PITTSBURGH (KDKA) – It’s the largest Public Works project in the history of the region.
It’s bigger than Heinz Field, PNC Park and Pittsburgh International Airport combined.
The overhaul cost of Pittsburgh and Allegheny County’s antiquated water and sewer systems is estimated at between $2-$3 billion.
However, Mayor Bill Peduto wants to put the brakes on it.
KDKA Investigator Andy Sheehan says the mayor has told the federal government the plan is too grey and he wants to make it green. But, he’ll need another year-and-a-half to do that.
Every time it rains, our antiquated sewers get over-burdened and dump raw sewage into our rivers and streams.
The city and 83 municipal sewer authorities are under federal orders to fix that. But, in an eleventh hour appeal, Mayor Peduto is telling the feds – not so fast.
“Meetings as late as last week at the White House,” Peduto said.
In a letter to the president and the Environmental Protection Agency obtained by KDKA, the mayor and County Executive Rich Fitzgerald are asking for an additional year-and-a-half to revamp the plan, which they reject as being too grey – meaning too much concrete and steel.
They prefer green solutions like a water retention trench constructed recently in Schenley Park, which traps the water. That water is slowly absorbed into the ground and would slow the rampant runoff that overloads our combined storm and sanitary sewers.
“Instead of building a funnel, you build a sponge. You decide how much of the water can be retained. Then, you determine how much grey you need to build. It saves taxpayers millions, tens of millions of dollars if you do it that way,” Peduto said.
The most hotly contested feature of the current plan is the planned construction of massive and lengthy tunnels, which can be 100 feet in diameter and stretch for miles.
On rainy days, those tunnels would fill with storm water and sewage and be held there until the weather changes. At that point, the Alcosan treatment plant would handle the waste. Then, the effluent would be pumped down to the plant.
The mayor hates the idea.
“You’re talking about building some of the largest septic tanks in the world. You’re basically building septic tanks the size of the Fort Pitt tunnels,” Peduto said.
Storm water has resulted in flooding and tragedy on Washington Boulevard, where a mother, her two children and another woman drowned in August of 2011.
But, the organization Clean Rivers is proposing expanding a simple rain garden to become a rain swale to trap an estimated one million gallons of water every year.
Other cities like Washington, D.C. have replaced the storage tunnels with similar projects and Peduto wants to make green solutions like it the bedrock of the new plan going forward.
“We’re already way behind Cleveland, Philadelphia, Cincinnati, Washington, D.C. All have understood that if you limit the amount of water going into the system, it costs a lot less to build the system,” Peduto said.
While the EPA is still weighing the request, it appears the agency will smile favorably on the extension. In a statement sent to KDKA-TV, the EPA’s David Sternberg wrote:
“Over the last year, the EPA has been in discussions with Alcosan about additional time to implement the necessary program that could provide a lower-cost solution than the currently proposed plan. This approach has been discussed with the customer municipalities in addition to Alcosan, and I would characterize those discussions as making good progress.”
Peduto argues that in addition to being environmentally-friendly, the green plan will save money and tame the skyrocketing increases in your water and sewer bills that the big fix will bring.
The bad news is that those bills will still likely double and triple over the next 10 years and those savings will amount to little more than a drop in the bucket.