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Hempfield public works director faulted for damaging wetlands

| Sunday, Dec. 30, 2012, 11:42 p.m.

An internal investigation into who was responsible for damaging protected wetlands in a Hempfield park has exonerated a township supervisor and blames the public works director, according to a report.

Township attorney Les Mlakar said the work in Hempfield Park, ordered by Public Works Director Mike Volpe, was unintentional and resulted from confusion over whether Volpe needed a permit to perform work within a certain distance from the wetlands.

Volpe said he could not comment on the findings until he reads the report.

Mlakar concedes the township violated state environmental laws by excavating without obtaining a state permit.

While dredging a stream running through the park, workers deposited debris from the stream into nearby wetlands that are a habitat for plant and aquatic life, including turtles, minnows, fish and frogs. The vegetation includes cattails, wool grass, milkweed, a variety of rushes and rod osier dogwood, according to an engineering report.

Mlakar said it was the township's intention to construct a pond only to unclog drainage pipes that were causing flooding.

The investigation exonerates Supervisor Jerry Fagert from blame for the damage, Mlakar said.

At one point Fagert was interested in building a fishing area at the park, Mlakar said. After reviewing permit requirements and an opinion from the township engineer, Fagert decided to abandon plans for the pond because it “would not be economically feasible.”

“Neither Fagert nor Volpe were attempting to create an area in which a pond could be constructed,” Mlakar said.

Township employee Joe Svetkovich said he excavated the stream but was not questioned by anyone from the Westmoreland Conservation District or the state Department of Environmental Protection as to what he was ordered to do.

“I never was questioned at all,” he said. He declined further comment.

A violation notice issued by the DEP in May found that some excavated debris from the stream was used to “fill and relocate portions of two stream channels in order to redirect flow (of water) out of the wetlands and into the unnamed tributary of Brush Creek.”

Mlakar said Fagert had “no knowledge of the work” until he was notified later. He said Volpe misunderstood the “Fifty Foot Rule,” which requires a permit for any work done within 50 feet of a bridge or culvert or for a distance of 50 feet. Compounding the problem was Volpe's reliance on an inaccurate township drawing of the park, Mlakar said.

“Mr. Volpe indicated to us that he did not believe he was encroaching into any wetland areas,” he said. Hempfield excavated 200 feet of the unnamed tributary of Brush Creek and widened the channel to 10 feet, according to a violation notice issued by the Westmoreland Conservation District.

The dirt removed from the stream was dumped into the wetlands, creating a mound 200 feet long and 10 feet wide.

The state has ordered the township to fix the damage. Supervisors budgeted $150,000 next year to do the work and pay a possible state fine.

John Poister, a spokesman for the DEP in Pittsburgh, said the agency's investigation will not determine who is to blame for the violations.

“Our investigation focuses on the fact there was unauthorized work done that affected wetlands and was done without a permit,” he said.

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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