Updated: Oct 18, 2022
Photo by Elizabeth Perry
Doug Jackson, operations and management head, and Kim Kennedy, head of engineering and construction, explain the ALCOSAN plan during a Sept. 29 public meeting in McKees Rocks.
By Editorial Board
Currently, 9 billion gallons of raw sewage flood into Pittsburgh’s three rivers each year.
That fact is downright staggering.
Common sense dictates that the “brown trout” floating in our waterways are vectors for bacteria and viruses. Anyone reading this editorial surely knows that, but please allow us to quote a report from the Environmental Protection Agency fact sheet on sanitary sewage overflows:
“Raw sewage contains disease-causing pathogens, including viruses, bacteria, worms, and protozoa. Diseases resulting from enteric pathogens range from stomach flu and upper respiratory infections to potentially life-threatening illnesses such as cholera, dysentery, Hepatitis B, and cryptosporidiosis. Children, the elderly, and people with suppressed immune systems face added risk of contracting serious illnesses.”
And that’s just the impact on human beings, not including whatever plucky animals or fish have continued to survive in our struggling waterways. The report goes on to say: “The environmental impacts of sewage include hypoxia, harmful algal blooms, habitat degradation, floating debris, and impacts to threatened or endangered species.”
We want to laugh to keep us from crying about this situation, but now is not the time to make an off-color joke about the Golden Triangle. This is a slow-moving natural disaster.
Situated on a flood plain, McKees Rocks is in chronic danger of being covered in rising, sewage-contaminated waters.
In fact, McKees Rocks is ranked second in the state for greatest operational flood risk according to First Street Foundation, an organization that calculates flood risk.
“There are 1,604 properties in McKees Rocks that have greater than a 26% chance of being severely affected by flooding over the next 30 years. This represents 64% of all properties in McKees Rocks," according to First Street Foundation.
More than half of all properties in the borough are in danger of flooding. The economic toll of flooding falls on taxpayers and homeowners alike. Renters, too, can lose all of their possessions in a flood event.
Flash flooding is a regional problem, and these problems will only get worse with aging infrastructure and increased rainfall.
The City of Pittsburgh Stormwater Manual states annual rainfall has increased since 1840, from roughly 30 inches yearly to around 37 inches per year today.
The ALCOSAN plan presented locally Sept. 29 proposes to mitigate sewer overflows and reduce flooding incidents by increasing sewer capacity and reducing the amount of water which needs to be processed. It will do that by lowering run-off with “green infrastructure” – plant and nature-based solutions which will absorb and filter rainwater naturally. That will also reduce landslides by stabilizing land. It will result in fewer wet basements and damaged houses. ALCOSAN has also committed to fixing leaking pipes in order to reduce the amount of water saturating the land.
Less water ending up in sewers means less clean water being re-cleaned, which will save energy.
This is a problem that is only going to get more costly the longer we wait to address it. Not only is the price of the project itself increasing with inflation, but the threat of disasters, big and small, looms.
The ALCOSAN plan will not entirely put a stop to all related issues, of course, but will help ease some of the dangers.
Currently, McKees Rocks Borough is embroiled in a lawsuit with ALCOSAN about that updated sewer system project. Initially, borough officials worried there would be a football field-sized open pit right next to The Shoppes at Chartiers Crossing. That scenario would be a nightmare for anyone just swinging by Aldi to pick up milk or some cheese and crackers. And what about the people who live behind the plaza?
But it seems as though now, the project will be a lot less disruptive than initially thought. It will still be disruptive – they are tunneling through land, not butter. There will be price increases for sewage that will be hard on the wallet, especially to low-income households.
However, we think the benefits to the region long-term in the reduction of disease, the potential for less flooding, the renewed wildlife and economic bump which would come from having a town that overlooks a cleaner, sparkling river seems to outweigh the risk.
It’s important to have a vigilant government looking out for residents' interests, and the lawsuit may well have been the lever that shifted ALCOSAN’s design decisions, but ultimately, the editorial board thinks revamping the sewer system will turn out to be a good thing for McKees Rocks.