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Botched dredging project's cost likely to climb in Hempfield

| Sunday, Nov. 25, 2012, 12:29 a.m.

Hempfield taxpayers shelled out more than $32,000 to dredge a creek running through a township park that damaged nearby wetlands, according to a review of bills and work orders obtained under the state's Right-to-Know Act.

Taxpayers can expect the costs to keep climbing because remediation work on the wetlands hasn't started, said a spokesman for the state Department of Environmental Protection in Pittsburgh.

“They haven't done any serious work yet,” John Poister said. “There's quite a bit more.”

Township Supervisor Jerry Fagert oversaw the work as part of his plan to create a pond similar to one at a Penn Township park.

Penn Township officials followed environmental guidelines when its pond was installed, said township attorney Les Mlakar, who also represents Hempfield.

The money in Hempfield was spent on engineering fees and materials, the invoices show. After the damage was discovered, the state ordered a halt to the work.

Neither Fagert nor board President Doug Weimer responded to requests for comment.

Poister said Hempfield will be required to sign a consent order that will commit the township to restoring the wetlands, which are home to a variety of plant species and wildlife, according to an engineering report. Both sides have exchanged recommendations on how the damage can be repaired.

“There's always a lot of back-and-forth on these things,” Poister said.

A DEP inspection in April found that the township had dredged 200 feet of stream channel and expanded the stream bed and banks to 10 feet, according to the report. The soil removed from the stream was dumped into the wetlands.

Township workers placed biodegradable logs, known as “coconut logs,” on the stream bed. The logs create pools that allow sediment to accumulate and stabilize the stream bed, the report shows.

The wetlands once were located on property where the Wal-Mart plaza was built on Route 30. As part of the deal to allow Wal-Mart to construct the store, the wetlands were recreated at the park.

Protection of wetlands is covered by the Dam Safety and Encroachment Water Management Rule, which is overseen by the federal Environmental Protection Agency. The act required Hempfield to file an impact statement with the Army Corps of Engineers before proceeding with any work.

Poister said Hempfield could be fined for causing the damage, but a decision on any financial penalty is a long way off.

“Fines are the last thing that we work on in regard to any incident,” he said. “Our primary consideration in this particular case is to restore the area. That's our No. 1 goal. We're not there yet.”

If the DEP decides to fine Hempfield, the amount could be substantial.

Earlier this month, the state fined a Beaver County man $137,800 for destroying wetlands by building a pond on his Marshall farm in Allegheny County. Francois Bitz of Baden destroyed 2 acres of wetlands in 2009 and 2010 when he built the recreational pond, according to the DEP.

Mlakar said he's not sure who is at fault because the project never was approved by the board of supervisors.

“I've looked at what occurred,” he said. “It's really a toss-up. I can't put my finger on who was at fault.”

Fagert, who oversees the department of public works, said previously that the dredging was done to remove debris from the stream bed. Mlakar said the consent order eventually will determine who was at fault.

Richard Gazarik is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 724-830-6292 or at rgazarik@tribweb.com.

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