Oklahoma Borough set to remove toxic rubble from Belvedere Hotel fire scene | TribLIVE.com
Valley News Dispatch

Oklahoma Borough set to remove toxic rubble from Belvedere Hotel fire scene

Mary Ann Thomas
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The remains of the former Belvedere Hotel in Oklahoma Borough after fire destroyed the historic building on Wednesday, July 24, 2019.

Oklahoma Borough now has the funds to demolish the Belvedere Hotel after a July 24 blaze reduced it to a pile of asbestos-contaminated rubble.

The demolition plans do not include closing Route 66 near Orr Avenue and Apollo Bridge.

That will spare the 11,000 cars that travel the busy stretch of Route 66 daily, said Lee Schumaker, code enforcement officer for Oklahoma Borough and the demolition project coordinator

Because of the presence of asbestos and uncertainty of other toxic materials in the rubble, borough council Aug. 5 declared an emergency to get it cleaned up faster. The borough deemed the ruins a “public health hazard to the residents and traveling public.” That allowed officials to speed up the process to obtain state approvals and various funding sources.

Plans for the $85,000 demolition project call for closing Orr Avenue from Hancock Avenue to Route 66 to serve as a staging area, Schumaker said. McCutcheon Enterprises Inc. of Allegheny Township, which specializes in removing hazardous materials, has been awarded the contract.

“Public safety and impact on commerce were the big things,” Schumaker said.

Work to happen soon

The cleanup, which will take five to seven days, is expected to begin in the next two weeks, he said.

Apollo, across the Kiski River from the site, is impacted the most.

“Keeping that section of Route 66 open is very important to the health and safety of residents in addition to bringing business into town,” Mayor Cindee Virostek said.

When Bill Naser, owner of Naser’s foods on Route 66 across the street from the Belvedere, heard about the plan, he said, “That’s great. That makes me feel good.”

He has seen numerous road closures since the store began selling groceries in 1983 and meats in the late 1970s.

When the road closes, he loses customers, especially the “work rush.” People coming home after work on Route 66 headed to the Apollo Bridge stop and shop.

“I appreciate someone considers the thousands of people who use this road and the businesses that depend on them as customers,” he said.

The money’s source

The cleanup project has been a multi-agency effort.

Schumaker credits the Westmoreland County commissioners, PennDOT, state Department of the Environmental Protection, Oklahoma Borough and state Rep. Joe Petrarca, D-Washington Township, for pulling the project and funding together.

Westmoreland County Planning and Development is awarding $75,000 to the borough for the cleanup, said Jason Rigone, director of Westmoreland’s Department of Planning and Development. Oklahoma Borough is kicking in $10,000.

Westmoreland’s contribution for the hotel’s demolition is from the county’s Demolition Fund. It was created a couple of years ago through a surcharge placed on deeds and mortgages filed at the courthouse. Officials this year allocated $205,000 from the fund to knock down eight blighted structures throughout Westmoreland County.

Commissioners on Thursday approved the emergency allocation and said the county’s Redevelopment Authority, which operates the Demolition Fund, will be in charge of removing what’s left of the former hotel.

“This is a unique circumstance that is basically an emergency to clean up that site,” Commissioner Ted Kopas said. “It’s not just blight, but a hazard.”

The Belvedere would have qualified for a grant from the fund even before the fire, Rigone said.

But the fire created a new urgency.

“With reports of asbestos on site, the proximity of the hotel to a major artery such as Route 66 and a Norfolk Southern rail line, we felt it was imperative that we address this issue quickly,” Rigone said.

Oklahoma Borough is in the process of assuming ownership of the charred remains and small parcel as the owner, Lanna Planitzer, is expected to sign over the property, according to Schumaker. Planitzer could not be reached for comment.

Earlier this year when the borough planned to raze the structure because it is unsafe and leaning toward Route 66, borough officials determined that Planitzer was unable to pay for demolition.

With a population of 915 and an annual budget of only about $162,000, the borough has been looking for financial assistance to take down the famously dilapidated Swiss chalet-inspired hotel.

45 dumpster loads

The DEP has been and will continue to supervise the cleanup according to state regulations.

The only potential public risk is exposure to airborne asbestos particles. DEP has determined that misting the charred remains of the hotel is sufficient to prevent fugitive dust particles escaping from the site, DEP spokeswoman Lauren Fraley said.

Oklahoma Volunteer Fire Department has been and will continue to mist down the debris.

Schumaker estimated there are about 40 to 45 dumpster loads of debris, which will be hauled in lined trucks with covers.

McCutcheon Enterprises is still working on the details of the cleanup, said Calvin McCutcheon, company president.

Perhaps a plaque

The borough plans to keep a back stone wall that is at least 40 feet tall and was built into the hill to anchor the hotel. The wall is stabilizing the hill, Schumaker said.

The borough wants to have a plaque installed on the wall documenting the iconic hotel site.

The cause of the fire, considered suspicious, is still under investigation by state police.

Mary Ann Thomas is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Mary at 724-226-4691, [email protected] or via Twitter .

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