ALCOSAN Polluting our three rivers!

ALCOSAN Polluting our three rivers!

A sign by the river stating that no one should swim here because this area receives sewage when there are overflows.
A sign by the river stating that no one should swim here because this area receives sewage when there are overflows.


Living in Pittsburgh my entire life I have grown up walking and traveling by the three rivers, the Allegheny, Ohio, and Monongahela. I have seen people boat and swim when the weather becomes nice, and I have even watched Pirate games and fireworks on and by these rivers. However, all of this time I never knew that there are some harmful parts of the rivers that no one should be swimming in. I always thought our rivers were considered healthy because of the different animals and organisms that have been found in them. Well if these different organisms are living in the rivers, how are there some areas that are dangerous then? A company known as Allegheny County Sanitary Authority (ALCOSAN) has continuously polluted the three rivers located in Pittsburgh Pennsylvania; if this does not change, citizens will be more susceptible to illnesses. Also, although the proposals to fix the sewage treatment system are very costly, ALCOSAN needs to update their system in order to make our environment a safer place to live.



Allegheny County Sanitary Authority, also known as ALCOSAN is located along the Ohio River in the northern side of Pittsburgh. ALCOSAN was formed in 1946 to study the needs of the area and to develop a treatment plan that will be beneficial to the city of Pittsburgh. After submitting treatment plans they began to construct it in 1950 by placing over 90 miles of very large pipes along the major rivers and other streams. These pipes were to receive the wastewater from the surrounding municipalities and redirect it to the plant before it even reached the waterways. ALCOSAN then began treating wastewater in 1959.

ALCOSAN provides 83 communities in Pennsylvania with wastewater treatment services. This company processes up to 250 million gallons of wastewater daily, making it one of the largest wastewater treatment centers in the area. ALCOSAN’s mission:

“To provide cost effective, customer oriented

and environmentally conscious wastewater

treatment that protects public health and enhances

the use of our natural resources.”

ALCOSAN is a nonprofit agency with 320,000 residential, commercial, and industrial accounts representing a population of approximately 900,000. Because this is a nonprofit agency they are funded by capital funds that are raised through the sale of sewer revenue bonds. Well how does ALCOSAN collect their money if they are a nonprofit organization? Their charges actually change from customer to customer. The charges are based on the amount of water that each customer uses and then the customers are billed quarterly. A bill can vary each quarter depending upon the water usage of each individual customer. The water usage information is collected by a meter reading, or is a flat rate that the water company provides. Only five of the 83 communities that ALCOSAN serves are billed directly, while the remaining 78 communities’ municipalities are in charge of paying the bill. The municipalities of the 78 communities then bills each of the customers the ALCOSAN charge. If the money is not paid to the individual municipalities they are the ones to turn off water service, not ALCOSAN.

Who is in charge at ALCOSAN? A board of directors that contains seven members governs ALCOSAN. These seven directors are chosen in different ways: three of the members are appointed by the mayor of Pittsburgh, three are appointed by the Allegheny County Executive, and one member is a joint city-county appointee. Each of these seven board members serves as directors for a five-year term.

            Much of the systems created by ALCOSAN have become deteriorated and overloaded during rainstorms, and other wet weather conditions. The deterioration happening is due to the fact that the system used by ALCOSAN is a post World War II system containing the exact same pipes since it was first created. This deterioration has now resulted in very frequent sewage overflows that enter into our waterways.



In the region's main rivers, the Allegheny, Monongahela, and Ohio, storm water and sewer overflows during wet weather appear to be the major contributors.
In the region’s main rivers, the Allegheny, Monongahela, and Ohio, storm water and sewer overflows during wet weather appear to be the major contributors.

Sewage overflows are not a new problem for Pittsburgh. As early as 1930 there was a meeting to talk about how to address the problems of sewage dumping. ALCOSAN was the primary treatment plant in 1959. During storms additional water flowing into the systems overloads the pipes.

Pennsylvania is the worst offender for sewage overflows in the United States. Most, if not all of ALCOSAN’s customers would agree that this really has to change.


