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Sewage bills rise as a $2 billion project gets underway. A new committee is offering feedback

Katie Blackley
90.5 WESA

After decades of legal wrangling, political infighting, public pressure campaigns, billion-dollar changes and a sewage system that has continued to pour millions of gallons of raw sewage into the rivers nearly every time it rains – the Allegheny County Sanitary Authority is finally knee-deep in large construction projects, and customers are starting to complain about rising bills.

Many old Pittsburgh-area stormwater pipes are tied into the same pipes that flush the sewage. So when it rains, the pipes become overwhelmed and the excess stormwater and sewage pours into the rivers. ALCOSAN, which operates a sewage treatment plant for 83 municipalities in Allegheny County, was told decades ago that it had to do something to stop this river pollution. Its consent decree with the Environmental Protection Agency, signed in 2008 and updated in 2020, is now in the early construction phase.

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In the first stage of construction the authority is spending hundreds of millions of dollars to expand the capacity of its sewage treatment plant on the North Side. And it is finalizing the design of the first of three underground storage tunnels that will be able to hold hundreds of millions of gallons of sewage overflows on days that it rains. Together these projects are expected to cost more than $2 billion and remove around 7 billion gallons of sewage overflow from the rivers in an average year.

But what is likely to be the largest single infrastructure project in the region for a generation hasn’t been attracting much public attention.

At ALCOSAN’s annual public meeting in February, the authority received a single question after an hour-long presentation. In March, only five people commented during two additional public presentations about its construction plans. Even ALCOSAN’s board or directors meetings lack much public debate: the board passed every item on its agenda Thursday unanimously without discussion.

The public is paying attention to one aspect of the project: How it’s being funded.

Members of an advisory committee say that residents are increasingly complaining to them about the rise in their sewage bills. In 2000, the average customer paid less than $100 per year for sewage treatment. This year, the average customer will pay $550, increasing to more than $1,200 by 2036.

“The only issues any constituents or people in a neighborhood are concerned about is why there's a rate increase,” said Lloyd Cunningham, a member of ALCOSAN’s advisory committee and the vice president of the Homestead borough council. “They don't ask about too much else.”

Katie Blackley
90.5 WESA

Debates about the biggest project

The advisory committee Cunningham serves on has become one of the most active forums for providing feedback to ALCOSAN over the past year. The committee was created as part of ALCOSAN’s agreement with the EPA and, according to some members, has taken over the role played by a couple of defunct committees that used to be a conduit of information between ALCOSAN and local municipalities.

The committee, which held its first meeting in January of 2020, is modeled on the Allegheny County Health Department’s Air Quality Advisory Committee. The air quality committee has become a crucial forum for local experts to debate and refine county air quality regulations.

ALCOSAN’s advisory committee, on the other hand, is still searching for its defining purpose, according to meeting records and interviews with eight of its members. The group–which is made up of local politicians, borough managers, water authority executives, nonprofit leaders, retired water engineers and academics–has aspirations to provide substantial assistance to the board of directors. But so far its members say it has far served more as a parallel discussion group with little crossover.

The committee’s debates have often been robust if not always focused on specific end-goals, according to members. Although they frequently compliment ALCOSAN’s staff for the quality of their presentations, they also ask pointed questions, including about rate increases, how equitably its funding is being distributed and a number of other issues that largely aren’t being debated elsewhere.

Joseph Vallarian, a spokesperson for ALCOSAN, declined to make any staff available for an interview but did respond to questions via email.

“The [advisory] committee has been an invaluable partner in helping the Authority continue the Clean Water Plan projects,” he wrote in his response. “By serving as a conduit to the municipal customers in the area’s sewer basins, the Advisory Committee gives us yet another path to continuing two-way information sharing between ALCOSAN and the municipalities.”

Mary Ellen Ramage, the manager of Etna Borough and the vice-chair of the advisory committee, said that in the past, the relationship between ALCOSAN and municipalities had become almost hostile. But she said ALCOSAN staff have been responsive to the committee’s requests. This kind of collaboration, she said, will be crucial for minimizing the cost of the region's large sewage infrastructure needs.

“This is the biggest thing that's going, the biggest expense that's going to hit all of our communities and is hitting them right now,” she said. “And that's going to continue.

Construction management

One of the issues the advisory committee has asked ALCOSAN questions about are details about its construction projects and plans.

Rogers said the Hampton-Shaler Water Authority persuaded ALCOSAN to move the location of one of its underground tunnels. Originally the tunnel was designed to travel directly under the drinking water wells for Hampton-Shaler. But after complaints, ALCOSAN moved the design of the the tunnel closer to Route 28.

Earlier this year the ALCOSAN board passed a resolution to make it easier for ALCOSAN staff to negotiate contract adjustments without board approval. Instead of a $30,000 limit, the authority is now able to negotiate changes, sometimes as large as $10 million or more, depending on the size of the project, without getting prior board approval.

A rendering of the new tunnel system that ALCOSAN is building to capture excess sewage and stormwater during rains.
Courtesy image
A rendering of the new tunnel system that ALCOSAN is building to capture excess sewage and stormwater during rains.

This change reflects the authority’s new role: It’s no longer just responsible for capturing and treating the region’s sewage; ALCOSAN is now one of the largest construction management organizations in the region.

And as they get further into this new role, there have already been some hiccups, which advisory committee members have asked about. A $94 million contract with company Mascaro is $14 million over budget. At the center of the cost overruns is a dispute about the nature of the soil being excavated by the company for ALCOSAN’s plant expansion.

ALCOSAN says that it should’ve been clear to Mascaro that the soil in the industrial area had some level of contamination. Mascaro disagreed according to ACLOSAN staff.

