Whitehall man sues to strip mine in South Park

| Friday, Oct. 10, 2008

A Whitehall businessman sued Allegheny County on Thursday over his effort to strip mine 93 acres in the Sleepy Hollow section of South Park.

Nello Fiore, 74, owns mineral rights he says amount to 700,000 tons of coal worth $100 million under South Park. The county, which owns the surface property, has denied Fiore's requests to mine the coal.

"If you owned the coal, what would you do?" Fiore asked. "I will live by (state Department of Environmental Protection) rules and regulations. It wouldn't last more than two years, and I'm going to build ballfields and pavilions. Any time you have a project like this, the end product shows it's worth doing."

As part of the post-mining land reclamation, Fiore has proposed constructing soccer, football, baseball and softball fields and has offered the county royalties that could top $1 million.

County officials rejected Fiore's proposal this summer after hosting a town hall meeting. More than 250 attended, mostly to speak against the strip mine proposal.

County Councilman Vince Gastgeb, R-Bethel Park, said the county will defend its position in court. He cited environmental concerns for neighbors and concern for the park.

"It can't be done in the manner he's suggesting. It would ruin that whole area," Gastgeb said. "It's a natural preserved area and it's a park. If Fiore wants to sue, he can get in line like everybody else to sue the county."

Fiore acquired the mineral rights from his brother when he died in 1996. The mineral rights were separated from the surface rights in 1902, before the county owned the land.

Fiore said the current sale price of coal, about $140 a ton for metallurgical grade, convinced him to act. The average spot price for coal in the Northern Appalachian region for the week ended Oct. 3 was $143 a ton for steam coal used to generate electricity, according to the Energy Information Administration. Metallurgical coal, used to make steel, typically costs more.

The Sleepy Hollow section of the park is the southern tip of the 2,000-acre park. South Park's master plan, developed in 2001, designates the section as an important biological zone that is the largest and most naturally intact area in South Park.

Kevin Evanto, spokesman for county Chief Executive Dan Onorato, said Onorato rejected Fiore's proposal in June and will defend that position in court.

Fiore is requesting the county pay him for the coal if he is not allowed to mine it.

"The county can't have both. Either someone has to let us mine the coal or pay us for the coal," said Tom King, Fiore's lawyer. "There's certainly going to be some inconvenience, but it's going to create jobs."

Fiore filed the lawsuit in Allegheny County Common Pleas Court.

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