Deteriorating Pipes

The underground sewage system (ALCOSAN) is beginning to deteriorate and the overflow of sewage is leaking into the groundwater and rivers around the city of Pittsburgh. With this leakage citizens face serious risk of disease, even though the risk of the bacteria getting into the drinking water is low the presence of it in the groundwater increase a chance for citizens to come in contact with it. The pipes in the system are so old (post World War II) that they are only made of brick and clay, instead of the modern pipes. Pipes that are seen in homes and in wastewater treatment systems today consist of various different metals, including copper and iron. Because plastics have become a bigger industry, people are seeing a change in the pipe materials from metal to plastic. This change is taking place mainly because plastic does not deteriorate like metal does.

Because these pipes are outdated, and made of the old materials, they are causing many problems within the communities. In order to make our environment a safer and more enjoyable place these pipes need to be replaced. Although this may take time and be costly, it is best that it be done. If the pipes were replaced we would not see as much overflow as we do today and Pennsylvania can go down on the list of the worst offenders for sewage overflow. Also, the city could become a bigger tourist attraction, bringing in more money to the city, in that the visitors can swim and enjoy the three rivers as much as the citizens of Pittsburgh try to enjoy them now.


Combined Sewer Overflows (CSO)

When it rains even a tenth of an inch the water rushing off surrounding hills, buildings, etc., rushes into the sewers, which in turn are released into the rivers. On average in Pittsburgh the rainfall is one-quarter inch, therefore almost every time it rains there will be raw sewage dumped into the rivers. When it is not raining in Pittsburgh the system works very effectively, but when is it not raining in Pittsburgh? The effects of wet weather can last for plenty of days. Throughout recreational boating season, lasting from mid May to the end of September, river advisories are issued to warn those using the rivers to limit their water contact as much as possible when CSOs have contaminated the waters with bacteria and viruses. Every time a river advisory is issued by Allegheny County it could last for several days.

ALCOSAN is now required to meet a new set of clean water standards so they need to control the storm water. The federal Pollution Act of 1990 shifted from an “end-of pipe” solution to a pollution prevention pollution. The environmental firms changed throughout the history of Pittsburgh costing millions of dollars. At first everything was working well, now however they are struggling. Environmental management systems (EMS) are a set of processes and practices that allow for an organization to reduce its environmental policy. EMS came about in the 1990s causing problems with how people viewed issues in the environment.


This is a chart of the bacteria found in the three rivers in Pittsburgh found in a book entitled Fecal-Indicator Bacteria in the Allegheny, Monongahela, and Ohio Rivers, near Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
This is a chart of the bacteria found in the three rivers in Pittsburgh found in a book entitled Fecal-Indicator Bacteria in the Allegheny, Monongahela, and Ohio Rivers, near Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.


Because of sewer overflows and deteriorating pipes in Pittsburgh’s wastewater treatment process, there have been a number of organisms found in the three rivers. Escherichia coli, Enterococci, and Fecal coliform are all found in the rivers, along with a number of fecal-indicator bacteria. Although these bacterial concentrations vary across the width of the rivers they are still there posing threats to the health of people that come in contact with them.

There are a variety of health concerns that arise from having these bacteria in our waterways. If someone were to accidently drink the water contaminated with the bacteria they could have many harmful side effects. These side effects include: diarrhea, vomiting, cramps, nausea, fever, dehydration, and abdominal pain. While swimming in the rivers you could accidently take in a mouthful of water causing these harmful bacteria to enter into your body. Also, these bacteria can effect both the environment and the life in the river. Bacteria can cause area of dead zones, which basically means that all life that was once there is no more.

If ALCOSAN does not update their pipes, or prevent CSOs from happening than this will continue to happen and could eventually end up in our homes when they are flooded because of CSOs.



People enjoy the rivers in Pittsburgh.
People enjoy the rivers in Pittsburgh.


Although our rivers are known to be dirty and polluted, many events are still held on, or near them. One of the largest events seen on the rivers in Pittsburgh would be the annual Regatta. The Regatta is a festival usually held at the beginning of July. During the Regatta there are a number of different activities ranging from booths you can walk around too, to different stands of food, to one of the most popular events: the race boats. The race boats are small speedboats that race around a marked track on the Allegheny River. Another popular event that happens during the Regatta is the anything that floats race. In this race competitors make a floating boat out of whatever they think will work best or according to the name of the race “anything that floats”. After they create their boats they race them by paddling down the Allegheny River.

