Former site of landslide stabilized in Kilbuck

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After eight years, an estimated $60 million and a forest's worth of court filings, the abandoned Wal-Mart site along Route 65 in Kilbuck is finally reverting to nature.

Wal-Mart's contractor is nearly finished stabilizing the hillside, scene of one of the largest landslides in Pennsylvania history on Sept. 19, 2006.

"Pretty soon they're going to be done -- no more dust and it's going to be green," said Harry Dilmore, Kilbuck secretary and treasurer. "They're hoping to be done in June or July."

The ugly brown hill has started to turn green in recent weeks and it will be greener yet when the contractor, Cleveland Construction, plants 300 to 400 trees.

The site has been secured by a chain-link fence, and a retaining wall parallel to Route 65 has been erected to prevent another landslide from again inundating the highway and the adjacent railroad tracks along the Ohio River.

After Cleveland Construction departs, engineers will remain on site to make sure the hillside remains stable, and the state will continue to monitor it.

There are no plans to use the land for any construction because soil stability remains an issue and will for years.

"We compare it to Jell-O because it won't stay still. It's hard to control -- it creeps," said John Poister, spokesman for the state Department of Environmental Protection, which gets weekly updates on the project. "Wal-Mart has brought in the best engineering group that they could find to do this project. There are ground monitors throughout the site, and they are shoring it up."

As the work winds down, the legal dust also has settled, leaving Wal-Mart on the financial hook after trying to blame the slide on nearly everyone else involved in the original project.

Following an initial flurry of lawsuits, Wal-Mart took control of the site in May 2007 to stabilize the hillside.

The following year, the company sued 13 individuals and companies to recoup those costs.

By 2010, all of the defendants had either settled or been dismissed except one subcontractor, Senex Explosives of Fayette County.

Wal-Mart accused Senex of causing the landslide with a blast it set off Sept. 18, the day before.

Senex's lawyer couldn't be reached for comment last week and Wal-Mart said it could not comment on legal matters.

But in court documents, Wal-Mart said Senex should be held strictly liable for "abnormally dangerous activities."

Senex countered that it was just doing what it was hired to do within the specifications of its contract as a subcontractor for Penn Development, which handled the site preparation.

Judge Christine Ward of Allegheny County Common Pleas Court sided with Senex in December, essentially saying Senex could only be held liable if it was doing something outside of its contract without Wal-Mart's knowledge.

"Senex performed its work in accordance with the contract and Wal-Mart has made no claim for negligence against Senex," she wrote in awarding Senex summary judgment.

Wal-Mart also tried to argue that it was not in control of the site, but the judge rejected that tactic, too. In March, Superior Court denied Wal-Mart's petition for permission to appeal.

As of December, Wal-Mart estimated its costs for the stabilization at between $50 million and $60 million. The cost has only grown since then.

Meanwhile, state and local officials said it's unlikely that anything will ever be built on the site, where Dixmont State Hospital once stood, denying the tiny township any new property taxes. There also had been talk of a park or maybe some hiking trails, but the possibility of more lawsuits will keep the site empty for years to come.

With the planting of oak, maple and pine trees in the coming weeks, the hillside will eventually be reclaimed by forest.


Torsten Ove: tove@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1510.

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