Times Leader / Citizens' Voice/ Sunday Dispatch
September 28, 2014
The weary residents of West Pittston have had a difficult summer listening to the Army Corps of Engineers and Flood Authority Director Chris Belleman’s inaccurate, often infuriating, canned presentations and evasions to fact-based questions about flood protection.
For starters, inferences were made that West Pittston was never a part of the original WV Levee system. WP Tomorrow, on more than one occasion, has made public the original, detailed 1983 Army Corps drawings of a levee to protect our Borough.
The Army Corps itself concluded in 1981 that “all the various components of local flood protection in the Wyoming Valley function as a single, integrated hydraulic system. Economically and socially the Wyoming Valley also exists as a system and individual parts cannot be analyzed separately because of the complex interactions. . . . plan formulation and evaluation activities proceeded as if the existing projects were one system.” Furthermore, the Army Corp predicted in 1983 that, if West Pittston was not included in the system, 4 feet of induced flooding would occur in the Borough with weather similar to Agnes.
In 1986 Congress appropriated funds to design and construct the WV levee raising project, which consisted of raising the levee 3 to 5 ft., in five segments, including Exeter/West Pittston.
Downstream also had problems. The Corps predicted that Sunbury would have increased induced flooding by 1.5 ft. and Bloomsburg 0.6 ft. Both were stumbling blocks for the five-segment WV levee system. The solution was to raise the levees in Sunbury and remove an old railroad river bridge in Bloomsburg. Both mitigation measures were satisfactory to the town’s citizens.
In 1990, with costs escalating, the Army Corps issued a new report on induced flooding due to the proposed levee. It concluded that the $68 million authorized in 1981 for non-structural mitigation for communities left unprotected by the levee was too costly. This was the beginning of the end for a West Pittston levee.
By 1993-94, in an attempt to push the project forward by cutting costs, Luzerne County proposed its own Levee Raising Project Mitigation Plan costing only $37 million
Conveniently in 1995, the Board of Engineers for Rivers and Harbors recommended that the West Pittston segment be included as a mitigation feature -- no levee -- and not as part of the levee project. Contrary to the Army Corps statement about “a single, integrated hydraulic system,” Rivers and Harbors reasoned that the West Pittston levee was separable and not integral to the main project.
The Army Corps removed West Pittston as part of the levee system freeing $24 million -- the cost of a West Pittston levee -- to be used elsewhere. The Exeter portion which is upstream of West Pittston at Hicks Creek was built, making West Pittston the only gap and the spill basin for Wyoming Valley.
Not only was the entire project cost lowered by $24 million by West Pittston’s removal, but additional millions were saved by eliminating the need to mitigate elsewhere in the valley. The Army Corps said in its 1990 study that “this change [no levee in W. Pittston], in effect, would lower the water surface profile throughout the reach where Port Blanchard and Plainsville are located.”
Because the Army Corps had now created a “spill basin” in West Pittston, predicted induced flooding in towns like Port Blanchard and Plainsville were reduced from 4 ft. to 1 foot. Accordingly, millions less were required for non-structural mitigation in those areas and, overall, the ever-increasing production costs due to delays were lowered. The stalled project moved forward . . . on the backs of the residents of West Pittston.
Of course some money had to be set aside to appease West Pittston and other unprotected communities when the water came rushing in.
Luzerne County’s plan set aside $11.2 million for what was called “non-site specific structural elements” which were to include property acquisition, structure raising, structure flood proofing and small-scale public works. Also $5 million was set aside under “non-site specific elements” for flood insurance vouchers, $2 million for a flood warning and response program, and $1.5 million for a floodplain management program.
To satisfy the fears of downstream communities, the county plan called for $1.5 million to raise the walls in Sunbury and $1.8 million for the Bloomsburg bridge removal. Those were completed as part of the WV project. Last -- but not least -- inexplicably $14 million of the total $37 million was budgeted for then Rep. Paul Kanjorski’s recreational dream -- an inflatable dam for the Susquehanna River at Wilkes-Barre.
That inflatable dam, by the way, required no justification with a Benefit to Cost Ration (BCR) of 1 to 1, the same BCR that West Pittston flunked with a 0.3 to 1. The Army Corps, in its report, called the dam “economically justifiable.” The recent Wilkes-Barre twin portals project, costing ironically $24 million, required no BCR for justification and the Solomon Creek project in Wilkes-Barre was a section 205 study many years ago with a BCR of only 0.55.
So where does West Pittston stand today nearly three years after the devastation of Tropical Storm Lee?
None of the promised mitigation funds ever reached West Pittston. Our homes were not flood-proofed or elevated. No flood insurance vouchers to alleviate exorbitant premiums arrived. Asked why, former Flood Authority Director Jim Brozena lamented that even though the mitigation funds were promised they are subject to the annual budget constraints. Translated: Here’s our IOU, West Pittston, but we’ll decide when to honor our promises.
We are grateful to the Army Corps for sharing some information with us over the summer, but we won’t fall victim, yet again, to incomplete information and false promises. The very future of our beloved homes and community is in jeopardy.
In July Belleman said that the Army Corps looked at a length of river from Sunbury to Lackawanna County and found that in some areas the base flood elevation is going to change anywhere from 1 to 4 feet. “That’s significant. That changes everything,” he said.
Belleman warned, “once (Corps) had this information and … confirmed it, it would have been malpractice to not give this information to the public so they could make the appropriate decisions to how they conduct their lives, where they live and so forth.”
What does that mean? What is our fate? Will we welcome the heavy equipment as it rolls in to town to build our levee.....or will we be disappointed when we learn that its purpose is to dig a bigger “spill basin” so additional flood protection is not needed downstream?
Yes, it’s becoming increasingly obvious to residents of West Pittston that, “malpractice” is the operative word.
Levee Project Chairman
West Pittston Tomorrow