Another popular activity that takes place in the rivers in Pittsburgh would be tailgating. In the summer whenever there are Pirate games taking place it is not unusual to see plenty of boats floating on the river watching the jumbotron and then the fireworks. Boats are also seen floating on the rivers before big concerts that happen at either Heinz field or PNC Park.

Fishing is one more activity that is frequently seen on the rivers. Who knows if the people fishing are sport fishing, or eating the fish they catch, but if they are eating them who knows what they could be consuming? If people are fishing in these spots that ALCOSAN has warning signs up about they could be consuming bacteria along with the fish they have caught.

Although these rivers have warning spots stating that it is dangerous to be swimming in the water people still enjoy these beautiful large bodies of water. Because people do enjoy these rivers, we should be more careful about what is entering them. Clearly, no one is paying attention to the fact that the bodies of water could potentially be dangerous, so ALCOSAN should take control of their situation and fix their system in order to keep people safe.



A combined sewer overflow (CSO) along the Allegheny River releases sewage and storm water after a January rainstorm.
A combined sewer overflow (CSO) along the Allegheny River releases sewage and storm water after a January rainstorm.

Wet weather events are spoken about among informants as a threat to both the environment and public health. Overflow volumes must be reduced from more than 75 events to around four or five events a year. One issue in fixing this would be to stop destroying our nature, such as trees and other plants. Because our city is cutting down trees in order to create something like more parking, and flatter surfaces, is allowing for more storm water to enter into the pipes, overflowing the drains, and leaking into the rivers. One solution to help stop this problem would be to plant more trees and other plants in order to make drain overflow harder because of everything the water would have to pass through.

Lack of cooperation between the surrounding municipalities and ALCOSAN is another issue that is faced when trying to fix the problems of sewage overflow. Having a total of 83 municipalities and not a unified system of piping and transporting waste, or a regulation process for building new structures in the municipalities that will also require treatment is causing more problems in the treatment system. Municipalities do not understand the fact that there are over 80 other surrounding municipalities that are also affected by ALCOSAN. These municipalities need to understand that there are other issues more important than making a new attraction for their community members to attend. They need to communicate better in order to save time and money, and in order to protect the environment and the well being of their community members. The municipalities should be told about the awful effects that dumping sewage into the rivers will have not only on the environment, but people as well. If they knew the effects possible maybe they would communicate better.

Mayor Bill Peduto spoke to President Barack Obama at a meeting about the Environmental Protection Agency to let Pittsburgh pursue greener solutions to the sewage system. Every time it rains the pipes overflow and raw sewage is dumped into the rivers and this along with other issues can change if a green solution is reached. New leaders need to be put in place at ALCOSAN that can make all of this happen. Although the mayor does appoint a few of the board members at ALCOSAN he does not have a say in the other four. Although the mayor is in support of changing the way ALCOSAN is operating we need to get the other board members on board too.

There are a number of ways you can support a change in the way the wastewater system in Pittsburgh works. You can go to board meetings that the different municipalities have and voice your opinions on the way it should change. Also, you can write to the mayor in support to have a change and different ideas that you have as well. Just because you are not a scientist doesn’t mean that you should not have a say in what is happening in the area that you live in. Speak up, if you have an idea share it with as many people as you can, even if it will only affect the municipality you live in a small change is better than no change at all. Also, you can pay attention to those running for office in your area and support those that support a change in ALCOSAN. Lastly, you can watch how much water you use during periods of significant amounts of rain in order to cut back on water initially entering into the pipes of ALCOSAN.

All in all people need to realize that if their tax dollars to go up in order to fix these issues than they should not get angry about it. In the end if the pipes are not fixed and updated your health could eventually be affected very negatively. In order to save your health and your city you should want to help and become as knowledgeable as possible. In order to make the city a more enjoyable and safer place our rivers need to be healthy and clean.


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