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EPA tells Pittsburgh, Allegheny County to follow plan to reduce sewer overflows

| Wednesday, March 9, 2016, 4:57 p.m.
Andrew Russell | Trib Total Media
A coal barge heads up the Ohio River past Alcosan on the North Side, Monday, Dec. 21, 2015.

The federal Environmental Protection Agency on Wednesday rejected a plea from Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto and Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald seeking 10 years to study alternatives to building massive tunnels under the rivers to control an overflowing sewer system.

Instead, the EPA said changes to the consent decree that are in the works will address their concerns.

Despite the rejection, Peduto and Fitzgerald said they believe the letter signaled everyone is working toward the same goal.

“Really, everybody is on the same page,” Fitzgerald said. “There is some flexibility in there that the mayor and I were looking for.”

Shawn Garvin, administrator of the EPA's Region III office in Philadelphia, thanked Peduto and Fitzgerald for their Feb. 10 letter in which they requested a 10-year window to expand the Allegheny County Sanitary Authority (Alcosan) sewage treatment plant, repair infrastructure and implement “green” projects, such as using rain barrels and water-absorbing porous pavement and vegetation-covered roofs to reduce stormwater runoff flowing into the treatment plant. They want time to implement and study those projects in hopes of reducing the need for tunnels under the rivers.

“However, we believe it is time to implement a plan to address the billions of gallons of raw sewage discharges that pollute the waters of Allegheny County,” Garvin wrote in a letter sent Wednesday to Peduto and Fitzgerald. “EPA believes that the current draft of the consent decree modification addresses all of your stated concerns in a manner consistent with protecting human health and the environment.”

Fitzgerald said nothing in Garvin's response concerned him. Peduto said it is clear that EPA agrees with their direction for the project.

“While there are a few issues where I will be seeking clarification, this is a great show of cooperation among all the agencies working on this gravely important matter for our region,” Peduto said in a statement.

Alcosan is under a federal mandate to cut in half by 2026 the estimated 9 billion gallons of sewage each year that overflows its sewer system and goes into the rivers. Initial plans pegged the cost at $2 billion to $3 billion.

The authority, the EPA, the U.S. Department of Justice, the state Department of Environmental Protection and the county Health Department have been negotiating changes to the consent decree.

Arletta Scott Williams, executive director of Alcosan, said negotiations were put on hold until the EPA responded to the letter from Fitzgerald and Peduto. She hoped meetings will be scheduled next week.

Williams said she interpreted the letter to say that Fitzgerald and Peduto didn't need the 10 years they asked for.

“You already have it in what Alcosan has been negotiating with the agencies,” Williams said.

Garvin wrote that the changes under discussion would push back the 2026 deadline and allow Alcosan to make changes to the project as green initiatives are implemented and studied.

Alcosan's plant would be expanded first, and the first phase of projects would not need to be completed until 2032.

Tunnels, known as gray infrastructure, would supplement green projects that fail to reduce flows enough to be in compliance. Stretching the timeline past 2026 will spread out rate increases to pay for the plan over a longer period of time, Garvin wrote.

“However, for the public to benefit from these changes, the consent decree modification must be finalized,” he wrote. “After two years of negotiation, it is time for EPA and Alcosan to bring to closure these discussions.”

Aaron Aupperlee is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 412-320-7986 or aaupperlee@tribweb.com.

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