PITTSBURGH – Unlike the gun-slinging outlaws of the 1870s bringing violence to the Western frontier in New Mexico, or the Warren G rappers of the 1990s cruising to the Eastside Motel in Los Angeles, today’s regulators “mount up” for a very different reason in the Pittsburgh District.
“We protect the nation’s waters while providing balanced permit decisions for development needs,” said Scott Hans, the chief of the regulatory office for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Pittsburgh District.
The Pittsburgh District regulators are not renegades. Quite the opposite: they uphold laws that protect water resources across their three-state jurisdiction.
Whenever a developer builds a structure that impacts waterways or wetlands, they require a permit through the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The size of the project does not matter.
“These permit decisions can impact anyone from a mom-and-pop looking to install a driveway crossing of a stream on their property, all the way up to a huge corporation looking to build a development on the river,” said Tyler Bintrim, chief of the Pittsburgh District’s regulatory division northern branch.
The regulatory program supports the Clean Water Act by protecting the physical, biological, and chemical integrity of the waters in the region. The office also supports the Rivers and Harbors Act of 1899 by ensuring the region’s navigable rivers remain open and accessible for everyone.
Growing industries and new developments are necessary for a growing economy, but the nation’s waters could suffer without proper regulation.
For example, the Cuyahoga River caught fire in 1969 because industries polluted its waters by dumping oil into its waters. The incident was one of the driving forces for increased environmental protection laws.
Pollution has improved drastically since the 1970s, but regulators still protect streams and wetlands today from other unintended harms.
“If the public doesn’t abide by these regulations, we could have drastic consequences or damages downstream. It becomes a cumulative impact,” Hans said.
Building a structure on the river in one area could alter the waters to create flooding elsewhere, putting lives and property at risk. Some construction projects change or damage wetlands, which are essential to watersheds because they act as natural filters of pollutants in the environment.
“You could think of wetlands as the kidneys of the earth. They filter water that makes it into the groundwater system and transports it cleaner downstream,” Bintrim said.
Wetlands can also prevent regional flooding by holding water in one area. When developers dump fill or other material into a wetland, the process hinders the land’s capacity to store or filter water. It can lead to flooding elsewhere or change the water’s chemistry, diminishing the soil’s filtration system or destroying natural habitats for local wildlife.
Developers often construct and maintain new wetlands within the same watershed to mitigate the harm caused by construction. The goal is to neutralize the net loss of wetlands with each new development.
“So, if someone proposes to fill an acre of wetland in one place, they have to provide an acre of wetland somewhere else in the impacted region,” Hans said.
Another option is for developers to purchase land credits through wetland mitigation banking programs. Various federal and private agencies maintain wetlands available for credits to offset the loss of wetlands altered by construction or fill.
The district’s regulatory specialists visit wetlands throughout its 26,000 square mile region to test the soil to ensure the wetlands function as expected. They also visit construction sites and meet with partners and stakeholders to confirm projects meet permit requirements.
Sometimes they help neighbors settle disputes about smaller development projects. Regulators often spend as much time out of the office as they do at their desks processing permits.
“Our office has a customer service mindset,” Hans said. “The best thing about our program is when we can put boots on the ground. I think the public respects when you go out and look at their site, look at their problem, and provide solutions.”
Hans said his regulators are devoted to simplifying the permit application process to assist the public as much as possible.
“It gives me an overwhelming sense of pride, and it just feels good knowing I’m helping the public,” said Allen Edris, a senior regulatory specialist and project manager for the Pittsburgh District.
The regulatory office also processes permits for marinas, boat docks, and any structure that could impede boat traffic. Pittsburgh’s surrounding rivers are a great resource for commercial traffic to transport commodities to factories, power plants, and other ports. Regulators work to keep waterways open for both recreational use and commercial traffic.
“Our rivers can be considered a highway system for everyone, from large navigation industries down to the person going out on the weekend to enjoy our beautiful rivers,” Bintrim said.
Hans said he considers his regulator team both public servants and good stewards of the land’s waterways.
“It’s a balance. The balance comes between supporting development needs and protecting resources. Our office exists to provide customer service to hold both priorities in balance,” Hans said.
The public can contact the Pittsburgh District regulatory office directly to discuss permit questions using the contact information on the Pittsburgh District website.
“Headwaters Highlights” is part of a story series to highlight every one of the facilities or teams that make the Pittsburgh District’s mission possible. Pittsburgh District’s 26,000 square miles include portions of western Pennsylvania, northern West Virginia, eastern Ohio, western Maryland, and southwestern New York. It has more than 328 miles of navigable waterways, 23 navigation locks and dams, 16 multi-purpose flood-control reservoirs, 42 local flood-protection projects, and other projects to protect and enhance the nation’s water resources, infrastructure and environment.