Wal-Mart may literally have buried any hopes they have of building a superstore in Kilbuck, Pennsylvania, but the company is now trying to dig itself out from one of the worst environmental messes they have ever created, and a public relations collapse as well. This week, a Wal-Mart official had to apologize before a crowd of residents for a massive landslide that took place last September. The landslide dumped 500,000 cubic yards of earth, closed Route 65 for nearly two weeks and closed all three main line east-west tracks of the Norfolk Southern Railway for several days. One outbound lane of Route 65 remains closed. The company now promises not to leave the propertdy until it has stop sliding. “I am committing to you here tonight that Wal-Mart will do everything it can to remediate that site,” a Wal-Mart spokesman told more than 150 residents. “Safety is important to all of you, and it’s important to us.” That statement came during a public hearing convened by the state’s Department of Environmental Protection. Wal-Mart has proposed removing 850,000 cubic yards of soil from the slide area and dumping it at two locations in the rear of the property — away from Route 65. A 100-foot soil wall, reinforced with synthetic material, would be built in the front of the property along the highway, and a 70-foot wall would be built in the back of the property. The work could take until the end of 2009 to complete. Wal-Mart itself had to take over the cleanup of the site, after they were unhappy with the work being done by the developer, Kilbuck Properties. Wal-Mart has not publicly announced whether or not it will continue to propose a superstore on the site once it is “stabilized,” but local opponents have to take that outcome seriously. “Wal-Mart has not discussed or considered our development plans for the site,” the company told the media. “We’re not concerned about what the final footprint will look like. We’re concerned about one thing: site stabilization.” But its clear from such statements that another footprint is coming. Residents say Kilbuck officials bear some blame for the disaster, because township officials had to waive a grading ordinance, allowing steeper slopes at the site. The citizens group that organized to stop this store, Communities First, warned township officials that a landslide was possible at the site. But their warnings were ignored. The citizens group hired their own site engineer to review the plans for stabilizing the site. “The governmental authorities are being asked to very quickly approve a construction sequence which, while also being a purported solution to the hillside stabilization, is clearly the first step for developing the site into a “shovel-ready” parcel for development,” the engineer wrote. “While being called a fifty percent design, there is really very little detail provided for anyone to fully evaluate the proposed scheme and there are sufficient questions raised by the information that is provided to give cause for concern… they have not completed the design to the point where it should be approved by regulatory authorities. There are essentially no specifications written for the work and…there are still significant short and long term engineering and practical issues that do not appear to have been addressed.” After raising a series of technical questions about the massive reconstruction project, the Community First engineer concludes, “The current condition of the perhaps year-old project that Wal-Mart offered as a local example does not inspire a lot of confidence in this system as a long term solution, especially on a site where there would be absolutely no easy recourse in the event of a need for partial or total repairs or replacement… . we cannot see how design has progressed to the point where such operations can begin. Without completing the stability analyses to include the contingency of water pressure on the walls, how deep would the contractor go for the foundations? Without having tested the foundation materials for actual strength parameters, how can anyone know how long the bottom layer of the wall would have to be? What if it turns out that other measures, such as additional drainage features within the walls might be needed after the walls are under construction or, worse, that the walls would be inherently unstable with a slightly different set of design parameters? What would happen if after a period of consideration, there was public opposition to a wall that might have problems in the long term, yet the wall was under way? Or worse, if the wall was built and did not perform as planned, leaving everyone in the situation they were in last year, only this time maybe with a store and extensive activity at the top of the slope?” Wal-Mart will have to dig itself out from such skepticism before having any credibility in the community.
The Pittsburg Tribune-Review quoted one neighbor as saying, “I would never walk through those doors. If it slid before, what are the chances it will slide again?” You don’t need an engineer to understand that fundamental concern. Rather than stabilize the damage they have done, and then walk away, Wal-Mart appears determined to making its killing in Kilbuck. For earlier stories, search Newsflash by “Kilbuck.”