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McKees Rocks Sues ALCOSAN As Concern Grows Over Tunnel Plan

Katie Blackley
90.5 WESA

McKees Rocks, a long-struggling borough on the Ohio River, sued the county’s wastewater-treatment authority in court on Tuesday, alleging the agency’s efforts to reduce sewage overflows could literally undermine its efforts to recover from decades-long decline.

“We want them to know we are serious,” said attorney Steven Engel, who filed the suit on McKees Rocks’ behalf.

At issue is Allegheny County Sanitary Authority’s Clean Water Plan, a $2 billion effort to resolve decades-old concerns about sewage overflows that take place when heavy rains overwhelm aging sewer systems. And at the heart of the dispute is the former Crivelli Chevrolet car dealership, which Alcosan bought for $2 million last year.

The site lies along the entrance to McKees Rocks’ business district, in an area that already struggles with traffic, and across the street from an affordable housing complex. Borough officials have grown increasingly concerned that Alcosan wants to use it as the site for digging out a massive storage tunnel what will collect sewer flows until Alcosan’s Woods Run treatment plant – located on the opposite bank of the Ohio River – can handle it.

“Imagine a perpetual, massive open pit 150-feet-deep and as large as a football field that would be the dumping and hauling station for millions pounds of dirt and sludge,” said McKees Rocks Borough Council President Archie Brinza in a statement announcing the lawsuit. “Now imagine that project -- and all of the dump trucks, debris and construction traffic that goes along with it -- at the gateway to your neighborhood’s business district for decades, adjacent to low-income residents.”

A spokesman for Alcosan said that the agency would not comment on the lawsuit, but said it had not made a decision about where to place the tunnel. The Clean Water Plan will involve systemwide investments, and spokesman Joesph Vallarian said that purchasing the site made sense as it was close to existing sewer infrastructure, which lays alongside nearby Chartiers Creek.

“I’m not buying it,” said Engel, who suspects that the agency is “trying to stall and stall to allow the engineers to finalize the plan so they can say, ‘We spent the taxpayers’ money to do this.’”

Alcosan has not provided maps of proposed tunnel alignments, though the borough’s complaint alleges that the agency confirmed its intentions for the site in a meeting with borough officials last spring.

In the nearly 100 pages of the complaint, McKees Rocks describes its years-long effort to recover from the collapse of local manufacturing, the potential for future development and road improvements. A large-scale construction project, it says, could jeopardize much of that progress, not least for residents of the 138-unit Hays Manor housing complex located across the street from the Crivelli site. Residents there often lack their own cars, and while the business district boasts pharmacy and other services, the complaint warns, traffic and disruption created by a construction site could “make their access to those essential businesses much more difficult.”

Engel says McKees Rocks – a community which U.S. Census figures show is about one-third Black and has a poverty rate of over 30 percent -- shouldn’t be sacrificed to solve the stormwater problems of a region that includes much more affluent communities upstream. “It’s an environmental justice issue,” he said.  

The complaint also decries a lack of public notice regarding a proposed tunnel project, and Engel says officials proposed a half-dozen alternate sites at Alcosan’s requests, but the agency didn’t respond. Borough officials “felt Alcosan was considering the proposals, but they didn’t hear back.”

Officials voted to authorize the lawsuit late last year, but held off until March in hopes “they could nip this in the bud,” Engel said.

The complaint seeks to halt any work Alcosan may undertake on the site, and bar the agency from using it as a launch point for tunnel construction. But Engel says Alcosan could still avoid the legal dispute, “If they’re willing to put something in writing that we will not use this site and we will use an alternative site that you proposed.”

Nearly three decades after leaving home for college, Chris Potter now lives four miles from the house he grew up in -- a testament either to the charm of the South Hills or to a simple lack of ambition. In the intervening years, Potter held a variety of jobs, including asbestos abatement engineer and ice-cream truck driver. He has also worked for a number of local media outlets, only some of which then went out of business. After serving as the editor of Pittsburgh City Paper for a decade, he covered politics and government at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. He has won some awards during the course of his quarter-century journalistic career, but then even a blind squirrel sometimes digs up an acorn.
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