Churchill, PA, September 8, 2021— Texas-based developer Hillwood is proposing to build a
2.9 million square foot distribution warehouse for Amazon in the middle of the residential community of Churchill, ten miles east of Pittsburgh, PA, on the former 133 acre site of Westinghouse Research and Technology Park. This development will level a beautiful hilly green campus, threaten wildlife and a possible endangered species, and destroy wetlands, 1400 mature trees, and a Native American trail–the Raystown Path–that runs through the property. The warehouse, fed by 1000-1500 employee vehicles and 700-800 tractor trailer trips/day, will operate 24/7 365 days/year. A grassroots group of residents, calling themselves Churchill Future, has organized in opposition to the proposal for a conditional use permit to build the facility.
Public hearings began on July 19, 2021 and have continued via zoom over eight nights thus far, with Hillwood’s attorneys Lafe Metz and Shawn Gallagher of Buchanan, Ingersoll, Rooney calling an Amazon representative and expert witnesses presenting results of traffic impact, lighting, and sound studies, as well as storm water, water quality and air quality reports. Sound expert Will Thornton, with Thornton Acoustics and Vibrations, was called by attorney Dwight Ferguson, representing some of the residents in Churchill Future. Mr. Thornton blasted the sound study by the developer, stating, “None of these noise mitigation measures address off site noise. These trucks will be traveling through surrounding communities and surface roads in these areas. The truck noise impacts, which are underestimated, will not be attenuated at all by the proposed noise barriers. Really, the only effective way to mitigate that truck traffic noise in this community is to eliminate it.”
Over 400 homes in Churchill are located less than 1000 feet from the property line for the proposed warehouse and two schools–Woodland Hills Jr/Sr High School and Pace School–are directly across the street from the site and a truck and employee vehicle entrance/exit. Dr.
Deborah Gentile, MD, Director of Allergy and Asthma Services and Medical Director of East Suburban Pediatrics, whose research was published in the Journal of Asthma in November 2020, was called on August 24th as an expert witness by resident and party objector Ruthie Rea. Dr. Gentile examined the impact of outdoor air pollution–in particular, particulate matter–on childhood asthma in schools near outdoor pollution sources in Allegheny County for 1200 children, half of whom attended the Woodland Hills Jr/Sr High School. The results found 40% of all the children in the study were exposed to pollution levels higher than current EPA standards. Many students at Woodland Hills Jr/Sr High School come from EPA designated environmental justice communities including Braddock, Rankin, and Turtle Creek. “High levels of exposure and related adverse health effects already exist for disparate populations at the proposed site,” Dr. Gentile reported, noting that this development would further worsen air quality and the health outcomes of students and residents in the area, and that the goal should be to lower already dangerous air pollution levels, not increase it.
In addition to asthma, Dr. Gentile testified that scientific evidence demonstrates that fine particulate matter (PM2.5), which is found in diesel emissions, is linked to decreased lung function and lung development in children and cancer, cardiovascular and respiratory disease, neurological effects, and premature death in adults, such that the Biden administration is expected to lower the EPA acceptable level of PM2.5 in response. This change would render the current annual level (as measured by the air quality monitor .9 mile from the site in Wilkinsburg at I-376) in violation and put residents and students at further risk with the proposed warehouse.
The destruction of approximately 100 acres of green space, coupled with the loss of 1400 mature trees and increase in impermeable surface, greatly increases the risk of area flooding and creates what is called a Heat Island Effect. Dr. Elizabeth Casman, Professor Emeritus in the Department of Engineering and Public Policy at Carnegie Mellon University and a Churchill resident, testified on August 31st, stating “After removing all the mature trees on the site, replacing greenery with concrete and asphalt and installing 79 large HVAC units and a one megawatt emergency backup generator, the site will become a heat island, from which hot air will pour into our neighborhood.” Without a cycle of flowing and evaporating water, these impervious surfaces have nothing to cool them down.
In her testimony, Dr. Casman pointed out a long list of errors in the impact studies submitted by the developer. The water quality study did not mention the major toxic chemicals in stormwater runoff from high-traffic areas. That study also contained an improperly filled-out spreadsheet–a major error–invalidating its results on the efficiency of its water filtration system. Dr. Casman further asserted that a 76-foot retaining wall, built to enlarge the site, will be located in the floodplain of a stream, pointing out that water seeping under the wall would destabilize it and be hazardous. Meanwhile, the PA Department of Environmental Protection identified 131 serious technical deficiencies with the stormwater management plan
(https://ecode360.com/documents/CH1558/public/618643474.pdf) and ALCOSAN has not agreed to accept the sewage from the facility. Dr. Casman also criticized the developer’s air quality and sound studies, saying they underestimated their respective predicted impacts, which were based on data from a flawed traffic impact study. The traffic impact study did not include the Parkway East, a glaring omission which invalidates its conclusions. Dr. Casman concluded that the deficiencies in the impact studies meant that the developer had not met its obligation in the conditional use process, so it should not be granted a permit to build the Amazon facility on the former Westinghouse property.
Residents also addressed traffic and pedestrian safety concerns in their testimonies. On August 31st, Anthony Wilson, a 20 year resident of Churchill who has three children still living at home and attending district schools, noted that his 13 year old son walks to his bus stop on the same road that would carry hundreds of tractor trailer trucks a day and is “concerned about children who walk to the school or attend the school” and their exposure to “toxic diesel emissions” and safety. He implored the Council to vote no on “any logistics warehouse in Churchill.”
Many residents’ testimony cited the applicable Borough zoning codes, which prohibit development that “is harmful to health…” and “shall not involve any element or cause any condition that may be dangerous, injurious, or noxious to any other property or persons…”, as well as some reminding Council of the Environmental Rights Amendment of the Pennsylvania Constitution, which states that “The people have a right to clean air, pure water, and to the preservation of the natural, scenic, historic and esthetic values of the environment…”,
an amendment likely to receive more attention in the courts since a landmark 2017 Commonwealth decision, which will make it easier to challenge environmental degradation resulting from permitting
The next hearing date is scheduled for 9/13/21 at 8pm via zoom. Videos of the hearing are posted and can be viewed at http://www.churchillborough.com/. Churchill Borough Council has 45 days from the end of the Public Hearing to vote to approve or deny the conditional use permit.