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Decree could mean cleaner rivers, higher sewer rates

| Tuesday, Nov. 20, 2001

PITTSBURGH: An agreement between the federal Environmental Protection Agency and many Allegheny County river towns to fix outdated sewers that pollute rivers could clean the Valley's waterways and hike sewer bills.

The consent decree agreed upon last week by Allegheny County Executive Jim Roddey and the EPA will spell out a plan to study, plan and build a system that will fix the widespread problem of storm sewer overflow that pushes untreated sewage into rivers, including the Allegheny.

While the agreement only affects Pittsburgh and 82 other Alcosan communities - among them Verona, Aspinwall and Blawnox in the Valley - it likely will be the first of many such agreements that will affect most towns and sewer bills.

"Once they get that done with Alcosan, they're going to turn their heads and consider other areas, other watersheds," said Tom Benecki, executive director of the Allegheny Valley North Council of Governments, which includes most Valley towns in Allegheny County.

Roddey, Benecki and other officials have said the fix will certainly lead to higher sewer rates, although no one knows how much higher.

Initial cost estimated at $75 million

The 12-year, three-phase plan outlined in the consent decree predicts the initial planning phase alone will cost $75 million. Beyond that, costs are unknown.

The costs could run into the billions. However, that expense will be spread over two or three decades.

For the cost, Valley residents will get clean rivers, and also, hopefully, an improved environment for development.

Before a consent decree agreement was reached EPA officials had been delaying permits to allow expansion of sewer systems - something some suburban areas complained was stifling the growth needed to expand the tax base to pay for the sewer system upgrades.

Under the agreement, the EPA will allow expansion. However, only municipalities that agree to participate in the regional planning process will get permission to expand.

Agreement welcome in Verona

Verona Borough Secretary Bonnie Conway said the agreement will be welcome in Verona and other small boroughs without the resources to plan and pay for necessary sewer system upgrades.

"Something like that will help a lot," she said. "You figure some of these sewer systems were designed about 100 years ago."

Currently, Verona's attempts to curtail storm water overflow have been limited to encouraging residents to let their storm water run down sidewalks, alleys and streets rather than into the storm sewers. This has been only a limited success, Conway said.

The overflow problem happens during heavy rain when flow into storm drains overwhelms the old combined sewer systems. At outflow points along rivers and streams, the volume causes clean storm water and untreated sewage overflow into the waterways.

On those days boaters might recognize orange flags placed along the river shorelines. The "CSO" on them stands for "combined sewer overflow" and warn boaters they might not want to get in the water.

Such overflow happens about 70 days per year in Allegheny County, dumping about 16 billion gallons of untreated sewage into the rivers and streams, said John Schombert, executive director of Three Rivers Wet Weather Demonstration Project, a group working to fix the problem.

The demonstration project has given grants to communities that experiment with new technologies and designs for improving sewer systems, some of which could potentially be used by the three Alcosan regions participating in the consent decree.

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