News Analysis: New River Dredging Permits May Impact Industry in Western PA

For the last 100 years, commercial dredgers have removed tons of sand and gravel from the bottoms of the Allegheny and Ohio Rivers. It's hoped that recently issued dredging permits will provide more protection for the rivers and some of their rare inhabitants. But these new rules may also wipe out the dredging industry in Western Pennsylvania. Ann Murray joins Matthew Craig with the details.

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OPEN: For the last 100 years, commercial dredgers have removed tons of sand and gravel from the bottoms of the Allegheny and Ohio Rivers. It's hoped that recently issued dredging permits will provide more protection for the rivers and some of their rare inhabitants. But these new rules may also wipe out the dredging industry in Western Pennsylvania. Ann Murray is here with the details.

M: The permits have been issued to protect some rare and endangered mussels that still live in the Allegheny and Ohio .

A: That's right. The clubshell and northern riffleshell mussels were declared endangered in 1993. They're both on the federal endangered species list because these mussels have disappeared in nearly all of the river bottoms where they traditionally lived.

M: These 10 year permits have been in the works for a long time, haven't they?

A: The US Fish and Wildlife Department and the US Geological Survey began diving in the rivers almost a decade ago. The agencies wanted to figure out where the mussels live and how dredging impacts their habitat.

M: How do these agencies think dredging affects the mussels' habitat?

A: They believe dredging harms mussel beds, stirs up sediments and reduces dissolved oxygen in the deepest parts of the rivers. That hurts fish populations, too. These assertions had an influence on earlier permits that led up to these more restrictive rules issued by the US Army Corps of Engineers.

M: How restrictive are these new rules?

A: The new permits limit areas where the three companies that dredge in Western Pennsylvania could work. The permits would restrict dredging in a 40 mile area of the Ohio River from the Ohio/ Pennsylvania border to Pittsburgh and about 70 miles on the Allegheny. The permits would also require the companies to do more careful mussel surveys.

M: What do you mean by that? What are mussel surveys?

A: The companies would have to make a careful check of where mussel beds are located. If the companies would locate beds, this could put even more restrictions on where they could dredge.

M: How much of the river area would be out of bounds?

A: The permits would restrict the amount of riverbottom available for dredging by 25 percent . Dredging in shallow parts of the rivers -areas less than 15 feet deep- would be restricted to about 10 percent of the sites where companies can work now.

M: Companies would also be restricted along riverbanks and around islands. How come?

A: The hope is that these wider areas where dredging is limited would stop erosion that's happening along the banks and islands. The Army Corps of Engineers says that the dredging redirects the river channels and causes more erosion. The dredging industry disputes the assertion that they're causing the erosion.

M: What do they say is causing the problem?

A: High water, river traffic that causes a lot of waves and navigational pools that restrict the movement of sand and gravel from redepositing along banks and islands.

M: Have the companies agreed to these new rules?

A: No, they're still reviewing the documents. They're worried about the restrictions. The dredging companies believe that the restrictions and costs of doing the mussel surveys could end up making it too expensive to continue dredging sand and gravel in this part of the Allegheny and Ohio.

M: Can they appeal the permits?

A: Yes. They have a couple months to appeal.

M: What does the Army Corps of Engineers say about the fact that they could put the industry out of business here?

A: They admit that the industry will have a shorter lifespan but said this permit was actually a compromise. Some environmental groups had asked for a complete restriction on dredging. The Corps said that was the best environmental option but couldn't do that because of economic considerations. The agency believes with the new restrictions, commercial dredgers still could keep up employment and dig out about 4 million tons of gravel and sand in the next ten years.

M: Most of the sand and gravel is used for road building. Where would it come from if it's no longer dredged from the rivers?

A: Additional land based quarries.

M: Thanks for the information, Ann.

A: Sure, Matthew