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Feds may help with cost of fixing sewers

08/22/2006

House members visit Alcosan to show support for funding

Wednesday, August 09, 2006

By David Templeton, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

With rainwater and melting snow infiltrating crumbling sewer lines -- and federal pressure to fix those problems growing -- Alcosan and the 83 communities it serves face a $3 billion challenge.

But Congress could come to the rescue.

Three Republican House members visited the Allegheny County Sanitary Authority yesterday to show support for a bill that would provide $7.5 billion annually to help defray the $300 billion to $500 billion cost over 20 years to repair or replace antiquated sewerage systems nationwide.

U.S. Reps. Phil English of Erie, Melissa Hart of Bradford Woods, and Tim Murphy of Upper St. Clair said House Bill 4560 -- the Clean Water Trust Act -- will help upgrade the nation's sewer-line infrastructure, reduce water pollution and improve public health.

Pennsylvania alone needs $8 billion in immediate upgrades and repairs, they said.

"This won't be sufficient to solve the problem. That will require state and county involvement," Mr. English said. "But we shouldn't let state and local governments do it alone."

Without action to repair faulty systems, communities, including the 83 served by Alcosan, would face bans on new development and fines, among other sanctions.

In coming months, a federal consent decree will be filed in federal court in the next step to force Alcosan and its customers to repair sewer lines and prevent rainwater from infiltrating their lines.

Rainwater infiltration creates overflows that force Alcosan to release sewage into the Ohio River. Such releases are illegal.

For now, Alcosan treats 25o million gallons of wastewater each day, but only half of that volume is billable sewage, Alcosan spokeswoman Nancy Barylak said. Most of the other half is water infiltration created when homeowners route gutters into sewer lines or crumbling terra-cotta lines allow groundwater infiltration.

The federal decree will require those problems to be corrected, Ms. Barylak said.

Fixing them will cost Alcosan $1 billion and the 83 communities it serves $2 billion. Once the decree is filed, public hearings will be held to discuss how they will comply under deadline.

No one can say for now what percentage of the $3 billion in local costs would be covered if the House bill becomes law.

But without the bill, Alcosan Executive Director Arletta Scott Williams said Alcosan fees could quadruple in coming years to meet mandates in the decree. The same could hold true for fees that each community would assess its customers.

Alcosan would have to "raise rates at an exorbitant pace," she said. "It would be significant. It would be disastrous."

Ms. Hart said all communities want to comply with the law and upgrade sewerage systems, but they lack money.

"When you think it all the way through, this issue leaks into other issues that we've been trying to solve," she said.

Those issues include improvements in environment, public health issues and economic development.

If the bill does pass, she said, Alcosan and the communities it serves will be in good position to land trust-fund money because of the large number of communities involved, including Pittsburgh. Alcosan has 320,000 customers.

"Anything will be a benefit, a bonus," Ms. Williams said.

If the bill doesn't pass, she said, the area still must comply with the law and decree.

"Ultimately it will happen, and the ratepayer will bear the burden," she said.


Correction/Clarification: (Published Aug. 15, 2006) Alcosan treats 250 million gallons of water a day. The figure was incorrectly reported as 25 million in this Aug. 9 news article about efforts to repair the region's sewer system.

http://www.post-gazette.com/pg/06221/712049-85.stm



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