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Sewer tap-in policy may change

| Friday, Feb. 15, 2002

Developer Pat Minnock has put about $400,000 into a proposed $8 million Ross Township housing development, but the plan has been held up because he is unable to tap into sewers.

Ross is one of 31 Allegheny County municipalities where permission for the tap-ins must go through the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection, which has been slow to grant it.

But that could change soon.

If Ross signs on to a voluntary agreement drafted by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Allegheny County Health Department, the township would make decisions on new sewer tap-ins, allowing developments such as Minnock's to proceed.

Control of permits for new tap-ins would remain in municipalities' hands as long as they stayed in compliance with the agreement.

This is the first draft of the 21-page agreement, and possible changes will be negotiated over the coming months. Municipalities could vote on a final version by early summer.

Art Gazdik, Ross Township engineer, said the lifting of DEP control of sewer tap-ins also would have a positive environmental effect on the region. He said the restrictions — which mainly affect well-developed areas such as Ross — have forced new builders to move into previously undeveloped rural areas.

The EPA mandate came about because each year, the region's antiquated sewer systems dump 16 billion gallons of raw sewage mixed with storm water into rivers and streams. The EPA mandate calls on Alcosan and the 83 municipalities that funnel waste into its system to eliminate overflows from sanitary sewers and reduce the number of overflows from combined sanitary/storm sewers from as many as 75 a year down to four or five.

The draft agreement divides the mandated improvements into three phases. Phases one and two, which would be completed in 2005, involve assessing the problems and determining solutions.

Phase three would involve making the repairs by 2014. Municipalities would not have to sign on to phase three until later, because that part involves undetermined regional projects, while phases one and two are made up of work done by individual municipalities.

John Schombert, executive director of the 3 Rivers Wet Weather Demonstration Project, said the draft agreement just presented is a step in the right direction.

He said it could help rein in the costs of the improvements, which have been projected at $3 billion.

The Wet Weather Project was founded in 1998 to help municipalities devise regional solutions to the sewer problem and come into compliance with the EPA mandate. So far, it has spent $15 million in federal funds working with communities to develop improvement projects.

But Schombert said that price tag was for doing the work municipality by municipality, not with the strong regional approach that will make up phase three of the agreement.

"We're feeling pretty good, although there's a lot of devil in the details," he said. "This is a plan that allows us to asses the whole issue as a region … to look at the problems as a region and send the dollars where we get the most bang for our buck."

Municipal officials who have been involved with the issue look favorably on the draft agreement and say a regional approach is vital.

"We're very pleased with this more regional approach," Gazdik said. "We hope to save hundreds of millions of dollars by taking that approach."

Gazdik said some details of the agreement are troubling, but preliminary talks with EPA and health department officials have been promising.

Ross Township Commissioner Daniel DeMarco said municipalities might have little choice but to sign on. If they do, they get control of sewer tap-ins and 12 years to asses the problems, plus they would save money fixing the problems through regional projects.

Municipalities that do not sign the agreement could face an EPA enforcement lawsuit for violating the Clean Water Act, he said. Then, municipalities could be forced to pay hefty fines and still have to do the repairs themselves and not be able to take advantage of regional projects.

"It would be hard to explain how they avoided a voluntary agreement and ended up having to pay civil penalties," Schombert said.

Sewer delays


In these 31 Allegheny County municipalties, permission for new sewer tap-ins must come from the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection: Baldwin Borough, Baldwin Township, Bethel Park, Bridgeville, Brentwood, Castle Shannon, Dormont, Edgewood, Etna, Franklin Park, Fox Chapel, Indiana Township, Kennedy Township, Millvale, McCandless, Monroeville, Mt. Lebanon, Mt. Oliver, O'Hara Township, Penn Hills, City of Pittsburgh, Reserve, Ross Township, Scott Township, Shaler Township, Swissvale, Upper St. Clair,West Mifflin,West View, Whitehall and Wilkinsburg.

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