WAYNESBURG – They spoke of their memories of boating and fishing at Ryerson Station State Park and of the importance of the park, not only in terms of recreational opportunities but also in terms of its impact on the local economy, and all agreed the park lake, drained more than seven years ago, should be restored as soon as possible.
More than 40 people spoke at a public meeting Saturday at Waynesburg University held by attorney Thomas Rutter, a mediator hired to negotiate a settlement in litigation regarding the destruction of the dam that created the park’s 62-acre Duke Lake.
Those who addressed Rutter, including a number of employees of Consol Energy, whose mining has been blamed for the dam’s demise, spoke about the importance of the lake to area residents and the need for it to be restored.
“That was a destination for us as a family,” county Commissioner Blair Zimmerman said, speaking as an individual. He said he frequently took his children to the park.
“It was a good place to picnic and a good place to go out on the lake to fish,” he said. Zimmerman recalled that when he coached track at Waynesburg University, he also would take his athletes to Ryerson “and they fell in love with the place.”
The lake’s restoration is long overdue, Zimmerman said. “It’s our park and we want it back the way it was.”
The park is important for recreation, but also for the local economy, attracting tourists, fishermen, hikers and hunters to the area, said the Rev. Donald Wilson.
Restoring the lake will help restore a sense of pride and dignity to the area, he said.
“Too often, Greene County has been viewed as a forgotten area, neglected, overlooked, unimportant,” he said. “The way the dam sits now, that’s precisely what it says.” Restoring the lake will help restore pride; people will say “This is our area and we’re proud of it, we’re happy to be here.”
Jim Goroncy, a Consol miner, said everyone wants the lake to be restored for the recreational opportunities it offers the community.
But he also asked where the county would be without the coal and natural gas industries, which provide jobs, a tax base and business for local stores.
Goroncy said coal and gas companies must do their jobs in a safe and responsible manner, and he believes Consol does that. He said he supports the resolution of the case and restoration of the lake in a manner “equitable” to all parties involved.
Expanding cracks in the 45-year-old concrete dam forced the state Department of Conservation and Natural Resources in July 2005 to drain the lake and remove part of the dam.
DCNR subsequently filed a claim against Consol suggesting the damage was caused by the company’s Bailey Mine, which was longwall mining near the park.
The state Department of Environmental Protection, which investigated the claim, determined the damage was caused by mining and ordered Consol to restore the dam.
Consol, which denies its activities caused the damage, appealed DEP’s decision to the state Environmental Hearing Board, where the case is scheduled for trial in May.
Rutter said it was important to him in agreeing to mediate the case to come to Greene County to hear from the people what they want in regards to Ryerson.
Though mediation is normally confidential, he said, he was authorized by the parties to offer a few of his own thoughts, “trial balloons,” to resolve the dispute. He emphasized the plan he mentioned has not been approved by parties to the case.
He said his thought is to have Consol pay the full costs of replacing the dam and in return be allowed to drill for Marcellus Shale gas, not in the park, but from property the company owns adjacent to park property.
The company also would donate property it now owns adjacent to the park, about 560 acres, to the state to increase the total park acreage, he said.
Rutter said he believes all parties want to see the dam rebuilt.
“One of the key and major considerations is that the dam be replaced at no costs or expense to the taxpayers, but rather at the cost of the coal company,” he said.
Consol, however, claims it has done nothing wrong and it has experts to say its mining activities were not responsible for the damage, Rutter said.
DCNR has experts, too, who say the company’s activities caused the damage. But remember, Rutter said, the state could lose the case and the company will pay nothing to restore the lake.
Mediation always requires “give and take,” Rutter said. If the parties can’t settle, litigation will continue. “I figure if it goes down the whole litigation route, I will be lucky if I’m in a nursing home when the case is finally decided,” he said. If not lucky, he said, “I’ll be looking at the scene from the walls of a crypt.”
In addition to hearing from more than 40 speakers, Rutter said he had received about 140 letters, all endorsing the restoration of the dam.