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Up Shit Creek 

A new survey of Allegheny County streams shows that wet or dry, they're worse than we care to think about

 

 

 

 

"We've got some of the worst water quality in the country in wet weather, but nobody knows what kind of water quality we have in dry weather, because nobody's looked at it," says Tim Collins, director of the 3 Rivers 2nd Nature project of Carnegie Mellon's STUDIO for Creative Inquiry.

 

Collins and a team of artists and scientists have studied the three rivers and tested all 53 of their tributary streams for fecal contamination over the past five years. While federal, state and local regulators have known that the rivers are inundated with sewage overflows during heavy rains, 3 Rivers 2nd Nature found that, even in dry weather, sewage pollutes the streams, often at higher rates than it does the rivers. (See Web site at 3r2n.cfa.cmu.edu.)

 

Only 32 percent of Allegheny County's streams meet the state's safety standard for fecal coliform, bacteria carried in human and animal feces, the study found. Another 36 percent of streams were contaminated enough to be a public health risk, with more than five times the fecal coliform standard. The worst -- Crooked Run in North Versailles -- contained 2,000 times that standard, and several others carried 20-50 times the standard. Though pets and wild animals do their part, most of this offal is human.

Among the worst: Sipes Run, which empties at Sharpsburg; Dry Run, a Mon tributary in southern Allegheny County; and Streets Run, near Baldwin.

 

Surprisingly, some of the bigger urban streams -- Chartiers Creek, Saw Mill Run, Turtle Creek -- were not the worst cases, although they're far from clean.

A few streams are fairly free of sewage, with nine meeting the state's recreation standard. But just as there's no official plan to fix troubled streams, there's little in place to identify and preserve clean ones.

The most sewage-free are Heaths Run, a culverted Allegheny tributary near Sharpsburg, and Shades Run, in Penn Hills. Well-known, relatively sewage-free streams include Montour Run, Moon Run, Little Sewickley Creek and Peters Creek.

One oddball case was Nine Mile Run, which showed a miraculously low count for fecal bacteria, but probably not because it's poop-free: More likely, says another 3R2N study, the extremely alkaline water -- from the slag runoff -- makes Nine Mile Run inhospitable to bacteria.

 

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Given that the federal Clean Water Act passed in the 1970s, says University of Pittsburgh Environmental Law Clinic professor Bill Luneburg, "I guess everybody must be under the assumption that by now the government would've dealt with the human health risks. To find that there's not a lot of data for a big urban area is rather surprising."

 

The 3R2N study was the first countywide study of streams to be made public in years. The state's Department of Environmental Protection no longer takes measurements like these because, spokesperson Betsy Mallison says, "we already know there's sewage there, and we're dealing with it."

 

But the agency won't likely accept 3R2N's data in any official capacity. Though scientifically sound, 3R2N's studies followed a different protocol than the DEP requires. "It's not useful to us, [but] maybe useful for discussion," Mallison says. "The regs are hard to meet," she says of DEP rules, which are "designed for a sewage operator who's going to be in the plant with a lab."

 

"The way the DEP limits the amount of work they have to do is to not accept data," Collins charges.

A group of senior citizens monitors biological and physical conditions on Pine Creek in the North Hills, for instance, but they don't check for fecal bacteria. "On the team, they're all fishermen, and the results we get show very healthy water," says their former program director, Marilyn Kraitchman of senior services agency Vintage. "They say, 'This isn't bad! We can fish, we don't have to wear latex gloves, we can do whatever we want!' Well, no ..."

Says Kathy Knauer, the environmental scientist who did water testing for the 3R2N project: "I don't think a layperson could tell" a stream's health. "It wouldn't look like sewage or smell like sewage unless it's extremely contaminated."

Would it taste like sewage? "A healthy person can take a mouthful" and be OK, says Allegheny County Health Department spokesperson Dave Zazac. Fecal coliform doesn't itself cause illness, but it does indicate that more dangerous feces-born germs and parasites might be present, like giardia and cryptosporidium. Most susceptible are the young, the old and anyone with skin wounds or a weakened immune system.

It's unknown how many local people get sick from sewage; ACHD doesn't have the resources to track it, Zazac says. Though the rivers are flagged when there's a sewage overflow, there's no warning program for streams, even though they often flow much closer to residential areas.

 

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The sewage is probably entering streams from deteriorated pipes, many over a century old and poorly installed in the first place.

"At the turn of the century, the purpose of sewers was to take rain and sewage away from the street and into the nearest river of creek," explains Knauer. The rivers were gutters until 1959, when Pittsburgh and the surrounding towns completed the Alcosan plant and finally began treating sewage. Alcosan placed huge interceptor lines near the rivers to catch the sewage before it hits the river (except during rains, when the interceptors overflow). But that doesn't take care of the problems that occur farther up the sewage lines, which are owned and maintained -- or not -- by 83 municipalities.

As late as the 1970s and '80s, says John Schombert, director of the 3 Rivers Wet Weather Demonstration Project, biological assessments of local rivers and streams "revealed that life was depleted, at the lowest level that could be sustained. ... Entire communities like Plum Borough were unsewered." Wet Weather Demonstration is a nonprofit working to repair the sewage problems and manage consent decrees between the federal Environmental Protection Agency and local municipalities to avoid fines for sewage violations.

 

"The improvements were very visual to us, [eliminating] toilet paper lying on top of the streams," says Schombert. "My hope is that the younger generation will see other changes. Over the last 30 years we've made the gross advancements. Now we have to do the sophisticated changes." That means "little robotic tractors" will be used to show the condition of sewer pipe on closed-circuit television. "I've seen some pipe that looks like a Kennywood roller coaster," Schombert says. "There are hundreds of thousands of those pipe situations," and any one of them could be leaking.

Meanwhile, says 3R2N's Collins, "we've got marinas opening up, up and down the rivers, commercial groups pushing fishing, nonprofit groups pushing fishing, rowing on rivers." The Bassmaster tournament, for instance, is coming in July. "For every mile of river, there's 20 miles of streams. A 10-year-old wants to get to the water, it's easier to get to the stream in your backyard, your neighborhood, your schoolyard, than to the river," warns Collins. "We're creating a fatal attraction." 

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