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Officials celebrate landslide remediation investment on Pittsburgh's Mount Washington

Trees, debris, and mud cover the hillside around a house that was destroyed from a landslide in 2018.
Keith Srakocic
Greenleaf Street, one of the three project sites supported by federal funds, was the site of a major landslide in 2018 that destroyed at least one home.

Work on two hillside stabilization projects is set to begin in two southwestern Pittsburgh neighborhoods next month. Along with a third project slated to start later in the year, the work is aimed at stabilizing active landslides in the area to reduce the risk of slope failures. Pittsburgh city officials joined state and federal emergency management agencies on Mount Washington Monday to highlight the need for landslide mitigation.

“These projects will ensure the stability of the Mount Washington hillsides, while the city continues our work to develop further mitigation projects to stabilize the slopes of one of our most visited neighborhoods and most iconic views,” Pittsburgh Deputy Mayor Jake Pawlak said during a press conference.

Pittsburgh’s hilly topography and clay soil has always been prone to landslides. But local officials fear that problem will be exacerbated by climate change and increased rainfall. After a rash of slope failures in 2018, the city has sharpened its focus on preventing landslides, rather than simply responding to them.

Pawlak said that although landslides aren’t a brand-new concern, “increased rainfall due to climate change is a new risk factor for our city and something we need to plan for.”

One site the city plans to address is along Greenleaf Street, parallel to Rt. 51 on the western slope of Mount Washington in Duquesne Heights. The hillside was the scene of a major landslide in 2018, when one home was engulfed and earth poured over a retaining wall.

Eric Setzler, chief engineer in Pittsburgh’s Department of Mobility and Infrastructure, said crews were able to temporarily remediate the issue, but there are additional stabilization needs five years later.

“We were able to clean it all up and put in some temporary drainage and things, and it's held, but it was never engineered,” Setzler said. “This is really going back and making sure that we have a fix that's going to last for the long term.”

Eric Setzler, chief engineer of Pittsburgh's Department of Mobility and Infrastructure, speaks during a press conference Monday about critical landslide mitigation projects.
Kiley Koscinski
90.5 WESA
Eric Setzler, chief engineer of Pittsburgh's Department of Mobility and Infrastructure, speaks during a press conference about critical landslide mitigation projects.

When construction begins, crews will mix cement into the soil of the hillside along Greenleaf Street to “stiffen it” and prevent a slide, Setzler said.

Another site of concern is along Reese Street south of West Carson Street on the northern slope of Mount Washington. The hillside beyond the end of the street is threatening the Emerald Park Trail, officials said. A CBS radio tower perched at the top of the hillside could also be impacted by slope failure.

A third project, along William Street, is set to begin a contract bidding process soon with construction scheduled for late spring, according to Setzler. Several landslides along the length of the street have required a full closure and a condemnation of one house.

The cost of the three projects totals $13 million, with $10 million covered by federal grants and the remaining $3 million contributed by the city.

City Council President Theresa Kail Smith, whose district encompasses the three construction projects, noted that District 2 “has the most slope remediation issues" in the city.

She thanked federal and state officials Monday for touring the district to see the homes, streets and other amenities that could be impacted by a landslide, including a baseball field near Greenleaf Street.

“If it were not for [PEMA and FEMA’s] help … and the governors, we would not have the opportunity to save things like this ballfield,” Kail Smith said.

Randy Padfield, director of the Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency, stressed that landslide mediation is “critical” not just for “the individuals that live in those areas that potentially may be impacted [but also for] the rail lines, the routes, the roadways.”

Mayor Ed Gainey, who was not present at Monday’s press conference, later issued a statement thanking the “engineering design and contracting companies that will make this possible.”

“I’m thankful federal and state officials were able to provide this grant to assist the City of Pittsburgh in keeping Pittsburgh residents safe,” the statement said. “We’re moving towards preventing a major tragedy from taking place."

Kiley Koscinski covers city government, policy and how Pittsburghers engage with city services. She also works as a fill-in host for All Things Considered. Kiley has previously served as a producer on The Confluence and Morning Edition.