By Jamie Wiggan
A lawsuit contesting a potentially disruptive sewage construction project in McKees Rocks can now move forward after stalling for more than a year in federal court.
In a May 6 opinion, Judge J. Nicholas Ranjan said the borough has valid concerns about the economic and environmental impacts of a pending tunnel project and can continue to seek legal relief from the county sanitary authority.
Announcing the suit during a press conference in March 2021, borough officials said ALCOSAN’s plans to sink “a perpetual, massive, open pit 150-feet deep” under the parking lot of a former car dealership would throttle the town’s fragile business district and disrupt life for nearby residents.
Lawyers for the authority sought to dismiss the filing on the basis it was “speculative” and “premature” because the claims are based on assumed future impacts that cannot be proved.
The dismissal motion sat pending in federal court for a year and two days before Ranjan ruled in the borough’s favor last week, finding “the Borough’s public nuisance claims are ripe, and state plausible claims for relief.”
By denying the dismissal, the court has not ruled in support of the borough’s underlying claims but has simply permitted them to continue through the legal process.
Since acquiring the former Crivelli Chevrolet dealership for approximately $2 million in late 2020, the sanitary authority has declined to clearly state its plans for the site other than confirming they fit into its Clean Water Plan.
The decades-in-the-making infrastructure plan is a response to a federal court order requiring the authority to reduce the amount of untreated sewage that enters local waterways during periods of rainfall. Currently, an estimated 9 billion gallons of unsanitary water leaks into Allegheny County rivers every year.
The plan’s first phase involves constructing a tunnel under the Ohio River from the mouth of the Chartiers Creek in McKees Rocks to ALCOSAN’s processing plant in Pittsburgh. Additional tunnels will be constructed under the Allegheny and Monongahela rivers.
Days before the court ruling, a slate of ALCOSAN officials filled out the McKees Rocks council chambers on May 3, seeking to assuage concerns about the project. They vowed not to demolish the vacant dealership building and said the construction activity on the adjoining parking lot will be much less invasive than the scene described a year earlier by anxious borough officials.
“We will create as little disruption as possible in McKees Rocks,” said Jeanne Clark, ALCOSAN’s governmental affairs director. “I’m really gratified we’ve been able to improve our relationship with McKees Rocks over the last few months.”
Kim Kennedy, ALCOSAN’s engineering director, said the most current plans call for three drop shaft placements throughout the borough, with one going in around the Crivelli site, one on Robb Street and a third at an undisclosed location.
Mike Lichte, regional conveyance director, said the project would begin in 2025 and conclude within a few years.
Once the work is done, he said contractors for the authority would install parks, playgrounds and green space in place of the construction sites.
“It’s gonna be kind of a mess during construction but after it’s done we’re gonna leave it in better condition,” he said.
Despite the promises of reduced impacts, some borough officials still expressed reservations.
Councilman Joe Mixter said he remained concerned about the economic impact ALCOSAN’s plans may inflict on the borough by disrupting the business district. He also noted that since the authority bought the former Crivelli dealership in late 2020, the borough and school district have both lost out on a sizable chunk of tax revenue, which the authority is not obliged to pay.
Reached after the ruling, Council President Archie Brinza said he could not provide an immediate comment because of the borough’s policies on litigation. ALCOSAN Communications Director Joseph Vallarian also declined to comment for the same reason.