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When the advocacy group American Rivers released their list of America’s Most Endangered Rivers earlier this spring, one river in southwestern Pennsylvania made the cut: the Lower Youghiogheny, or Yough.

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The Yough River is well known to whitewater rafting enthusiasts in the Laurel Highlands, and riders of the Great Allegheny Passage (GAP) bike trail that connects Pittsburgh to Maryland. The lower portion of the river, which empties into the Monongahela River close to Pittsburgh, is more peaceful.

“A lot of the users that come to the river are not really looking for a wild ride,” said Eric Harder, the Youghiogheny Riverkeeper. “They’re looking for just a flow to go fishing, and to be able to get out of their boat and not be completely drenched by the end of the day.”

Natural Gas Development in the Yough Watershed

Harder keeps an eye on polluters, from the water and from his desk. He also works at the environmental nonprofit Mountain Watershed Association, which has been working on water quality issues in the area, like acid mine drainage, for decades. But Harder said natural gas development is the main reason the Lower Yough earned the 10th spot on American Rivers’ list. He said pipeline construction, which disturbs lengthy tracks of land, causes sediment pollution.

“So when people think about large gas spills, those do happen,” Harder said. “But what we’re looking at is landscape-wide sedimentation, which is very detrimental to the fish population in our river. Also the aesthetics — when people come to look at the river, and it’s brown, people don’t really think that’s the nicest looking stream.”

Harder also worries that the treatment of drilling waste endangers the Yough. He points to the MAX Environmental Technologies site in Yukon, about five miles east of the river.

“They basically have been able to take fracking waste for the last few years, whether it’s liquid waste or solid, treat it to their specifications or DEP’s specifications, and then store it in a landfill,” Harder said. “This site has had many exceedances in their pollution discharge permit.” 

A spokesperson for the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection said it most recently inspected the MAX Environmental Technologies facility in Yukon in late February. The agency noted several issues, including effluent discharge violations and a lack of stormwater and erosion control. 

Carl Spadaro, Environmental General Manager at the company, said only half of those discharges were from the part of the facility that goes into the Sewickley Creek, a tributary of the Yough, and that it has completed cleaning out its wastewater collection and treatment systems and increased monitoring to address the problem. Spadaro said MAX also made improvements to minimize future erosion at the facility.

Gas-Fire Power Plant Planned for Elizabeth

Another project that landed the Yough on the most endangered rivers list is a proposed gas-fired power plant in Elizabeth Township, Allegheny County, at the lower section of the watershed.

Harder fears that the 550-megawatt power plant proposed by Invenergy LLC, headquartered in Chicago, will negatively impact the rural community and the river, “whether it’s visually from the GAP trail or floating on the river, or the wastewater that comes out of it, or the air quality.”

Allegheny County Health Department confirms that Invenergy has applied for the air quality permits for the power plant, but because of the coronavirus pandemic, public comment periods and public hearings are postponed. DEP said it’s not currently reviewing any permit applications for this project. Invenergy did not respond to our request for comment.

Harder wants more time for public comment on gas development projects, and for a more thorough review of how these projects would impact the river and surrounding communities.

Recreation in the Watershed

Harder hopes the Yough’s listing by American Rivers will bring more attention to the rapid gas development that’s happening in the Yough watershed. He said along with water quality, the robust recreation industry of the region is also threatened by gas development. Businesses have opened up in communities along the GAP trail to support fishing, rafting and tourism.

“The Yough is pointed out to be one of the last places where native trout live, where fishing can take place,” Harder said. “Sportsman clubs throughout the watershed take care of their section of river. For this area to transform into a more industrial setting, I think that would be detrimental not just to our Laurel Highlands area, but all of Pennsylvania.”

“America’s Most Endangered Rivers is a call to action,” said Sean Jackson of American Rivers, in a statement. “The Lower Yough is one of our state’s greatest natural treasures. Local communities, families, and visitors depend on this river for its clean drinking water and endless recreational opportunities. Fracking puts all of this at risk. The fate of the river and its communities are in Governor Wolf’s hands.”  

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