Proposed Land Development in Pittsburgh

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Hotline, Summer 2003

by Kate St. John, GASP Board Member

What do a racetrack, casino, coal mine and valley fill have in common? All are proposed for the same 635-acre site in the City of Pittsburgh. Located south of the Monongahela River, east of Becks Run, north of Glass Run and west of the Glenwood Bridge, this land is currently forested and hilly, but not for long. A Beaver County developer, Charles J. Betters, is moving rapidly to clear the regulatory hurdles between him and his four-pronged plan.

Right now the land is green space, approachable only on quiet residential streets. Though abused by LTV Steel, who mined it twice and dumped refuse on the site, the land has recovered for 50 years and is now home to birds and wildlife and used as a park by nearby residents. Should this land be logged and mined again? Should its stream valleys be filled? And what, if anything, should be built there? These land use questions uncover a host of pollution questions as well.

Before Mr. Betters can build a racetrack and 3,000 slot-machine casino, he must be awarded Pennsylvania’s only remaining thoroughbred racing license and must rely on passage of a new state law allowing slot machines at racetracks. Lacking either of these is a deal-killer according to his development partner, Churchill Downs. In the meantime Betters would like to get some money out of the land and make it very flat (“buildable”). A major mining and grading operation can do both — but at what environmental cost?

Betters’ first regulatory hurdle is a conditional use permit from the city Planning Commission and City Council, required of everyone who plans to move more than 16,000 cubic yards of dirt. In fact, Betters plans to move nearly one thousand times that much – 13 million cubic yards – but claims he will thereby eliminate the site’s mine subsidence, mine fire and acid mine drainage. The scale of the excavation is mind-boggling, air and noise pollution are likely, and the stated benefits doubtful. At public hearings and in letters, GASP and others spoke out.

We are concerned that the project and the process are being rushed and that public health and safety issues have not yet been adequately addressed.

  • Stormwater Management and Stream Impact: Changing the land contour so radically — and then paving most of it — could result in erosion and flooding. When viable streams are buried, it damages the watershed. A careful plan and expert analysis of the plan is needed to protect the watershed and avoid additional flooding in an already flood-prone area.
  • Underground Mine Fire: The developer says the excavation will halt an underground mine fire, but it may actually aggravate it by increasing the oxygen supply.
  • Air Quality and Noise: The excavation will last 12 to 18 months and move 13 million cubic yards of dirt, obviously raising huge amounts of dust and generating a lot of noise. Both of these conditions require an abatement plan.
  • Hazardous Waste: The permit application describes hazardous waste on the property and explains the hazardous area will not be excavated. Is the waste safely buried “as is”? What will be done to insure the waste doesn’t expose nearby residents, workers and future visitors to unexpected hazardous materials?

    Public comments helped to mitigate, but did not stop the proposal. The Planning Commission approved the permit, but added conditions concerning dust, noise and truck traffic, plus a requirement that 200 to 250 acres of the site’s perimeter remain open space. Thus the edges would be a buffer while the center is mined and flattened.

    As of this writing the conditional use permit awaits approval by City Council, but this is not the only step. The project faces more regulatory hurdles and more opportunities for the public to get involved. Here are a few of them:

  • Re-mining, stream diversions and valley fills require permits from the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The permit applications must address issues such as: coal refuse, acid mine drainage abatement, storm water management, water quality impacts, hazardous material disposal, blasting, air pollution and noise control, sewage sludge or coal ash dumping (which can be used to fill the void after re-mining), re-vegetation, land use and the economic feasibility of the re-mining operation.
  • Changes to traffic patterns during and after mining and development must be approved by the City’s Department of Public Works and Bureau of Traffic Engineering, and by PennDot where state roads are affected.
  • A racetrack, casino, retail and housing do not fit the lands’ current zoning, so further zoning review will be required by the Zoning Board of Adjustment or the city Planning Commission.

    And the list goes on. If you’re concerned about this project, your help is needed. Call GASP or email gasp@gasp-pgh.org for information on how you can make a difference.