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Last gasps for Allegheny dredging

| Sunday, July 21, 2013, 12:16 a.m.
Jason Bridge | Valley News Dispatch
A dredging barge prepares to begin dredging the Allegheny River in the Clinton Pool above Lock 5 as seen from Gilpin Township on Wednesday, July 17, 2013.
Eric Felack, Valley News Dispatc
The Lock and Dam No. 5 above Freeport on the Allegheny River. Eric Felack | Valley News Dispatch
Jason Bridge | Valley News Dispatch
Allegheny River Lock No. 5 is seen from the Schenley section of Gilpin Township on Wednesday, July 17, 2013.

Environmental regulations finally killed the dredging industry on the Allegheny River — a desired result for some and the end of an era for others.

The sole remaining dredger on the Allegheny, Hanson Aggregates, plans to not renew its dredging permit when it expires at the end of the year. That's according to Tom Chizmadia, senior vice president of government affairs at Lehigh Hanson Inc. headquarters outside of Dallas.

“After decades of dredging on the river, the minable reserves have diminished,” Chizmadia said.

Currently, the company is permitted to mine a one-mile stretch of Pool 5 near Gilpin.

“Right now, there are not any economically permittable reserves, given the regulatory restrictions on where you can and cannot dredge,” he said.

Its days were numbered anyway, as the supply of sand and gravel deposited in the Allegheny River bed after the last Ice Age is limited.

But regulations covering drinking water quality, integrity of the river banks and aquatic life in the river eventually choked the industry.

There is still sand and gravel dredging on the Ohio River.

Death of an industry

In the past decade, dredging companies have complained about excessive and expensive surveys to check for endangered species of mussels and severe limits on where they could dredge.

Hanson is the last of several companies that have mined the rich reserves of sand and gravel lining the bed of the Allegheny River, which has been a main ingredient in road material and building supplies for more than a century.

Glacial Sand & Gravel of Kittanning stopped dredging on the Allegheny in 2009.

“I grew up with the industry and we saw many changes in the regulatory climate and it reached a point where the economics of commercial dredging did not work anymore,” said Mark Snyder, secretary of Glacial Sand & Gravel, which currently operates land-based quarries in Armstrong and Butler counties.

“We were saddened to exit the industry and to lay off a certain amount of employees and relocate a certain number,” he added.

It's unclear if and how many of the jobs for about 25 Hanson workers on the Allegheny will be lost.

Chizmadia declined to comment on possible job losses. He said that the company met with workers last fall to discuss the shutdown of operations.

“It's sad,” said state Rep. Jeff Pyle, R-Ford City. “It's the end of an era — a premature finish.

“We gave that all up for some river mussels that we'll never see.”

Myron Arnowitt, Pennsylvania state director of Clean Water Action, who has been working the dredging issue since the 1990s, countered: “If we had decided that we don't care about endangered species and just mined out that section of river, maybe we would get another year or two.

“The reality is everybody knew this industry was going to come to the end. It's not a surprising thing.

“Companies move on,” Arnowitt said. “That's what the mining industry is like: Once they get their resource, it's gone.”

But industry representatives and Pyle insist that government regulations did much to hamper the business.

Pyle said permit and regulation requirements of the federal Environmental Protection Agency, the state Department of Environmental Protection and the state Fish and Boat Commission “make it so difficult.”

“Environmental regulations restricting dredging to certain areas — clearly we want to respect that,” Chizmadia said. “But that defined area got smaller and smaller.”

Increased regulations

Dredgers have to comply with a number of regulations, including respecting buffer zones around riverbanks, islands, locks and dams. They also must search for, and then avoid, endangered mussels in the Allegheny.

“To me, the biggest issue about the gravel dredging is that it wasn't just about the mussels,” Arnowitt said.

“The mussels can't move,” he said. “You rip out the gravel and they're gone. It's very straightforward.

“(Dredgers) were removing habitat for fish and what fish in the river were depending on: the plants and insects that live in the riverbed gravel,” Myron said.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers kicked off a series of restrictions beginning in 2006 that dredgers predicted would kill the industry within a decade or so.

“Our biggest program focus is to achieve a balance between having a healthy environment and providing for business growth and opportunity,” said Scott Hans, chief of the regulatory branch of the Army Corps' Pittsburgh District.

“If Hanson closes its doors on operating a dredge on the Allegheny River, there will be employees without jobs,” he said. “They may have an opportunity to move on the Ohio River or move onto something else. We don't take that lightly.

“We also know that people want to make sure when they turn on their faucet, the water will be as clean as possible, while other folks want fish to catch, and the mussel population makes the water even cleaner.”

Accommodating those interests has meant that there's less river bottom to mine.

Just protecting the shoreline buffer, on average, takes up at least one-third of the Allegheny River, according to Hans.

Places where companies could dredge continued to shrink.

“It's not just the regulations,” Hans said. “But some other areas have been extensively dredged already, for example Pool 7.” Pool 7 is immediately north of Kittanning.

And some areas are silted over.

“If you talk with industry, the entire river bottom isn't sitting there with perfect gravel material,” Hans said.

The presence of endangered mussels protected other areas from dredging.

And noise restrictions in Pool 4, close to the River Forest community in Allegheny Township, caused work restrictions.

Residents there fought and won a tussle for limited work hours and less noise from the dredging operation that set up shop in their backyards.

When the industry first started, nobody really cared nor saw the clamshell diggers out in the rivers, save for boaters. It was basically an invisible industry.

But with the growing importance of cleaner rivers, a variety of fish species and the environmental integrity of the river, studies have focused on the impact of dredging.

Dredging has pockmarked the river bottom with craters.

A study by the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy has found holes as deep as 70 feet just north of Freeport.

Another study by University of Pittsburgh Center for Healthy Environments and Communities found that dredging operations on the Allegheny stirred up wide swatches of sediment, churning up varying levels of metals and toxins in some places.

Mary Ann Thomas is a staff writer for Trib Total Media.

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