By Thomas Hoffman

Almost 7 years ago, six Pittsburgh based organizations realized that our region was going to spend $2-4 billion dollars of area residents’ money to stop 9+ billion gallons of untreated sewage from flowing into our iconic three rivers. The overflows occur when stormwater runs off roads roofs and parking lots into the storm sewers which are the same as the waste sewers.

Pittsburgh is not unusual – many older industrial cities have the same problem. If you combine all the money that will be spent by these cities fixing this problem it totals to roughly half a trillion dollars.

The groups formed the Clean Rivers Campaign to win a “maximum green first followed by right sized gray” solution to cleaning our rivers. They felt that in addition to cleaning our rivers such a solution would bring maximum community benefits back to area residents. These benefits include long term local family sustaining Union jobs, cleaner air and water, and revitalized communities.

The six organizations are Pittsburgh United, a PWF affiliate composed of labor, faith and community groups, Pennsylvania Interfaith Impact Network, a faith based organization, three enviro groups -Sierra Club, Clean Water Action and Nine Mile Run Watershed Association and Action United, a low income neighborhood organizing group. The Unions in Pittsburgh United (SEIU, UFCW and USWA) have been very supportive of the campaign because the neighborhoods where much of the green investments would happen are where their members live.

The alternative solution being promoted by our regional sewer authority, ALCOSAN, is the construction of miles of massive tunnels to collect all the stormwater runoff and sewage overflow. The sewage would then be pumped out of the tunnels using pumps powered by fossil fuels and then treated  before being released into the river again. While this would solve the sewage in the rivers problems it would have none of the community benefits listed above. It would also do nothing to reduce the flooding that may low income and minority communities are experiencing.

The Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority has been a great leader and champion of the “green first” approach. They have created a city wide scientific green plan that would remove sewage from our rivers, control flooding and bring those community benefits back to ratepayers who are footing the bill.

Unfortunately PWSA has had some rough going lately. Lead in the water, boil water advisories, a risk of being privatized and billing problems top the list. The groups in the CRC plus several others have now formed the Our Water Campaign to help PWSA weather the storm. The campaign has worked with the Authority to develop a ban on partial lead pipe replacements (which in fact increase the homeowner’s lead levels), a winter shutoff moratorium on household water accounts and a customer assistance program. The campaign has scheduled a meeting with the Plumbers Union for the week before Thanksgiving to talk about how the campaign can work together with the plumbers to keep the Authority public and that the massive infrastructure upgrades needed are done Union and in house as much as possible.

The campaign has been told that ULLICO the Union insurance company may be interested in investing in PWSA. The campaign is reaching out to ULLICO to encourage them to support keeping PWSA a public entity accountable to the public.