Even the Allegheny County Sanitary Authority’s deputy executive director will admit, as he did during Mt. Lebanon Commission’s Oct. 22 discussion session: “It’s tough to get folks all that interested about sewers.”
But the information that Doug Jackson, who also is the authority’s director of operations, provided to commissioners may be worthy of widespread attention.
Jackson joined Alcosan colleagues in presenting details about the authority’s plans to spend $2 billion through 2036, with corresponding rate increases of 7% in each of the next three years, on taking measures toward reducing water pollution and coming into compliance with the federal Clean Water Act.
“It’s more of a stormwater-related issue than it is anything else,” Jackson explained. “The region as a whole discharges in excess of 9 billion gallons each year of contaminated stormwater that got in touch with sewage and is discharged into our region’s waterways.”
For its part, Mt. Lebanon has been addressing storm overflow issues with a long-standing program of maintenance on and improvements to municipal sanitary sewer lines. The current emphasis on mitigating infiltration – groundwater that enters a sewer system through defective pipes, pipe joints, connections or manholes – and inflow, which emanates from such sources as drains, catch basins and surface runoff.
Commissioners also have pursued an ordinance that prior to a home sale would require inspection and testing of sanitary sewer laterals, connections between residences and the main system, for infiltration. Other municipalities, such as neighboring Upper St. Clair, have instituted similar measures.
“It’s frustrating, because certain groups mount resistance to those ordinances because it affects them particularly in their pocket, which is understandable,” Commissioner Craig Grella said during the discussion session. “But there are other issues, like downstream environmental issues, which don’t come to the forefront when we’re having these conversations.”
He suggested providing more information along those lines going forward. Municipal manager Keith McGill, though, cited uncertainty about expected consent orders for Mt. Lebanon from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency addressing the amount of stormwater that seeps into sanitary lines.
“Without us actually knowing what those consent orders are going to require from the municipality, it’s hard to talk to residents,” he said.
As for Alcosan’s plans, Jackson and some of his colleagues presented plenty of details to Mt. Lebanon officials, from the sanitary authority’s founding in 1959 as the first regional wastewater treatment facility to current and future endeavors toward clean rivers and streams.
In 2008, the authority entered into a consent decree – reflecting a settlement agreement with the federal government, state Department of Environmental Protection and Allegheny County Health Department – “to ensure that Alcosan undertakes measures necessary to comply with the Clean Water Act” by 2026.
Four years later, Alcosan released a $3.6 billion plan toward compliance that faced backlash, primarily because of concerns about the high cost being passed on to customers and a lack of “green” solutions to the stormwater issue.
“The concept of green infrastructure is really all source control,” Jackson explained “It’s keeping water either at the surface or in locations in the ground, where it shouldn’t be in a pipe that has sewage in it.”
Taking public commentary into consideration, Alcosan worked with the regulatory agencies in developing a modified consent decree and related Clean Water Plan, announced in September by Arletta Scott Williams, the authority’s executive director.
“The revised decree and plan will improve and protect the quality of our region’s rivers and streams, eliminating more overflows than were projected under the 2012 plan,” she stated in a written summary.
Among the improvements is expanding Alcosan’s wastewater treatment plant in Pittsburgh’s Brighton Heights neighborhood, which now has a capacity of 250 million gallons per day, to 600 million by the end of 2027.
The authority also plans to assume responsibility for 200-plus miles of intermunicipal sewer lines in a measure that, according to Williams, “reduces the financial burden on municipalities and allows Alcosan to more directly manage and reduce excess flows into the system.
Cooperation among the authority’s 83 member municipalities is a major point of emphasis moving forward.
“It’s a regional issue,” McGill said. “We all have to collectively work together if we’re going to actually make a difference.”