PA Wastewater Plan Receives Federal Approval

FRIDAY, MAY 22, 2020

Last week, the Allegheny County Sanitary Authority (ALCOSAN) announced that its $2 billion plan to remove seven billion gallons of stormwater and sewage from rivers and streams in the county has been approved by the United States District Court for the Western District of Pennsylvania.

The Modified Consent Decree agreement is with the United States Department of Justice, the United States Environmental Protection Agency, the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection, and the Allegheny County Health Department.

ALCOSAN Wet Weather Plan

According to the Pennsylvania Environmental Council, ALCOSAN and the EPA developed the “Wet Weather Plan” consent decree in 2008, aimed at developing a wet weather plan for reducing serious combined sewer overflow and sanitary sewer overflow problems.

Taking a step further, the DEP also signed consent orders with all of ALCOSAN’s 83 municipal customers, requiring each to complete feasibility studies for controlling their CSO issues.

Additionally, ALCOSAN also requested that the Allegheny Conference on Community Development create a review panel to address regionalization of the ALCOSAN system and make recommendations. As a result, the 34-member panel developed alternatives for regionalizing ALCOSAN’s decentralized system in order to help improve the area’s water quality in compliance with the Clean Water Act.

The development plan to address wet weather overflows was completed in 2012. However, the public challenged ALCOSAN to make the plan more affordable for ratepayers, yet flexible enough to take advantage of advances in the field of green stormwater and wastewater management. Further negotiations followed the request.

By September 2019, the modified consent decree was lodged with the Court to allow for a 60-day public comment period.

What’s Happening Now

In its release on the recent approval, ALCOSAN reports that the modified consent decree will allow ALCOSAN to continue forward with its newly established “Clean Water Plan," extends time frames in which ALCOSAN must implement its Clean Water Plan and allows the proposal of future amendments to the Clean Water Plan, which could include replacing some proposed control technologies with green infrastructure controls.

“This is the end of a very long, educational and exciting road,” said ALCOSAN Executive Director Arletta Scott Williams. “I’m pleased that the court and the plaintiffs agreed with our approach for improving the water quality of our rivers and streams, and we are all excited to continue forward with that important goal.”

To reach the Consent Decree goals, the Clean Water Plan will focus on four key areas:

  • Preventing excess water from entering the sewer system through the use of green infrastructure and other technologies, in addition to the use of a multi-year, multi-million-dollar grant through the Green Revitalization of Our Waterways program which plans to fund various municipality and sewer projects;
  • Increasing adaptive management and conveyance capacity through the use of adaptive management and base long-term planning on data from green infrastructure, flow-reduction projects, and other technologies;
  • Regionalizing multi-municipal sewers through the effort to assume ownership of certain multi-municipal trunk sewers and related facilities; and
  • Expanding wastewater treatment plants—which currently have a capacity of 250 million gallons per day (mgd)—by upgrading its pump stations, building a new vehicle maintenance garage and expanding treatment operations. The efforts will expand wet weather treatment capacity of the plant from 250 mgd to 480 mgd and wet weather headworks and disinfection capacity to 600 mgd.

Through the modified plan, ALCOSAN intends to eliminate all illegal sanitary sewer discharges into the region’s rivers and streams and reduce sewage and stormwater overflows from 153 combined sewer outfalls by 85%. To achieve this, the plan has proposed the construction of over 15 miles of underground 14-foot-diameter storage tunnels along the city’s rivers.

During dry season, this stormwater would be released to flow to the Woods Run treatment facility. Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reports that the facility is currently undergoing a $300 million expansion that will eventually double its treatment capacity.

“It's vital to keep green infrastructure solutions as the focus moving forward because it addresses multiple issues, like basement backups, flooding, landslides, and more,” said Madeline Weiss, environmental justice organizer for Pittsburgh United, a community advocacy organization with a history of involvement in the sewer overflow issue.

“As we see more rain from a changing climate, we need to make investments that do more than just one thing. Green infrastructure has multiple community benefits and we as ratepayers have said time and again that we want those benefits.”

However, in citing recent information from RAND Corp., Weiss reports that the Clean Water Plan still won’t be enough to solve the CSO issues.

