Upstream, Downstream: Making the Case for Protection

Invenergy, a Chicago-based corporation, has proposed a new 450-550 megawatt natural gas-fired power plant (called Allegheny Energy Center) along the Youghiogheny River in Elizabeth Township, Allegheny County. Invenergy is seeking zoning variances from Elizabeth Township to allow for construction of the plant in a residential district just downstream of Buena Vista, PA. Zoning ordinances affect land use by regulating what types of uses are permitted in each district (residential, industrial, commercial, etc.).   The zoning process allows us as citizens an opportunity to participate in decisions that have the potential to affect the character of our communities.

Presently the proposed site, though it has a long history of environmental misuse and was once used as a hazardous waste landfill, is stable. Remediation began in 2002 after DEP issued a consent order and the responsible parties agreed to a plan for cleanup. Deed restrictions were put in place pertaining to future development of the property; these have not been relevant until now. Many are concerned that development of this site for the power plant will destabilize the property and potentially uncover additional sources of pollution that could leach into the Yough.

We have joined with community members in Elizabeth Township to formally oppose the issuance of the two variances Invenergy is seeking for the proposed gas plant. Along with members of the newly formed group Protect ET (Elizabeth Township), we have engaged Fair Shake Environmental Legal Services to represent our interests in these proceedings.

When people think of the Youghiogheny River most think of the whitewater in the mountains—the river from its headwaters in West Virginia, through the section known as the Upper Yough in Maryland, and finally into Pennsylvania and through the small whitewater towns of Confluence and Ohiopyle. Through the mountains, the river corridor is largely protected and you won’t see a home or business or hear a highway for much of the way. The river gorge, the deepest in Pennsylvania, almost seems to wrap its arms around you.

As the river flows through Chestnut Ridge and off the mountain its character changes. The 46 miles downstream of Connellsville to the confluence with the Monongahela River are wider and slower and warmer. The river, as it winds toward McKeesport, makes for a much more lazy float. Water quality is improving from the coal and coke days, and the trout give way to a thriving smallmouth bass fishery. Birders enjoy frequent sightings of heron, bald eagle, and osprey. Kids float the river on inner tubes, people on canoe trips stop to enjoy rope swings and fishermen line the banks. Tens of thousands pedal along the river on the Great Allegheny Passage each year as they make the trek from Pittsburgh to Washington, DC. The Yough in this area isn’t nearly as secluded—which means it’s much more accessible to the thousands of people who live in the small communities, former mining towns rich in history, along the corridor. The river is very much woven into the fabric of these communities—many of which helped to fuel America’s Industrial Revolution. The people who live along its banks are forging new connections with the river as it becomes an important recreational amenity.

There is another important difference between upstream and downstream. Downstream, the river’s advocates are fewer. However, those who live and play here would argue it’s no less worth our protection and I agree. The Yough is an incredible asset. It is the lifeblood of the communities through which it flows. It is cleaner now than it has been in over a hundred years and it continues to improve. This progress must be protected.

Please join us this Thursday, February 18th at 7 PM at Elizabeth Forward Middle School (401 Rock Run Road, Elizabeth). Your presence and input are incredibly valuable as we appeal to the Elizabeth Township Zoning Board to protect the character of the river corridor and deny Invenergy’s request for variances for the plant.

The river is our playground, our livelihood, and our home. The Yough is yours and she is mine. Let’s not give her up without a fight.