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Mandated sewer project to increase Alcosan customers' bills

| Wednesday, Sept. 17, 2014, 9:59 p.m.
Jasmine Goldband | Trib Total Media
The odor-control ducts and scrubbers at the Alcosan wastewater treatment plant in the North Side
Jasmine Goldband | Trib Total Media
A birds-eye view of the Alcosan wastewater treatment plant in the North Side on Wednesday, Sept. 17, 2014.
Jasmine Goldband | Trib Total Media
Doug Jackson, director of operations and maintenance at Alcosan wastewater treatment plant, leads a tour of the North Side facility on Wednesday, Sept. 17, 2014.
Jasmine Goldband | Trib Total Media
The first bar screening catches items such as wash cloths on Wednesday, Sept. 17, 2014, in the Alcosan wastewater treatment plant in the North Side.
Jasmine Goldband | Trib Total Media
Examples of wastewater and byproducts are shown in various stages of treatment on Wednesday, Sept. 17, 2014, at the Alcosan wastewater treatment plant in the North Side.

A $2 billion plan to reduce the sewage that flows into rivers and streams likely will increase sewer bills beyond a key Environmental Protection Agency threshold that accounts for customer income, according to projections the Allegheny County Sanitary Authority released on Wednesday.

More than half of county households could spend more than 2 percent of their annual income on water bills by the time Alcosan completes the project in 2026.

About 14 percent of households, including those in Hazelwood, the Hill District, North Side, the Mon Valley and Penn Hills, could spend more than 3.5 percent.

Water bills account for about 1 percent of a household's income, according to Alcosan.

“My guess is we will see a lot of folks needing help,” said Julie DeSeyn, community impact director at United Way of Allegheny County. The United Way, Urban League of Greater Pittsburgh, North Hills Community Outreach and several other organizations assist people struggling with utility bills. People can call 211 for help.

Alcosan raised rates by 17 percent this year and will increase rates by 11 percent each of the next three years to help pay for the federally-mandated project.

The median income in Allegheny County is $50,884, according to 2012 Census Bureau data, the most recent available. Jonathan Weaver, a housing counselor with the Mon Valley Initiative, said an average homeowner could spend $100 to $150 a month on water.

The EPA forced Alcosan to limit the 9 billion gallons of untreated wastewater that flow into rivers during heavy storms by 2026. Alcosan expects to spend $1.5 billion to build storage tunnels and double the capacity of its North Side treatment plant. Municipalities could spend $500 million on improvements.

In January, the EPA and Justice Department told Alcosan its plan did not meet requirements, according to a letter that has not been made public. Alcosan and federal agencies continue to work on the plan. Executive Director Arletta Scott Williams said she hoped to have an agreement in place by the end of the year.

The EPA rejected Alcosan's first proposal, a $3.6 billion plan, because it did not meet the agency's affordability standards, said David W. Borneman, director of engineering and construction at Alcosan. Borneman said the region can afford the scaled-back $2 billion plan.

Similar wet-weather projects across the country raised water bills to 2 percent of household income or higher, Alcosan spokeswoman Jeanne Clark said. The EPA considers costs exceeding 2 percent a high burden.

Alcosan charges $5.05 per 1,000 gallons of water. The charge is included in municipal water bills. Families typically can't reduce water usage, said Scott Rubin, a public utilities consultant and attorney in Columbia County.

“It's a real concern ... when those necessary utility bills start taking more of a household's income,” Rubin said.

Aaron Aupperlee is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach him at 412-320-7986 or aaupperlee@tribweb.com.

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