Allegheny County may soon see another mining operation on public parkland.
County Executive Rich Fitzgerald says he's pursuing proposals to mine coal underneath South Park, excavating a five-foot seam he says could be worth $3 million. In August, he received the blessing of the Friends of South Park, who want the money for renovations.
"This was a decision that was made by the community, not by me," he told county council at its Tuesday night meeting.
The seam runs beneath the old fairgrounds, now known as the Oval, which is the target of a multi-million dollar renovation project that has yet to be fully funded. In August, Mr. Fitzgerald told South Park advocates mining the coal could delay improvements by two years, but assured them the Oval would be restored by the mining company.
The executive would like to split any proceeds down the middle, with half going to South Park and the remainder funneling into the overall county parks system.
David Buchewicz, chairman of the Friends of South Park, is cautiously optimistic. That three-phase improvement project isn't going to fund itself, he says, but he wants to make sure the park will remain pristine through any mining operation.
"A lot of good things could happen out of that money. But is it worth extracting it?" he asked. "If there's coal there and it can be taken out the right way and there's no problems, I'd be for it."
Mr. Fitzgerald has at least two allies on council: John Palmiere, D-Baldwin Township, and Michael Finnerty, D-Scott. Mr. Palmiere said mining proceeds could be used for road improvements; Mr. Finnerty mentioned that making improvements without removing the coal could lead to acidic runoff.
"All that's doing is running into the stream," he said Tuesday.
Councilman Nick Futules, D-Oakmont, chairman of the county's parks committee, said he's opposed to the plan as pitched, fearing a coal mine on county parkland could leave council holding a brownfield if the mining company goes bust.
The county already hosts mining operations in Settlers Cabin Park.
Tuesday's council meeting also saw the first public conversation between Mr. Fitzgerald and council member Barbara Daly Danko, D-Regent Square, since Ms. Danko earlier this month introduced a bill calling for a moratorium on drilling in county parks.
Ms. Danko, once a Fitzgerald ally, submitted her proposal after the executive proposed drilling for natural gas beneath Deer Lakes Park. At Tuesday's meeting, she challenged his timetable, saying there's no rush to sign a deal, even though energy company Range Resources has already leased much of the surrounding property.
"I do question your assertion that this is inevitable, even with the people having adjacent leases," she said. "The big piece of land is the county park."
But before that, she extended an olive branch. "There is nobody who works harder for this county than Mr. Fitzgerald," she said, as the executive looked on. "That doesn't mean we always agree on everything."
Correction, posted Sept. 25, 2013: The story has been corrected to show that Barbara Daly Danko, D-Regent Square, earlier this month introduced a bill calling for a moratorium on drilling in county parks.
Andrew McGill: email@example.com or 412-263-1497.