On Sept. 19, 2006, up to 500,000 cubic yards of rocks and dirt slid onto Ohio River Boulevard in Kilbuck, closing the highway for nearly two weeks and causing detours for thousands of commuters. It wasn’t just one of the largest landslides in Pennsylvania history, it also was the emphatic end of an argument and a lesson for the future.
The 75-acre tract on a hillside above the four-lane road was where Dixmont State Hospital had stood for years until it was razed and the ground prepared to build a Wal-Mart Supercenter. The project was highly controversial. Fearing traffic congestion and a negative effect on local businesses, a group called Communities First! opposed the plan but lost at every turn.
Then the ground shrugged. This upheaval came as a resounding “I told you so” and suddenly all parties had belated 20-20 vision. It became obvious that large construction should not have been contemplated on such a vulnerable slope. In their short-sighted zeal for development, Kilbuck officials should not have rushed to approve it.
The landslide had a bigger lesson for the future: Little communities like Kilbuck need to work with their neighbors on big projects in the context of countywide planning.
The future has arrived and at least the news for the site is good. After nearly eight years of work, at an estimated cost of $60 million. Wal-Mart’s developer is nearly finished with stabilizing the hillside. Although the chain sued to try and shift the blame for the landslide to everyone else in the project, it has done a good job with the site. In one respect, it’s fortunate that Wal-Mart was involved; it has the necessary deep pockets.
Trees will be planted and it is unlikely that anything will be built there. Although nearby residents can rejoice that nature’s triumph is complete, Allegheny County is still a quilt of 130 independent municipalities that co-operate — or not — according to their own interests. While the earth moved in Kilbuck, no major shift in thinking has occurred as a result. The final lesson was not learned.