In order to support even a single level 639 000 square foot distribution center with the access roads and parking to sustaining, it on the former Westinghouse R&D site requires the equivalent to mountain and hilltop removal for coal mining in West Virginia.  The geology of the terrain should be what determines if an area is suitable to the level of construction contemplated.  And if so, the developer should have experience in this kind of geology.

The deforestation and tearing off the mountaintops to get to the coal have led to increases in cardiovascular disease, lung cancer, pulmonary disease, and birth defects.  Many studies have detailed the human toll with any mountaintop removal.  Westinghouse took stewardship of the property, they took care of.  They designed responsibly, and they build responsibly, maintaining a landscape that also happened to be available to the community.  It did not abuse the land, it worked with the natural flow and layout of the land.

Westinghouse understood its responsibilities in determining how to use the land

With the size of flat space needed to support a huge distribution center, even if only one level, the land is being abused.  The watershed land is reduced by almost 50 acres, and what remains is graded and unsettled.  We are lucky in that the only mining was deep under the property, so there is no known drainage or mining contamination that too many of the surrounding municipalities have to deal with.  Such a natural area is rare in an urban-semi urban environment.  Cleary this area is ideal for a public park, but since local governments and agencies cannot afford to purchase the land, it must be developed, and in a way that matches what Westinghouse did when it was given the C 1 classification to build the campus.

Westinghouse understood that the C 1 was given to them for this campus environment.  And the borough later was specific in what alternate business would be considered in the 304 zoning code, page 35.  Manufacturing and distribution centers were neither “permitted” nor “conditional” use businesses.  There is no ambiguity with the borough’s intentions.  And they were reconfirmed in the 2016 Vision for the region on development, as well as the 2020 Survey and 6 conferences.

Removing topsoil, breaking up the loose and porous rocks of this area, and then shifting it around creates loose material that inevitably finds its way into the streams and stormwater pipes. The entire Pittsburgh region has had to continually deal with this issue and accounts for much of the additional charges and taxes needed to remedy this situation.

This is separate from the closed mine that lies at about the 1100 foot elevation below the 1200 foot elevation that the distribution center proposes to grade to.

Why is soil stabilization important?

Of concern is always that of differential settlement that causes cracks in a structure’s foundation and interior wall.  The amount of demolition rubble and mountain material to be moved in order to flatten an area large enough to support the building, parking, and roads is actually equivalent to removing a mountaintop.  The settlement of the foundation soil is a vertical displacement of the soil surface caused by the workload of the building.  Differential settlements are uneven and can cause numerous short-term and long-term damage to the foundation integrity.

The extent of the problem and level of concern depends on the assumptions.  Those who support the project will always indicate the minimum of risk and look to studies to support the most optimistic outcome by using their interpretations and assumptions. Realists look at comparable projects that did not meet the expected requirement and warn of the very real risks.

The plan is to utilize the soils, rocks, and building rubble to flatten the entire area to the single plane every distribution center needs for moving stock in and out.  That is, flatten the high areas, combine it with the rubble of the buildings, and use it all as fill.  Then build high retaining walls to keep it from collapsing on three full sides.

Before engineers jump all over these comments, let us consider who first developed this area, and the self-imposed limitations based upon their expertise.

Our concern about damage to the building, as well as the developer’s concerns, is usually shifted to the new buyer or tenant as the consequences normally take several years to manifest.  Engineers with pilings and other mechanical solutions can compensation to some degree, but the effects are almost always inevitable.

Why should we care about the loss of trees and watersheds?

This property may not have the toxic waste that a mine produces, but the topography changes create similar consequences.  Mountaintop removal has damaged or destroyed more than 2000 miles of streams in the 4 Appalachian states, yet by and large, has been allowed under current laws.  So even if the laws can be twisted to allow for an activity, does not mean that it is the right thing for the area.  With mines, once the mine owner leaves, it is the surrounding community that suffers and has to pay for remediation.

