Kilbuck landslide site still not stabilized 7 years later
By Tom Fontaine
Published: Monday, Feb. 18, 2013, 12:01 a.m.
Retail giant Wal-Mart continues to try to stabilize the site of one of the largest landslides in Pennsylvania history seven years after the Kilbuck hillside gave way, officials said.
“We are hopeful the project can be completed this year, but additional work may be required in 2014,” company spokesman Bill Wertz said.
The work can't end soon enough for Donna Kuban and others living near the site of the Sept. 19, 2006, landslide, which dumped 500,000 cubic yards of dirt and rocks onto busy Route 65 and adjacent railroad tracks.
Kuban, who lives a quarter-mile away, just wants the beeping to stop.
“It goes on at all hours of the day,” Kuban, 33, of neighboring Emsworth, said about the rumbling and beeping from trucks, bulldozers and other machines on the hillside that was home to the former Dixmont State Hospital.
“I'd just like to know what they've been doing up there all this time and when they're going to be done,” she said. She said she still gets nervous when driving by the hill.
Dixmont closed in 1984, and the site sat vacant for 15 years. The Ralph Stroyne family bought about 400 acres, including the old hospital site, which adjoined their property. The family sold 75 acres to Wal-Mart and other developers in 2005. Developers scrapped plans for a superstore-anchored development in 2007 when the hillside came down, and engineers couldn't determine the extent of the underlying geologic problem.
Wal-Mart sued the developer and several contractors in 2008 to recoup its costs; the suit is ongoing. For now, the company remains on the hook to pay to stabilize the site to state Department of Environmental Protection standards.
Wal-Mart said in court paperwork that it expects costs related to the failed project, including stabilization work, to exceed $50 million.
Officials from Cleveland Construction Inc., the contractor handling the work for Wal-Mart, declined to comment. Wertz couldn't provide specifics on remaining work.
DEP spokesman John Poister said the agency expects Wal-Mart to submit its final site stabilization plan this spring, detailing all that has been or needs to be done to prevent landslides. Officials from agencies including PennDOT and the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources will review the plan, Poister said.
Wal-Mart submitted an interim plan in July 2007 and since has kept state agencies abreast of its hillside activities, Poister said.
“They have really taken on the responsibility for this. That's a rarity, because you don't usually have a company that is as committed as they are to fixing this,” Poister said.
Although it's unknown when crews will complete work, Poister said that after the landslide, DEP pulled a permit allowing construction. He said it would remain “suspended in perpetuity,” making it “unlikely that anything else would be built there.”
Township secretary Harry Dilmore said he doubts anything could be constructed on the site.
“Obviously, it would be great for the township if something was (built there), but if it ends up being walking trails or a park someday, that would be cool, too.”
Kilbuck operates on a $500,000-a-year budget. Wal-Mart Real Estate Business Trust owns about half of the 75 acres that were slated for development, with its portion assessed at a combined $892,000. That generates about $5,800 a year in tax revenue for Kilbuck.
The average assessment of Wal-Mart stores in Allegheny County is about $13 million, according to county records. Based on the current tax rate, such a store would have generated about $85,000 annually for Kilbuck, almost one-fifth of the township's budget. It could have spurred development of other tax-generating businesses that tend to accompany Wal-Marts, including a planned Applebee's restaurant.
“(The economic loss) bothers me, but it's just reality,” said Kilbuck supervisors Chairman John Fader, who wasn't in office when the slide occurred. ‘The damn mountain fell off the hillside.”
Dilmore said contractors plan to build a retaining wall and plant trees that could help provide stability. Dilmore said he hasn't seen plans for the wall.
State officials said Wal-Mart must continue to monitor the hillside for years. Helen Delano, senior geologic scientist for the Pennsylvania Geological Survey, called Kilbuck “a complicated site” in a slide-prone region.
“Some known slides occurred as far back as 250 million years ago. The materials are such that they are prone to sliding. But certainly many of the recent slides in the Pittsburgh area have had a human component to them,” Delano said. “When you change the land for a building, especially to the extent that we are able to today, these things are going to happen.”
Gene Stiers of nearby Ben Avon thought the development was a risky proposition in the first place.
“I'm baffled when I drive past the site,” said Stiers, 37, as his children played in Emsworth's Marmo Park, below the hillside. “What could they possibly still be doing up there? Just plant some trees and get out of here.”
Tom Fontaine is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7847 or email@example.com.
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