Dennis Barnes was chatting on his phone on his eighth-floor balcony when a heavy “thud” interrupted the call last month – as a 35+ foot section of concrete flood wall gave way to Cherry Run below him.
Only the wall did not collapse along the channel – an issue the veteran had worried about for years – the wall lay in the waterway.
“I heard him go,” Barnes said. “And I looked over there towards the (channel) and it was there – just sitting there.”
Barnes is concerned the danger poses a serious risk to the safety of the flood-prone community, including his Valley Pike Manor apartment building, which sits along the creek.
Johnstown public works officials have said they are working to remove the broken slab – but repairs to the canal itself are not yet scheduled.
The city’s director of public works, Jared Campagna, said he was alerted to the collapse of the wall more than two weeks ago.
But because the city does not own the canal and it operates in a designated waterway, its teams could not act until the Ministry of Environmental Protection approved the work.
The approval came on Tuesday – a day after The Tribune-Democrat contacted the Department of Environmental Protection about the damage and weeks after residents of Barnes and Roxbury, James and Charlene Stanton, began expressing their concerns.
But weather permitting, Campagna said crews could enter the channel and shred the broken wall piece by piece with jackhammers to remove it this week.
A “trackhoe” excavator will be used to lift the heavy pieces from the canal and load them onto a nearby dump truck for removal, he said.
“This wall is reinforced with rebar so it won’t be easy,” he said, noting that completing the job will take both time – maybe four days – and a hand. – of considerable work.
Removing the fallen section of the flood wall will solve the most obvious problem.
But the Stantons fear that the now exposed canal bank – a pile of rock, dirt, and freestone – could wash away or even threaten the integrity of the culvert a few feet downstream.
“It’s already a designated flood zone, and it’s only been deteriorating there all the time,” said Charlene Stanton, who has been writing letters to state and local authorities on the matter since the end of July.
In a city with a notorious past of flooding, canals like this “should be the number one priority,” she said.
Stanton is a former city council member who is on the ballot for a return to power in the November election. James Stanton is also a candidate for city council.
Charlene Stanton started raising concerns about the walls near Edmonds Place at least three years ago during council meetings, according to the minutes.
She said there must be repercussions for whoever is responsible for the neglected river wall.
But no one seems to know who owns the property, who is responsible for it, or when it was built.
The corps only oversees the city’s main flood walls, which border the Little Conemaugh and Stonycreek rivers.
Several local chains, including Cheney Run and Sams Run, were rebuilt and maintained by the Johnstown Redevelopment Authority in the early 1990s, under a contract with the city at the time.
But articles and documents from that time make no mention of Cherry Run, which passes by Bishop McCort Catholic High School and passes under Edmonds Place in 8th Ward.
The City, DEP and neighboring landowners all argue that they have no idea who is responsible for the channel section of the river.
DEP spokeswoman Lauren Fraley said the Cherry Run section was not part of any local DEP flood control project and, in an email, agreed that the town of Johnstown was not. not the owner either.
Bishop McCort officials hired a surveyor to write a report two years ago, saying they couldn’t find any evidence the school owned the land.
Fraley said state officials had researched the state’s environmental records dating back decades, even before the Environmental Protection Department was formed in 1995 – when the Environmental Resources Department launched been divided into DEP and Ministry of Conservation and Natural Resources.
And there is no indication that the state has ever approved the construction of a flood canal on this section of Cherry Run – let alone who owns the property.
Even if another agency, such as the Army Corps, took the lead on the project, there would be state records – either through the DEP or a previous agency, she said.
“We have permits that go back decades and, to our knowledge, this was not one of our plans, nor that of our predecessor,” she said.
This leaves at least two possibilities: The canal was built before state authorization. Or, it was built without the knowledge of the state.
This would mean that the project did not receive the required environmental approvals to make changes along a waterway and did not document the party responsible for maintaining the structure – a rare but not unprecedented violation, she declared.
In this case, that lack of records made it difficult to answer those questions, Fraley said.
“These are the types of issues that we deal with,” she said.
Regardless, Campagna said officials at Johnstown recognize that there is a serious need to remove the concrete obstruction from the canal bed.
“As it stands, it is a danger to public safety,” he said. “And we are not going to allow that to manifest itself in something detrimental to the community.”
Bishop McCort’s principal Tom Smith said staff had “glued” the area joining the school parking lot and the hillside to keep people away from the canal – and said they remembered that at least part of the wall had fallen before mid-July, sometime after the students left. house for summer vacation.
“It’s not a big concern,” Smith said. “We’re just happy to have this taken care of. “
“A way forward”
Stanton said it was absurd that the flood control project was built in the city and has been around there for decades, but no one seems to know its origins. But she and Barnes said they were hopeful the hallway itself could be fixed before the problem got worse.
Campagna said the river bank is not expected to pose a short-term security risk.
Above the banks, barriers have been added to warn people of the erosion of the canal.
Discussions are already underway with state officials and the Corps over a long-term solution for the channel, he said.
Fraley said the DEP was also involved.
Regardless of the project’s murky past, “our overall goal is to remedy this situation – to look at medium and long term options to develop a way forward to address this problem,” she said.
“From our perspective,” Fraley said, “that (channel) is very much on our radar now. “