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Penn Hills fined $17.5k for Plum Creek Sewage discharge

Dillon Carr
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Penn Hills Municipal Complex

Penn Hills owes the Allegheny County Health Department a fine after the agency found the Plum Creek Sewage Treatment Plant had discharged more contaminants than is allowed into Plum Creek 18 times from 2016 to 2018.

The $17,500 fine stems from a 2018 “Discharge Monitoring Report” from the Plum Creek Sewage Treatment Plant that found exceedances of fecal coliform bacteria, and other contaminants, being discharged into Plum Creek.

Fecal coliform bacteria are generally not harmful, according to the federal Environmental Protection Agency. However, “(fecal coliform bacteria) indicate the possible presence of pathogenic (disease-causing) bacteria,” according to the EPA’s website.

Ryan Scarpino, an ACHD spokesman, said the department reviews treatment plants’ DMRs, along with the state Department of Environmental Protection and federal Environmental Protection Agency, on a monthly basis.

Scarpino said there was no illegal discharge and the overflows do not pose an “imminent public health risk or threat” because the creek is not a source of drinking water.

“This was the normal flow from the plant to the creek, which is designated by (DEP) in the facility’s permit,” Scarpino said in an email.

The DEP did not respond to a request for comment.

According to the consent assessment that Penn Hills council approved Jan. 21, “exceedances as reported on monthly DMRs constitute violations of the Pennsylvania Clean Streams Law.”

He said the civil penalty, the first of its kind for the Plum Creek Sewage Treatment Plant, was levied against Penn Hills because the treatment plant reported exceedances for a period of three months.

Tom O’Grady, director of Penn Hills’ Water Pollution Control Department, said the problem can be blamed on excessive rainfall in 2018, which essentially choked the sewage treatment plant’s disinfection system.

“The Ultraviolet Light Disinfection system at the Plum Creek Plant (installed in 2008) is designed to treat a maximum of 12 million gallons of wastewater per day,” O’Grady said in an email. “During heavy rain storms, flow through the plant can exceed the unit’s design.”

When that happens, he said, the fecal coliform bacteria used to test the disinfection process can pass through the system.

“The wastewater is still treated but with elevated bacteria counts,” he said.

The National Weather Service in Moon Township said in December that 2018 was the wettest year in Pittsburgh history and resulted in more than 57.41 inches.

The discharges that resulted in the $17,500 fine from ACHD are not related to the criminal consent decree placed on Penn Hills over a decade ago, said Manager Scott Andrejchak.

“This is not the same problem … That was an intentional act. There was intent there, where someone diverted flow intentionally. This was an act of Mother Nature,” Andrejchak said.

Although Penn Hills’ consent decree has since been lifted, Allegheny County still remains under a consent agreement with the DEP to continue upgrading its sewage system.

Former Manager Moe Rayan has said Penn Hills, with approximately 250 miles of underground sewer lines, paid $40 million since 2010 to fix its sewage system.

The municipality budgeted about $1.5 million for sewage repairs in 2018 and $1.6 million in 2019.

Andrejchak said ACHD’s fee was originally $35,000 but that he negotiated that figure down to $17,500 so the municipality could use that money to continue to upgrade the sewage system.

Penn Hills must pay the fee by Jan. 31, but Andrejchak said he is working with the municipality’s contracted engineering firm, Gateway Engineers, to find a permanent fix at the Plum Creek Sewage Treatment Plant.

He did not offer specific solutions being discussed and did not know how much the fix could cost.

Gateway Engineers did not respond to a request for comment.

Dillon Carr is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Dillon at 412-871-2325, [email protected] or via Twitter @dillonswriting.