1 July 2006
By Don Hopey
Dredging of sand and gravel from the Allegheny and Ohio rivers will continue for the next five years under new state permits that for the first time require the companies to do fish surveys, study water quality and fund habitat restoration.
The Department of Environmental Protection permits issued yesterday to Hanson Aggregates PMA Inc., Glacial Sand & Gravel Co. and Tri-State River Products and effective immediately, also continue requirements that the companies check for endangered freshwater mussel populations before they scrape the river bottoms.
DEP Regional Director Kenneth Bowman said the permits strike a "responsible balance" between the need to extract building materials used in regional road and construction projects and the protection of fish and mussel habitats.
The permits allow dredgers to operate on almost 100 miles of the Ohio and Allegheny rivers.
In the Allegheny they can dig in Pools 4, 5, 7 and 8, which stretch from Harrison in Allegheny County to Washington Township in Armstrong County.
In the Ohio River dredging is permitted in the Montgomery and New Cumberland pools, a stretch that runs between Baden and Midland in Beaver County.
Retreating glaciers left deposits of sand and gravel in Western Pennsylvania after the last Ice Age, and dredging companies have been scooping up the moraine deposits from the rivers for the last century.
But the practice has become increasingly controversial as environmental groups have charged that the practice causes riverbank erosion, damages fragile freshwater mussel beds and depletes dissolved oxygen in the deepest underwater dredge holes.
In an attempt to address those concerns, new sections in the permitted river areas will be opened for dredging only after mussel and fish surveys are conducted by the river dredging companies. Dredging will not be allowed where threatened and endangered species are found.
For the first time, five cents of the 30-cent-per-ton royalty that dredgers must pay to the state will be used to fund habitat restoration projects along the rivers. One of the first projects will be restoration of a former sand and gravel processing plant site in Murphy's Bottom, along the Allegheny in Armstrong County. Restoration will include opening up a 37-acre lake with a channel to the river to establish a new backwater river flow through the area.
Myron Arnowitt, Western Pennsylvania director of Clean Water Action, an environmental group that opposed the permits and sued the state when it issued the last five-year permit in 2001, said he hasn't reviewed the permits but the restoration project funding is a good idea.
"Mitigation was always required by law but never done before," Mr. Arnowitt said. "The settlement of our lawsuit required that mitigation be included in this permit."
He said the new permits don't address depth restriction concerns for dredging or limit the amount of dredge material that can be removed.
Dredging continues to be prohibited around dams, islands, bridge piers, pipelines and public water supply wells, and in Allegheny River Pool 6 and portions of Pool 8 to protect endangered mussel habitats.
The Army Corps of Engineers is expected to issue concurrent federal permits to the dredging firms soon.
The old permits ran out at the beginning of this year but were extended twice while details of the new permits were negotiated with the corps and the state Fish and Boat Commission.
(Don Hopey can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1983. )