River view from the David L. Lawrence Convention Center. Photo by Melissa Rayworth.

Due to our region’s aging infrastructure, sewage overflow into the local water supply has been a dire public health issue for decades.

Facing legal penalties, the Allegheny County Sanitary Authority (ALCOSAN) signed a consent decree in 2007 with the EPA and the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection to significantly reduce overflows by 2026.

Yesterday, after more than a decade of negotiations and false starts, ALCOSAN unveiled their plan to clean up our waterways.

“This has been, obviously, a long time coming,” said ALCOSAN’s executive director Arletta Scott Williams.

The amended consent decree extends the deadline for compliance to 2036, but for the first time lays out the practical steps the Authority will take to meet federal mandates.

Speaking at a press conference at ALCOSAN headquarters on the Ohio River, Williams stressed that the current plan is only a proposal — one she fully expects to change over the course of the 60-day public comment period.

“Nothing is set in stone,” said Williams. “The way we go about our plan may change, but the need to achieve our goal remains the same.”

Speaking with NEXTpittsburgh, ALCOSAN Director of Communications Joey Vallarian said that specific information on where and how residents can comment will be released on the Authority’s website in the near future.

The proposal calls for spending $2 billion to upgrade our regional stormwater system over the next 17 years. The majority of the money will go toward expanding the capacity of the existing ALCOSAN treatment center and building a series of new concrete sewage tunnels during the next decade along the banks of Pittsburgh’s three rivers.

If the plan is approved, drilling will begin on the Ohio River in 2023, with the other rivers coming later.

Additionally, Williams said the plan will steer additional funding to the Authority’s Green Revitalization of Our Waterways (GROW) program, which provides reimbursement grants to municipal governments for constructing green stormwater infrastructure.

By current ALCOSAN estimates, nine billion gallons of overflow wastewater enter our rivers during heavy rain and snow melts every year. Under the proposed clean water plan, that number would be reduced by seven billion gallons by 2036, when (hopefully) federal oversight would end.

To fund the project, the Authority would increase rates by seven percent over the next three years. By 2021, the average consumer will pay $42.75 per month ($513 per year) on their water bill.

The plan is open for public comment for the next 60 days, and some environmental advocates are already pushing for a more ambitious, green approach.

“The tunnels will do nothing to help solve the dangerous and deadly flooding on Washington Boulevard and Route 51,” said Rev. Dr. Vincent Kolb, pastor at Sixth Presbyterian Church in Squirrel Hill. “We need fewer cement underground tunnels and more green above-ground projects that will address the perils of climate change, much of which we are already seeing in the form of flooding, basement backups and poor air quality.”

Rev. Kolb, along with the Our Water Our Rivers campaign and State Representative Sara Innamorato, shared their concerns in a joint media statement.

“As the largest-ever infrastructure investment in the region, it is vital that we prioritize green and sustainable planning and design,” said Rep. Innamorato. “In other cities, similar plans have produced many long-term, good-paying local jobs in communities that sorely need them.”

She added: “We can solve multiple problems with one solution with a green approach. ALCOSAN needs to take advantage of this opportunity and invest in projects that will have long-term benefits for both the climate and communities.”

Speaking at ALCOSAN, Williams affirmed that she was open to steering more of the total funding toward green projects. But she said that in her professional opinion, the eventual solution would require a mixed approach.

“Will green solve the whole thing? No. Will expanding the plant solve the whole thing? No. Will tunnels solve the whole thing? No,” she said. “This is a complex issue.”

Check out the full proposal here.

Bill O'Toole

Bill O'Toole was a full-time reporter for NEXTpittsburgh until October, 2019. He previously reported in Myanmar.