in a statement on Thursday.

If the EPA agrees to reopen the 2008 consent decree, Alcosan would be one of five sanitary authorities in the United States persuaded by the agency to do so. There are about 150 federal and state water consent decrees in the United States, according to the National Association of Clean Water Agencies.

Cities that have reopened consent decrees have done so for different reasons — but always to save money.

In Toledo, where a consent decree was issued in 2001, negotiations for the $551 million between the city and the EPA took so long that the city was able to persuade the agency to allow a four-year extension.

“We needed the extra time just because the negotiations took so long,” said George Robinson, the city's deputy director of public utilities.

In Indianapolis, municipal officials said the capital city saved $740 million by persuading the EPA to accept a cheaper but more efficient engineering system, and through other system alterations and efficiencies.

“We figured out how to change the size of the some of the tunnels and will use one pump station instead of four,” said Mark C. Jacob, director of Citizens Energy Group's special projects, capital programs and engineering.

Still, it took three years to negotiate the Indianapolis plan.

“Everything with EPA takes much longer than you think it will. But I am glad that there is someone looking at all of these plans with such scrutiny,” Jacob said.

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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