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The Clean Rivers Campaign – Sewers, Dollars, and Community Co-operation for ‘Green First’

The following is based mainly on an article by Tom Hoffman that appeared in the Winter 2016 edition of the Sierra Club’s Pennsylvania newsletter ‘The Sylvanian’.

For four years a coalition of faith, low income, minority, labor and environmental organizations have been waging a campaign over how a portion of Southwestern Pennsylvania will spend $3 billion of residents’ money to end the practice of dumping 9 billion gallons a year of raw sewage into the three rivers.

On one side of this battle is the coalition, known as the Clean Rivers Campaign (CRC) that has fought for solving this problem with a ‘green first’ approach. This means we would invest those $3 billion in green infrastructure in a smart scientific way to keep as much storm- water as possible out of our sewers. Regions that have taken this approach have found that these investments bring many benefits back to
their neighborhoods such as local jobs, revitalized business districts, less flooding and a cleaner and healthier environment. Once we have done the maximum amount of green we would then figure out what other kinds of gray infrastructure we would need to finish the job of cleaning our rivers.

On the other side of the fight is the Allegheny County Sanitary Authority or ALCOSAN. They have been advocating for years that we need to build 14+ miles of tunnels under our rivers to catch all the storm water and sewage and hold it until the rain stops and then pump it out and treat it. This approach is outdated and does not bring back the multiple community benefits that a ‘green first’ approach has shown it can do in cities like Washington DC, Kansas City, New York and Seattle. As Pittsburgh Mayor Peduto likes to put it, “We need to invest in a sponge, not a funnel.”

The CRC coalition partners are Action United, Clean Water Action, Nine Mile Run Watershed Association, Pennsylvania Interfaith
Impact Network, Nine Mile Run Watershed Association, and the Sierra Club. The Sierra Club has been in the campaign since day one and has played a leadership role particularly in working with the eighty-three municipalities that are part of the ALCOSAN service area.

Here are some of the reasons why the Sierra Club supports the campaign:

  • It is a model for how environmental campaigns should be organized.
  • It has built strong relationships between environmental groups and members of organizations that represent faith, labor, and low income and minority residents of this region.
  • It has helped bring new activated Sierra Club members into the campaign.

As Naomi Klein described in her book ‘This Changes Everything’, the fight for climate justice can be the issue that brings progressive movements together and the CRC is an example of how that can work.

We are talking REAL money here. There are about 200 cities across the country facing the same choice about how we solve. At an average of $3 billion per city that is HALF A TRILLION DOLLARS that will be spent fixing our country’s sewage in the rivers problem. Winning a sustainable way to spend that money is a fight we need to win.

A green approach is a climate strategy. Investing in green infrastructure is a way to build resilient communities that can withstand the effects of climate change at the same time it helps soak up carbon dioxide. Many of the communities that could receive these investments have traditionally been left behind because they are low income and or minority communities. These investments can redress that wrong. Building tunnels uses huge amounts of concrete which pumps carbon into the atmosphere. In the world after the Paris climate conference, nobody should be spending a half a trillion dollars on anything that doesn’t help the climate situation.

To learn more about the Clean Rivers Campaign, contact Tom Hoffman at tomhoffman@sierraclub.org.

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