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The next and potentially decisive phase in a billions-dollar, court-ordered Pittsburgh regional sewers overhaul is scheduled to take place on January 30.
“The EPA has not given any indication that it’s open to delay,” warned Arletta Scott Williams, executive director of the Allegheny County Sanitary Authority (Alcosan). It has spent fourteen years preparing for massive upgrades of its systems, and six years drafting conventional “gray” construction plans to capture surface waters prior to treatment.
“We really need to see creativity and leadership,” urges Merritt Busierre, a researcher for the Clean Rivers Campaign, a group that has been active for the last year in urging widespread adoption of the sorts of “green” measures (permeable pavements, bioswales, rain gardens etc.) that are elsewhere in various stages of development as part of EPA compliance strategies.
“We want to go with Alcosan to the EPA to get enough time to get as much green as we can in,” stated Barney Oursler, executive director of Pittsburgh United, a coalition of labor, faith and environmental groups involved with that campaign.
Oursler also warned, “The EPA is not funding any more demonstration [green] projects.”
That means it’s time to cut out the show-and-tell — to present only systemic-scale solutions.
Alcosan will be presenting before the EPA and a federal judge two versions of the “wet weather plan” it has completed with input from regional leaders. One is a $2 billion plan that would still be insufficiently compliant with health and safety regulations — and is described as significantly painful to rate payers. The other is a $3.6 billion plan that would be fully compliant with the regulations, but is described as tremendously painful to rate payers.
“We need to show how we can capture the millions of gallons of water,” in a storm event, insist Alcosan officials. “We catch what is sent to us.”
The Alcosan plans are both “gray” in that they rely heavily on new underground construction — mainly in the form of seven large regional catch basins or “tunnels”.
There is as yet no “green” plan anywhere to provide an alternative — only aspirations and frameworks based on what other cities have done or are presently pursuing through likewise court-mandated processes. Some of these models are more relevant to Pittsburgh’s situation than others due to differences in climate, topography and political geography.
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The question remains: along what axises will parties and officials seek to negotiate and litigate with the Environmental Protection Agency?
Any so-called “green” plan would be only marginally “less gray”, its proponents readily clarify. A large proportion of new sewer construction would still be needed to fully capture and reroute even moderately intense seasonal downpour or snowfall — preventing flow into our sewage system and causing the present combined system to overflow into our rivers.
Green advocates draw a distinction between “deep gray” and “distributive gray,” suggesting more of an emphasis on the latter in any ideal “green/grey” plan.
“There is more construction to be done with green infrastructure and distributive gray, rather than deep gray, and more permanent jobs” in the maintaining of it, asserts Oursler. “And more of that money is spent locally.”
Yet the distinction suggests that to cost-engineer or retrofit Alcosan’s “deep gray” plans to any modified “green/grey” framework might comprise less an adaptation and more of a return to square one.
The financing of one centralized plan as well may provide cost efficiencies and be easier to plan for than scores and scores of locally grown projects, say its proponents. Yet to green activists, that is all also money that is goes “elsewhere”– to larger banks and financial services firms rather than to communities.
“How are they going to get the funding for it?” Williams asked about any brand new, greener study or plan which might emerge.
Alcosan organized 3 Rivers Wet Weather six years ago precisely to assemble engineering data, local government input, and to lobby for the funding to produce its draft overhauls.
“The first time we got a call about ‘green’ was in about October of last year,” Nancy Barylak, a spokesperson for Alcosan said. That is about the time Oursler and Tom Hoffman of Clean Water Action joined its Regional Stakeholders Committee, which had been meeting quarterly.
“We were still at the point of building organizational capacity,” describes Oursler of efforts early in through 2012. “Rich Fitzgerald was just getting into this, he was council president” before winning election as Allegheny County executive and earning responsibility for Alcosan board appointments and County policy.
In response to the question of what County Executive Fitzgerald means when he says he wants to “fight” for green infrastructure, one Alcosan official said, “That’s a good question.”
Alcosan and Allegheny County government’s basic capacity to enforce sufficient “green” storm water measures across the region is a concern. With 130 separate municipalities in control of their own zoning and development, refusal by some to participate will result in the need to capture all that storm water anyway, which inevitably winds up in Alcosan systems.
Incentive measures such as the creation of a stormwater district or adjustable water rates could eventually generate revenue as well as encourage “green” behavior, but Alcosan director Williams insisted that “the conversation and willingness to even accept the problem rests at the municipal level.”
Examples from other cities facing stormwater consent decrees is a mixed bag. Portland, OR benefited from a notoriously progressive political culture, but also features different soil challenges related to its freeze / thaw cycle. Philadelphia, PA benefits from having a fully consolidated countywide government, making the two challenges almost incomparable. Cleveland OH, which has been touted by Pittsburgh environmental advocates lately, seems to include more similarities — but Cuyahoga County may be more solidly Democratic and receptive to environmental appeals across the board than is Allegheny.
On the flip side, these examples from other regions all seem to indicate that these federal storm water mandates can be a lengthy process, with ongoing points of negotiation — making it noteworthy that neither present Alcosan plan is destined to be a smash hit with both ratepayers and regulators.
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What the advocates for greener local solutions cannot afford to do in January — if indeed they mean to move forward against these headwinds at all — is show up empty-handed. A reasonable facsimile of a framework for developing a comprehensive draft plan for “green infrastructure” will have to be palpable, demonstrably underway, credibly researched, as well as delivered on official stationary.
One official who is exceptionally well-positioned to provide guidance on whether or not to pursue these matters happens to be Pittsburgh City Controller Michael Lamb. As a board member of 3 Rivers Wet Weather, Lamb would be able to lend credence to, point out any blind-spots in, or suggest and rule out methods of jockeying around with the current “gray” plans. Furthermore as Controller, his joint audit of Alcosan in 1999 (pdf) spotlighted several significant compliance issues with contractor and consultant disclosures and justifications, to which he could now provide assurances of improvement or speak of how such matters might ever have been related. With a hinted-at mayoral run around the corner, Lamb would have all the reason in the world to demonstrate leadership and vision on a consequential issue.
“Our documentation and procedures are now in full compliance with rules and policies,” Barylak said of Alcosan since the joint city-county audit.
CORRECTION: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that Alcosan must submit draft plans to regulators by Jan. 23, 2013. The correct date is Jan. 30. The Comet regrets the error.