Steve Hvozdovich, state campaign director for Clean Water Action chimed in as well, stating that there are several shortcomings in the plan, including its decade-long extension to accomplish the overflow reductions. (The new agreement extends the plan’s original deadline to 2036.)

“Our three rivers are an important part of this region, serving as a source of recreation and drinking,” said Hvozdovich. “So it's important that we correct this issue as soon as possible, especially since indications are that we're seeing increased rainfall and the problem has persisted for so long.”

Recent Pittsburgh Water Issues

In February 2019, Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro filed 161 criminal charges against the Pittsburgh Water  Sewer Authority, alleging that the authority had failed to notify residents of when lead pipe replacements would be occurring, and failed to sample water within a specified timeframe after the pipes had been replaced.

The charges are a breach of Pennsylvania’s safe drinking water law. Previously, the PWSA admitted civil liability; state regulators fined the authority $2.4 million.

Under a mandate, the PWSA is required to replace at least 7% of its lead lines every year. Prosecutors allege that in 2016 and 2017, the authority replaced lines without providing necessary advance notice. (The law mandates that customers are warned ahead of time and are provided with information on how to minimize exposure to lead.)

Myron Arnowitt, Pennsylvania director of Clean Water Action, noted that the authority at the time had moved to improve its lead pipe replacement program, which included replacing privately owned water pipes at no charge, namely those pipes that run between the curb and a house. The PWSA issued a report in mid-January noting that 2,825 lead service lines had been replaced since July 2016. The 2019 program for lead line replacement is budgeted at $49 million, and is slated to see the replacement of over 3,400 lead lines.

If convicted, the fine for each of the 161 counts is a maximum $12,500. Shapiro noted that charges were being filed against the Authority as an entity, because there was no evidence of a single person intending harm to those using the system.

By March, the PWSA announced that it was opening street hydrants and flushing water mains in the anticipation of adding orthophosphate to the water supply, an additive often used to control the release of lead and copper, to combat corrosion in the city’s lead pipes.

At the time, PWSA was expected to begin replacing lead water service lines in the following weeks, totaling the replacement of 4,500 lines by June 2020.

Other Water Issues

Earlier this year, PaintSquare Daily News reported that during the COVID-19 health crisis, some products used as substitutions and alternatives to the toilet paper shortage were becoming an issue for professionals in the wastewater industry.

According to reports across the U.S., wastewater treatment officials were having to remind their local residents not to flush sanitary wipes down the toilet. Many of these affected areas’ plumbers and public officials were reportedly experiencing a surge in backed-up sewer lines and even overflowing toilets, among other issues.

Prior to the ordeal, the Trump administration announced that it planned to roll back of nearly 95 environmental rules, with the EPA stating it will be reducing the number of waterways receiving federal protection under the Clean Water Act.

The rule to remove environmental protections from ephemeral bodies of water is slated to be replaced by Trump’s “Navigable Waters Protection Rule.” The rule was later published on April 21 and planed to go into effect on June 22.

In response to the publication, earlier this month, the Natural Resources Defense Council, along with Clean Wisconsin, Connecticut River Conservancy, Conservation Law Foundation, Massachusetts Audubon, Merrimack River Watershed Council, New Mexico Wilderness Alliance, and Prairie Rivers Network, announced that they had filed a lawsuit against the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Army Corps of Engineers.

In the lawsuit, both the EPA and the Corps have been accused of violating the Administrative Procedure Act and the CWA when promulgating the Navigable Waters Rule.

The violations are specifically pointed to the agencies’ disregard for the Navigable Waters Rule’s impacts on the integrity of the nation’s waters, which removes protections for waters and overlooks science-based findings reported in the CWA.

Other points made in the lawsuit include the misrepresentation and disregard for the EPA’s Science Advisory Board advice, inconsistencies regarding protected and unprotected waters and lack of clarity to successfully implement.

A court date for the case has not been scheduled at this time.


Tagged categories: Clean Water Act; Environmental Controls; Environmental Protection Agency (EPA); EPA; Government; Health and safety; NA; non-potable water; North America; potable water; Project Management; Safety; Stormwater; Upcoming projects; Wastewater Plants

Join the Conversation:

Sign in to our community to add your comments.