SWOYERSVILLE — Borough residents packed an American Legion hall Wednesday, armed with questions for local and state government agencies and leaders regarding the upcoming removal of a long-time eyesore.
The Harry E culm bank, owned by Pagnotti Enterprises, is adjacent to Main Street and covers 55 acres. During a public forum Wednesday, residents finally had a chance to learn about the removal process and what could come next.
“The breaker came down a few years ago, and the culm banks and the environmental degradation continued,” state Sen. John Yudichak said of the site. “It’s a safety hazard — whether it’s children playing in the culm banks or riding quads. And there’s runoff.”
Some $3 million in federal grant money has been secured to begin removing 15 acres of the culm bank that runs behind Slocum Street. The process of removal will begin this summer and is expected to last three to five years at a cost of about $12.5 million, Yudichak said. Several companies from the private sector will be involved in the project, including Northampton Generating Company and Keystone Reclamation. Once the culm bank has been removed, the space can be used for a variety of purposes, including a green space or residential or commercial properties. About 7 acres of the site that runs adjacent to Roosevelt Field will be donated to the borough for community use.
“They’ve worked throughout Northeastern Pennsylvania taking this coal refuge and turning it into renewable energy — to electricity,” Yudichak said of the companies involved in the project.
‘Doesn’t bother me’
However, some residents were less than pleased with the way the meeting was handled, some even choosing to argue about the merits of the project with Yudichak and state Rep. Aaron Kaufer. While several citizens interviewed declined to give their names, many repeated the same theme — concerns over dust, damage to their homes and pollution during the removal process as well as what would come of the space once the bank is gone. Another major gripe was the way the meeting itself was conducted. Rather than a standard question-and-answer session, residents were asked to walk around to different participants involved in the project to look over plans and raise questions on a one-to-one basis.
Swoyersville resident Rich Stefanoski’s home is within the project’s scope, but he doesn’t think the culm bank’s removal is urgent.
“It doesn’t bother me, I can go either way,” he said, acknowledging that he expects concerns with noise and dust. “It’s been there my whole life. It would be nice to see a nice fancy development there, though.”
Residents that live within 300 feet of the site were asked to sign a waiver at the meeting to confirm they are aware of the project.
Representatives from both Northampton Generating Company and Keystone Reclamation were on hand to address concerns from residents. Looking down at a map of the site, Steve Bodnar and Matt Cochren moved their fingers across Main Street and down Slocum Street as they showed Forty Fort council member Jeff McLaughlin the route the trucks would take to remove the culm.
About 500,000 tons of material will be removed by the companies and driven by truck. It will then be converted into electricity to be used by power plants, with the remaining ash to be sent to an ash pit near Hazleton, Cochren said. In conversation with McLaughlin, Cochren added that the trucks transporting the material will abide by a strict set of regulations to prevent pollution and dust.
“I think the most we’ve heard is ‘How is this going to affect my house?’ or ‘What if my water line breaks, or my sewer line breaks?” he said.
Both men said residents need not worry about any type of line breakage in the area, as there are no lines running under the current site. Roads will not be closed, and traffic shouldn’t be an issue once the project begins, they added.
Some residents feared the reclaimed site would become low-income housing units.
“I think they should let it in place. You don’t know what you’re going to end up with if they take it away. You might end up with something worse,” Ed Johnson said. “I think most people are in favor of keeping it because they don’t know what’s going to end up there.”
When asked about the concerns, numerous Swoyersville leaders said something like that simply would not happen, including Swoyersville Mayor Christopher Concert and former Zoning and Code Enforcement Officer Joe Ruscavage, who spearheaded this project over a decade ago.
Concert added that the borough already has numerous low-income properties and they are not generally an issue.
“We want families to go there. Houses with backyards and trees and swimming pools,” he said of the project site.
For those residents unsatisfied with Wednesday’s meeting, Concert said he is working on setting up a second meeting that would involve a formal question-and-answer platform.