Watch CBS News

ALCOSAN's $2.5B Plan To Clean Rivers Costs Ratepayers, Raises Objections From Environmentalists

PITTSBURGH (KDKA) - It's the biggest public works project in the history of the region: $2.5 billion in construction aimed at cleaning up our rivers and streams. "The Big Fix." The problem is you're on the hook to pay for it and not everyone's on board.

The tunnels are finally coming. Over the course of the next decade, subterranean Pittsburgh will have miles and miles of underground tunnels designed to capture billions of gallons of combined storm sewer overflows which continually pollute our rivers and streams. Under a federal consent order, ALCOSAN says it doesn't have a choice.

"These tunnels have to come. In order to meet the deadline in the consent decree that was lodged in 2019, we have to have tunnels and we have to start immediately," said Kimberly Kennedy, ALCOSAN's director of engineering and construction.

The project promises to at last clean our waterways, but environmentalists and others object to the method. They prefer eco-friendly projects like rain swales, green roofs and porous pavement, which soak up the excess rain before it gets into and overloads the sewers.

"What our communities need are solutions that are green, that are resilient and bring benefits to our communities. ALCOSAN has taken a backward and opposite approach which is putting a hole in the ground under the river," said Jennifer Rafanan Kennedy of Pittsburgh United.

Here's the problem: Every time we get a heavy rain, it overloads the system and sewage-laced water flows out of gates, polluting rivers and streams at 9 billion gallons a year. After pursuing a "green first" strategy, the authority now says green projects would fall far short of addressing the problem.

Kimberly Kennedy: "It cannot carry the day, not for the volume of sewage overflow that we experience in our region."
Andy Sheehan: "And so these tunnels are necessary?"
Kimberly Kennedy: "They are absolutely necessary."

Beginning with the 6-mile-long Ohio River Tunnel, a boring machine with a drill head 18 feet in diameter will carve an underground passageway along all three rivers, creating one gigantic holding tank. Since there's no federal and state funding available for projects like it, the money will come from you, the ratepayer.

The ALCOSAN portion of your water and sewer bill has more than doubled over the past decade and is on a trajectory to double again. In the past 10 years, the bill for a house using 12,000 gallons of water a year went from $228 to $513. ALCOSAN just announced it will be raising rates by 7 percent each year for the next 5 years, meaning your annual bill will jump to $791 dollars and will continue to climb during the length of the project.

The authority is currently putting a half-billion dollars into expanding the treatment plant which will more than double its capacity. The actual construction of the tunnels is expected to start in 2025. The network will be mostly unseen and underground but will require about a dozen access shafts that are 20 yards across and 150 feet deep.

Opponents say they will mar the riverfronts the city has worked so hard to reclaim for recreation and development. They say the battle is not over.

"I think people in our community will continue to fight for our riverfront, fight to make this plan greener," said Jennifer Rafanan Kennedy.

Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto has long been a proponent of a "green first" solution to combined sewer overflows and an opponent of so-called "grey infrastructure" — the concrete and steel used in constructing the catchment tunnels.

ALCOSAN and 83 separate sewerage authorities in Allegheny County are under federal orders to clean up the rivers and streams. But while the mayor said the city and the Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority have initiated several green projects, none of the other authorities came up with a plan to fight the overflows with green projects.

Without those plans, Peduto concedes that ALCOSAN has no choice but to proceed with the catchment tunnels to meet the federal deadlines for cleaning up the waterways. But the mayor says if towns throughout the county get on board with green projects, the length of those tunnels can be reduced.

Here is KDKA's interview:

View CBS News In
CBS News App Open
Chrome Safari Continue
Be the first to know
Get browser notifications for breaking news, live events, and exclusive reporting.