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Public hearing airs out dredging concerns

| Thursday, March 22, 2001, 12:00 p.m.

Environmentalists and local residents are concerned that continued dredging of the Allegheny and Ohio rivers will cause additional habitat damage and riverbank erosion.

At issue is whether the state should continue to issue permits to allow dredging.

'In my definition, dredging is the removal of sand to keep the channel clear,' said Pat Conrad, a resident of Industry along the Ohio River for 45 years. 'They are harvesting a natural resource. They take out all the good stuff and put back the bad stuff.'

Conrad was among the speakers at a public hearing this week conducted by the state Department of Environmental Protection. About 75 people attended the hearing Monday at Springdale High School, and more than 15 people made public statements.

Four dredging permits were issued by the DEP on Dec. 26 to Pioneer Mid-Atlantic, which has a hub in New Kensington, Westmoreland County; Glacial Sand and Gravel of Kittanning, Westmoreland County; Tri-State River Products of Beaver, Beaver County; and Lane Construction of Heidelberg.

But the permits were suspended Jan. 24 because DEP officials forgot to advertise a 30-day public comment period in the Pennsylvania Bulletin.

But the environmental hearing board allowed the companies to restart dredging on a temporary basis after the companies proved they were being harmed financially by the action. The temporary permit lasts until April 16.

At stake are five-year dredging permits from the DEP. The DEP will issue a response document to the public comments sometime in April before it decides whether to reissue the permits, said Betsy Mallison, a DEP official.

Officials from the Allegheny County Sierra Club expressed their opposition to the dredging.

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and state Fish and Boat Commission officials talked about their objections to river dredging and said any official permits should be withheld until an environmental impact survey is completed. An official said the survey would be completed in a few months and be available for public comment.

Officials and residents expressed concerns over river habitat damage, erosion and water quality.

Springdale Borough Councilman Jim Dugan said the borough has not yet had water-toxin problems.

'We could lose our aquifers on ground wells,' Dugan said. 'We would have to put in a new water treatment facility, which could be very expensive.'

A representative from PPG Industries said river dredging might have caused warmer groundwater temperatures that could hinder mechanical operations of the plant in Springdale.

But industry representatives maintain the validity and environmental safety of river dredging.

'We still have people telling stories,' said Dan Giovannitti, spokesman for the four companies. 'People can have feelings, but there's no facts behind them.'

He pointed to one discrepancy in which people claimed the companies resold aggregate for $15 and more per ton, but Tom Bryan of Tri-State Industries said the dredged sand and gravel is resold for about $3 to $6 per ton.

Still, Doug Rehak, an Allegheny Township resident for 13 years, wonders why his riverside property and beach shrunk and sharpened to an angle. The prolonged dredging has him concerned about the gravel's ability to renew itself.

'Take a box of rocks, dig into the center and see what happens,' Rehak said. 'And then jiggle the rocks now and again. Figure out what happens.'

Jeff Jones is a reporter for the Valley News Dispatch in Tarentum. He can be reached at jjones@tribweb.com .

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