February 21, 2024

Removing Obstacles to Opportunity to Save the Cokeburg Dam

In the serene landscape of Washington County, a hidden gem faces an uncertain future — the Cokeburg Dam. On February 21, 2024, the Pennsylvania House Republican Policy Committee, at the invitation of Rep. Bud Cook, convened a crucial hearing to investigate both the past and future of the Cokeburg Dam. The hearing brought forth compelling testimony from key figures in the community, unveiling a complex timeline fraught with challenges and regulatory hurdles. As the hearing concluded it became clear that the fate of this reservoir, once a symbol of community spirit and a hub for recreation, now hinges on collaborative efforts to navigate a bureaucratic maze.

Video from the hearing can be accessed via the following links:

Full Hearing: Removing Obstacles to Opportunity to Save the Cokeburg Dam

Hon. Holly Detts-Dranzo, President, Cokeburg Borough Council

Dave Lambert, Chief, Cokeburg Volunteer Fire Department

Questions for Testifiers

Agenda - Bios – Testimony

Concerns with the safety and upkeep of the Cokeburg Dam are not a recent phenomenon and stretch back to a 1981 Army Corp. of Engineers routine inspection. On a number of occasions, the people of Cokeburg have addressed these concerns, received approval that all was well, only to be pestered again by the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) for previously addressed issues. DEP is never satisfied with the status of the dam, they disregard the utility and community importance of the fishing reservoir, and the department has turned a $1 million project into a $10 million project by dragging their feet and moving goalposts.

The simplest way to understand the Cokeburg community’s frustration with DEP and the preservation of their community space was provided in the timeline within the Honorable Holly Detts-Dranzo’s testimony:

Timeline of the Cokeburg Dam

  •   1902 – Constructed by the Bethlehem Mine Corporation as “Reservoir Number 4”.
  •   1953 – Cokeburg Borough acquired the dam and used the reservoir as a local water source.
  •   1958 through 1992 – The reservoir was stocked with fish for recreation.
  •   1981 – A routine National Dam Inspection by the Army Corp. of Engineers designated the dam as a “high hazard small dam”.
  •   1989 – The dam was updated and repaired.
  •   2000 – DEP expressed concerns over the previous repairs and requested modifications.
  •   2001 – DEP sent a letter noting the satisfactory completion of the repairs.
  •   2007 – DEP cites the 1981 report and determines that further repairs are needed. According to DEP, previous correspondence to the contrary were apparently in error.
  •   2009 – Cokeburg Borough engineering team works towards a DEP approved design.
  •   July 2012 –The proposed sale of the reservoir water supply to Charleroi Water Authority was abandoned, and the dam classification was amended from “high hazard” to “low hazard.”
  •   December 2012 – DEP concurred with the design plans made by the Borough engineers.
  •   2013 – Received a DCED grant, but most of the grant was returned due to DEP delays.
  •   2016 – DEP reneges on their dam classification and reclassifies the dam as “high hazard”. This reclassification requires an expensive engineering design change.
  •   2019 through 2020 – Borough engineers offered 5 updated plans for DEP to review.
  •   2023 – Rep. Bud Cook reignites conversation between DEP and the Borough.
  •   December 2023 – The water within the reservoir was drawn down as required by DEP.
  •   February 2024 – DEP claimed to not have received an inspection report. THIS REPORT WAS PROVIDED IN 2020. Borough engineers provided the report again, along with the reference number from 2020.

The loss of funding to fix the dam, purely due to DEP’s slow and arduous processes, is the greatest challenge faced by the people of Cokeburg. The Cokeburg community applied for, and received, grants to address DEP’s concerns. But, because DEP would not provide approval or insight in a timely manner the grants expired and funding went towards engineering fees instead of dam maintenance. The cost to maintain the dam grows with each day, the availability of financial assistance dries up, and DEP drags its feet while families wait to return to their favorite fishing hole. DEP HAS NOT VISITED THE DAM IN PERSON FOR AT LEAST 5 YEARS!

“This dam has been a beacon of recreation and a symbol of everything wholesome to our youth.”

Hon. Holly Detts-Dranzo
President, Cokeburg Borough Council

If the community’s desire to retain a multi-generational community space is not enough to win over DEP, perhaps the needs of the local Cokeburg Volunteer Fire Department will save the dam. Chief of the Cokeburg Volunteer Fire Department, Dave Lambert, shared the necessity of the reservoir for his department’s operations, training, and emergency response. The dam and reservoir, which DEP contends is a risk for the local community, is a necessity when fighting fires.

In the event of a fire emergency the reservoir serves as a constant source of vital secondary water. It has been used before to quickly fill tanker trucks as they respond to emergencies. The fire department conducts training beside the reservoir, using the water for drills without wasting water from fire hydrants or other sources. The need for the water held back by the Cokeburg dam is not theoretical, but a real necessity!

“The water reservoir, from a fire chief standpoint, provides great peace of mind.”

Dave Lambert
Chief, Cokeburg Volunteer Fire Department

As we reflect on the testimonies of Hon. Holly Detts-Dranzo and Dave Lambert during the Pennsylvania House Republican Policy Committee hearing, the significance of the Cokeburg Dam to the community becomes abundantly clear. Beyond a mere reservoir, it is a repository of memories, a source of water security, and a space for communal recreation. The hurdles faced by the Cokeburg community for the last 40 years underscore the need for greater partnerships between local authorities, the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), and state agencies. The journey of the Cokeburg Dam is a testament to the resilience of a community striving to preserve its heritage against regulatory headwinds. As the call to save this community asset resonates, it beckons for a collective effort to protect not just a dam but the very fabric of a community's identity and history.