Mascaro didn't respond to an to emailed request for comment about the dispute and ALCOSAN declined to respond while it is preparing a response to a records request from 90.5 WESA.

John Stephen, the coordinator of a local watershed taskforce, said he has occasionally paid attention to advisory committee meetings. And he’s hoping that the committee will continue to push ALCOSAN to learn from any mistakes it makes on the first of its three tunnels being built under the Ohio River.

“My intent is to focus on how things are going on in the Ohio so that we don't repeat mistakes along the Allegheny [River],” he said.

Green infrastructure and GROW funding

The advisory committee has continued to ask ALCOSAN to find a way to continue a program that provides grants to local municipalities.

The Green Revitalization of our Waterways has been championed, at times, as a conduit for large-scale investment in green infrastructure, which uses rain gardens, bioswales and other plant and soil features to capture stormwater. But in practice, nearly every municipality besides Pittsburgh has used the grant program to help them meet their own legal mandates to reduce sewage overflows and clean up their waterways. This often means repairing their sewers or, in a handful of cases, taking streams that flow into sewer lines and diverting the water so it flows elsewhere.

ALCOSAN has already committed about two-thirds of the $100 million allocated to GROW. Committee members told ALCOSAN staff they hope it will be able to continue the program even after that initial money has run out. ALCOSAN officials responded that they cannot ask ratepayers to pay any more but would look into finding other sources of funding.

“Our feedback was that we hope that you continue it,” said Ruthann Omer, a retired engineer and committee member. “However, it takes money. Now we don't know where they're going to get the money. That's not our role.”

Environmentalists and local water advocates in Pittsburgh have, in the past, tried to pressure ALCOSAN to spend more of its $2 billion construction budget on green infrastructure. But ALCOSAN’s engineers havefound relatively few areas where the projects are cost-effective at reducing sewage overflows. And the latest revision of is construction plans shows only five locations where, potentially, green infrastructure could supplant some of the large scale pipes in ALCOSAN’s plans.

As it becomes increasingly unlikely that ALCOSAN will provide much additional funding for green infrastructure, some environmental advocates and, in turn, committee members have changed their focus. They are now asking ALCOSAN to give consideration to environmental amenities at construction sites once the construction is finished.

“Recapturing river edges and returning them to their estuary functions is a really critical need,” said Patricia DeMarco, the vice president of the Forest Hills Borough Council and a member of the committee.

ALCOSAN has already begun buying up parcels of land across the region as it looks for places near rivers where it can drill large holes more than 100 feet deep. These sites will require more space during construction than will be needed after their completion. And some committee members and other environmental advocates are asking ALCOSAN to coordinate these sites to become trails, parks, connections to bridges, bike lanes, boat launches, dog parks, and other potential ways for the public to access the city’s rivers.

A screenshot of a map from ALCOSAN's recent 537 Plan that shows where it plans to build drop shafts for its new tunnel storage system.
Courtesy image
A screenshot of a map from ALCOSAN's recent 537 Plan that shows where it plans to build drop shafts for its new tunnel storage system.

“We want to develop the trail system all along the riverfront. And, you know, that's primarily where the ALCOSAN sewer system is in the river,” Ramage said. “So the opportunity is golden to try to partner those two things together."

ALCOSAN plans to improve what it leaves behind at its construction sites, said Vallarian, the ALCOSAN spokesperson, and will be working with communities to discuss what that might look like. “We would hope the Advisory Committee could provide assistance when necessary,” he said.

Committee purpose

State Rep. Emily Kinkead, a member of ALCOSAN’s board of directors, said there hasn’t been much interaction with the advisory committee yet. But she says the committee can help play a role in providing transparency.

“Especially when we're talking about massive, massive infrastructure building, like what ALCOSAN is about to take on, there are a lot of questions that people have,” she said. “There's a lot of suspicion that people have about whether or not it's actually going to do what they say it's going to do, whether or not these rate increases that are happening in order to help pay for it are worth it.”

Some committee members have been trying to disseminate the information from meetings to their communities. And the committee members are optimistic that they will get to play a more substantive role going forward. They are planning to attend board of directors meetings and are planning to have board members visit their meetings

“We’re not supposed to be a liaison committee to disseminate information,” said LaSota. “We're supposed to be part of the guidance, part of the overseeing of the entire improvement process. So we're supposed to have a seat at the table and make suggestions and offer feedback.”

Rogers, the advisory committee chair, said his biggest disappointment has been the lack of members showing up. At about half of its meetings, the committee has not had enough members for a quorum. The pandemic slowed the committee’s work just as it was getting off the ground.

Some of its members have moved to different areas; some were not reelected to their leadership positions and some experienced family emergencies. Amie Downs, a spokesperson for Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald, said in an email that only one member has formally resigned their position on the committee and Fitzgerald has been looking into a replacement for that position. Fitzgerald appoints 18 of the 21 members and the mayor of Pittsburgh appoints three.

The committee has also discussed moving its meetings to the evenings, when more people with jobs can attend regularly.

“You have to take some action, whether you support something or whether you recommend something to the ALCOSAN board or even if you want to challenge something,” Rogers said. “But you've got to have a quorum to stake a position. There's times we don't have a quorum to take a position.”

Corrected: August 2, 2022 at 1:43 PM EDT
This story has been corrected to add additional information about how many advisory committee members have formally resigned their seats and the spelling of a name.
Oliver Morrison is a general assignment reporter at WESA. He previously covered education, environment and health for PublicSource in Pittsburgh and, before that, breaking news and weekend features for the Wichita Eagle in Kansas.