This part of western Pennsylvania has significantly unstable topography.  The landslides from the Westinghouse side of Beulah Road, now separated by the concrete jersey barriers, is just one example.  Drainage pipe damage for governments/agencies, as well as homeowners, is not unusual.  There are examples in every community where soil shifting has affected both storm drainage and sewer.  You can see something similar on  RT. 22 at the Shop-and-Save.

Let’s be clear, the footprint (meaning the amount of the topography that will need to be moved) will be the same for a single-level distribution center as for the proposed 120 foot high multi-level proposed.  The only difference will be the massive weight of the building upon the unstable fill.

We do not address the loss of watershed or soil stability from the roots of the trees to be removed, as this is part of another discussion.

Reminder: Go see a real distribution center

If you have never seen a distribution center, see for yourself with an onsite visit to appreciate not just the building, but also how and where the semi-trucks enter and leave the facility.  The number of big rigs dwarfs the impact of the employee vehicles. Spend at least half an hour observing, then you will appreciate that on average 350 semi’s/day are needed to supply a facility between 300,000 and 500,000 sf.

Then imagine a 630,000 single-level distribution center on the Westinghouse site.  And finally, imagine 5 such centers stacked one above the other. The 4 and ½ levels on the application are actually 5 levels that are taller than the Penn Center office buildings in Wilkins.  It just means that ½ the top level will be open and used for other activities.

Westinghouse developed an academic like environment, not an industrial site

Westinghouse saw this location as a campus that created new products and applications for the company. It was designed from the beginning to maximize the use of the area and allow for the growth of that creative environment in a campus environment.  Diverse landscaping was an integral part of the basic design plan.

Westinghouse attracted the brightest and best that the Carnegie and Mellow institutions (two separate institutions in those days) could produce. During the ’50s and ’60s, it specialized in nuclear power plants.  One of the specialists required in designing a nuclear power plant was soil mechanics.  So Westinghouse hired the best soil mechanics engineers possible.  This same specialist provided their expertise in the design of the Campus that the company wanted for the location.

Westinghouse utilized them in designing the master plan using every usable square foot possible while remaining good stewards of the land, and within their commitments to the Churchill residents at the time.  It understood topography as few others could.  So in addition to the aerial design for visual recognition, the Westinghouse design team decided the optimum location for each of the buildings on the campus.  It filled in where necessary, stabilized that fill, and made sure that they were in areas not subject to destabilization.

Consequently, today we can say that the existing developed footprint, meaning the buildings, the underground connections, the roads, and the parking area at the maximum use of the property and are the best definition of where future development must utilize.

What is reasonable topography destruction?

Now it is understood that all distribution center construction projects require soil preparation prior to foundation construction.  Since nearly all, ( all that we can identify at this time) are on relatively rural and flat land or on tracts like former auto assembly plant sites, the topography changes needed to create the level surface for these projects this will be new for Hillwood.  As professional developer’s, they will certainly know how to find the supporting experts for the design, but that does not change the fact that a distribution center, even a single level, that requires radical leveling of the property is not the correct use of the land or in the best interest of the community.

Their engineers will design to the minimum standards that can be accepted by the borough engineers, and any residual consequences will be left to the tenant and the borough, as they are quickly moving on to the next project, wherever it is.

It is a world of difference between grades 5 to 10 feet in an industrial park compared to 50 to 100 feet in the elevation changes found on the Westinghouse property.  Add to that that most of the buildings using fill are 30 to 50,000 sf properties, and not a multi-level 3.5 million sf structure.


Consequently, the borough should limit any development to the actual areas that Westinghouse developed. And that is a significant amount of area that can generate important income for the borough and school district without required traffic bottlenecks that are inevitable from a distribution center.

Murray Bilby
2424 Churchill Road
March 1, 2021

There are numerous publications related to the geotechnical aspect of nuclear power plant construction.

( actually a steep hill in this case)