Sloppy sediment bedevils North Park Lake project
Two private contractors are feuding with Allegheny County officials over how to handle tons of soggy sediment dredged from the bottom of North Park Lake.
The dispute is over whether sediment hauled in trucks operated by Charles J. Merlo Inc. of Cambria County is too waterlogged to pile on a 65-acre dump site off Wildwood Road at the edge of the popular park, according to e-mails and letters the Tribune-Review obtained through an open records request.
Merlo and Allison Park Contractors Inc. complained that drying the sediment to comply with Army Corps of Engineers standards requires more time, equipment and money, but county officials contend the $12.9 million project to remove decades of sediment that was choking the lake will finish on time by May.
Tensions peaked in September when hauling stopped for five days and Merlo project manager David Stover accused Allison Park Contractors’ owner of using a truck to block access to the dump site.
“We were forced to send 27 haul trucks home and pay their hourly standby charges at great expense, despite diminished production,” Stover wrote in a Sept. 16 letter to Douglas Aiken, the county’s manager of construction engineering.
In a response four days later, Allison Park Contractors President N. David Shideler denied the incident and railed against the county-run dredging project.
“The county has developed a ‘shoot first; ask questions later’ policy,” Shideler wrote. “This policy is contributing to an already unsuccessful project, which has clearly demonstrated poor design, poor planning and poor management. This is uncharacteristic of an Allegheny County project, but yet, a reality.”
Officials at Merlo and Allison Park Contractors declined to comment for this story. Merlo’s contract is for $4.58 million; Allison Park Contractors’ is for $3.37 million.
County officials reopened negotiations on Merlo’s contract to try to settle the dispute and avoid paying more, county Public Works Director Joe Olczak said Thursday.
“It’s become a more complicated project,” Olczak said. “Unfortunately for us, this isn’t the type of project we do day in and day out.”
Olczak still expects work on the $12.9 million portion of the project to end on budget but acknowledged a “contingency” fund of unspecified size ultimately could pay Allison Park Contractors more money.
If County Council approves, the cost could rise to $15.9 million — primarily because officials expanded the original project, not because of problems with contractors, Olczak said.
Most of the money would pay to excavate Irwin Run, which would expand the lake by three acres and for repairs at the gatehouse and bridge that carries Pearce Mill Road.
“Everybody is doing everything they can to meet the May 1st deadline,” Olczak said. “We always have disputes between contractors. You can never project every nut and bolt of every project.”
County officials realized the lake was filling with sediment in 1978 and began planning to dredge the entire lake for first time since its 1937 dedication.
It wasn’t until September 2009 that crews began to drain water and remove decades of uncontrolled, sediment-laden runoff that created spots shallow enough to beach kayakers, endanger aquatic life and frustrate anglers.
When the project finishes, most of the lake will be 6 to 10 feet deep; the deepest part will be 24 feet near the spillway.
Olczak said a consultant the Army Corps hired told county officials the sediment taken from the lake must be dried to a 15-percent moisture content. Merlo delivered sediment to Allison Park Contractors with a 40 percent to 50 percent moisture content.
Merlo “has not made an adequate attempt to satisfactorily dry material from the lake bed before turning over excavated material to Allison Park Contractors,” Olczak wrote in a Sept. 17 letter to Stover.
Olczak said the 15 percent requirement is unrealistic and will be removed from Merlo’s contract.
Craig Carney, an Army Corps project manager, said having two contractors handling sediment removal complicated the project. He said everyone was aware of the requirement before work began.
The federal government contributed $5 million to the project, which paid for the Army Corps to drain the lake, remove about one-third of the sediment, plant lakeside flora and later create lake bed fish habitats, said spokesman Jeffrey Hawk.
“I think we’ve removed a lot of sediment with good technique, and I think we’ve all got our eyes on the prize, which is returning to the lake to the public,” Hawk said.
In another complication, just before the Army Corps began hauling sediment in the first phase of the three-phase project, officials discovered a portion of the Wildwood dump site was private property.
They had to scramble to obtain additional permits from the state Department of Environmental Protection and pay property owner Bobby Vosmaer $75,000 to gain access to his land.
Vosmaer, a former World Cup professional soccer player, owns 18 acres near Wildwood Road on the edge of North Park. He bought it in 2008 with visions of adding outdoor fields to his North Stars Soccer Club indoor complex.
“I’m hopeful that I can get some good soil and grass will grow, and I can use it for some soccer fields,” he said.
Olczak said he’s not certain whether the sediment-laden land later could be used to accommodate soccer fields.