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That sinking feeling in coal country

Fran Mcdowell knew something was wrong with her dream home when the fence posts sagged and went cockeyed. Cracks appeared in her concrete driveway and patio. Even the stairs of the house moved a bit.

There was no doubt: Something was going on in the subterranean depths beneath her house. As it turns out, coal miners were burrowing near her property.

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It happens almost every day in coal country. In a controversial technique called "longwalling," companies tunnel under properties and extract so much coal that the land above sinks several feet.

For decades, the process has helped keep Appalachia's coal industry humming and its electricity rates low despite dwindling reserves. But it can also alter streams, foul drinking water, and damage homes.

As a result, longwalling is provoking periodic clashes between homeowners and miners throughout parts of America's coal belt - the Appalachian region, Alabama, Illinois, and Colorado.

"I wasn't brought up with the idea that any one industry could be able to destroy people's lives like this," says Joan Ruzika, a member of a local protest group in Pennsylvania called People United to Save Homes (PUSH).

Longwalling allows companies to mine under land they don't own by digging down and then fanning out horizontally. The practice is mainly used in remote areas, affecting only pastureland or the occasional farmhouse.

But here in southwest Pennsylvania, mining companies have mined under clusters of modern homes, fueling residents' distemper and spurring some lawsuits.

One mine so destroyed an $800,000 home that the owner had to negotiate a large check from the company and then rebuild the structure from scratch.

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"If anybody else than the coal industry came over into your yard and knocked your house over the side of the hill, they'd be arrested for it," says Bob Ging, the attorney for PUSH.

Untapped wealth

What attracts miners to this part of Pennsylvania is the remarkably consistent Pittsburgh coal seam - a roughly 90-mile by 90-mile chunk of mineral wealth that lies 500 feet under the ground and includes parts of Ohio and West Virginia. Of the more than 60 billion tons of coal the US has mined during the last 180 years, nearly two-thirds has come from this seam and other coal fields of Appalachia.

Ever since coal companies bought the mineral rights for huge tracts of southwest Pennsylvania around the turn of the century, people who buy homes in coal country typically have to accept deeds with language that allows underground mining. They can't buy back the mineral rights or pay the coal companies to put their land off limits.

Even so, the coal companies don't leave homeowners to fend for themselves during longwalling. To mitigate damage, they trench around the house or use cables to hold the walls together during the sinking process. They also compensate owners for any damage and pay "nuisance fees" running into several thousand dollars.

"We're very sensitive to the concerns of the landowners," says George Ellis, president of the Pennsylvania Coal Association, the Harrisburg, Pa., organization representing mine companies in the state. "It's our obligation when we mine under a person's home that we make the person whole."

For many, the system works. "It was the worst I ever saw," says A.W. Pressler of the cracks that appeared in his home outside Washington, Pa. "But I have no complaints. They did right by me."

Of the 1,884 western Pennsylvania property owners whose land was mined under in the past five years, two-thirds reported no damage, according to a survey by the state's Department of Environmental Protection. Of the 15 percent that did report damage to structures, only 1 in 10 had ongoing complaints, while most reported the problems had been resolved satisfactorily.

Don't drink the water

But it's the potential for environmental damage that most concerns organizations like PUSH. "The mining industry is finishing up what it started decades ago: the extreme degradation of the environment of western Pennsylvania," says Charles Murray, a retired federal aviation manager and treasurer of PUSH. "And they're getting away with it." He points to a stream that used to run freely and now can't carry a softball more than a few feet.

After mining, streams can drain, natural springs relocate, and drinking wells sometimes go dry or bad because new minerals appear in the water. According to the state's survey, slightly more than 1 in 4 landowners reported damage to water supplies.

Under a set of 1994 amendments to Pennsylvania's mining law, companies must not only repair structural damage, they must also replace damaged water supplies. This has led to a huge boom in "water buffalos" - temporary water tanks the size of above-ground pools - appearing next to houses as the companies sink new wells or repair old ones.

Two-thirds of the homeowners in the survey said the replaced water was satisfactory, though some still have cases pending.

"There are a few people who are not happy with the restoration," says Robert Dolence with the Department of Environmental Protection. But "the industry is upholding its obligations to the law."

Last week, the state's Environmental Hearing Board rejected PUSH's claims that the mining company was causing irreparable damage to the region's groundwater.

"It's an emotional issue," says Thomas Hoffman, vice president for public relations at Consol Energy, which last year bought the longwall mine that has fueled the protests. But "we didn't come in in the dark of night and steal this coal .... It's been 90 years since we paid for that coal, before we actually got around to mining it. If you were the original landowner, you made a pretty good deal."

"It's not about money," counters Carolyn Johnson, staff director of the Denver-based Citizens Coal Council, which monitors longwall mining around the country. "It is not a class thing and it's not something peculiar to Appalachia." People feel powerless when mining companies are able to burrow under their houses and cause damage., she says

"No one should have to put up with this," she adds, "period."

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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