TODAY’S FOCUS: Pennsylvania Residents Bear Brunt of Collapsed Mines
PITTSBURGH (AP) _ Martha Priori said she felt the vibrations, then heard a sound like the loud crumpling of paper before she realized what was happening: the walls of her house were buckling around her.
The 33-year-old Pittsburgh resident was helping to pay the price for two centuries of America’s growth and industrialization - her home was one of thousands in the state sitting over an abandoned coal mine.
The empty mines, many of them weakened by age, can suddenly collapse and break the foundations of the houses above them, transforming the buildings into misshapen hulks in a matter of days.
Pennsylvania, honeycombed with abandoned mines dating as far back as the late 1700s, is feeling the brunt of the nation’s mine subsidence problem, officials say.
″The major reason is that Pennsylvania was the energy capital of the world and fueled the westward expansion of the country,″ said Thomas Leonard, a spokesman for the federal Office of Surface Mining in Washington.
″Nobody really knew what it would do to the land,″ he said.
On the downtown fringe of Pittsburgh, once the nation’s coal and iron center, 14 homes in the city Hill District, including Ms. Priori’s, have been evacuated and condemned in the last few weeks.
Pittsburgh’s downtown area does not lie over the coal bed and is not affected.
The condemnations have spurred double the previous record number of calls from homeowners looking for state-sponsored mine subsidence insurance, authorities say.
Federal mine officials were still testing for evidence of a mine collapse this week in the area where the houses - all of them on the same street - began to buckle March 10.
But Pittsburgh authorities agreed that a mine collapse is the likely cause here in the cradle of the nation’s steel industry, whose hills surrounding the downtown area are riddled with century-old bituminous-coal shafts.
″I don’t know much else that it could be,″ said Paul Imhoff, superintendent of the city’s Bureau of Building Inspection.
Imhoff said he himself was one of the record-number 2,500 people to call the state Department of Environmental Resources office in nearby McMurray to apply for mine-subsidence insurance in the six days following the incident.
″Seeing the predicament those poor people were in and where I live, in a mining area in the hills, I decided I’d better,″ he said.
Under the program, begun in 1961, state residents who live in any of the 27 counties deemed coal-mining areas - 20 of which are in the bituminous region in western Pennsylvania - are eligible for the insurance, which pays $1,000 for every $1 of annual premium. Private companies do not provide such coverage.
Nearly one-third of the state’s $1.3 billion in coverage last year was on property in Pittsburgh and surrounding Allegheny County, according to Philip Zullo of the DER. The fund pays for itself, he said.
Since 1982, he said, Allegheny residents have tripled their requests for mine-subsidence insurance because of the notoriety surrounding the increasing number of mine collapses in populated areas.
However, most people, like Ms. Priori and her neighbors - and the city’s chief building inspector - don’t think about it, officials say.
″You can see mine holes in the hillside near me,″ said Imhoff, who has lived in the same house for 27 years. ″But I just never bothered.″
According to the most recent figures compiled by the federal Bureau of Mines in 1979, Pennsylvania had 151,400 acres of populated land underlain by mines with a potential for collapse, far more than any other state.
West Virginia was next with 89,100, followed by Kentucky with 37,200.
Under a federal mine reclamation program that taxes active mining companies 15 cents per ton of coal for underground mines, Pennsylvania has also received far more than any other state in funds devoted to restoring abandoned mines, according to David Hamilton of the Office of Surface Mining in Harrisburg.
Since the program began in 1977, Pennsylvania has received $241.7 million, followed by Kentucky with $146.9 million and West Virginia with $123 million, he said.
Most of the money goes toward ″backfilling″ abandoned mines with ash, dirt or cement to shore up the surface.
The federal money, however, has made little headway in heavily populated areas like Pittsburgh, where old mines were haphazardly tunnelled.
″I don’t know what can be done now except for people to take out mine- subsidence insurance,″ said Norman Flint, professor emeritus of geology at the University of Pittsburgh.
Flint said coal miners in the late 1800s and early 1900s used the ″room and pillar″ method of mining, extracting coal from cavernous rooms and leaving pillars of coal standing to support the structure. The pillars, he said, have been eroding ever since.
″I think eventually there will be some collapse in all of the mines,″ he said.
″Most of the subsidence is slow enough that it would not cause bodily injury,″ he said. ″But there is always the chance of gas lines rupturing.
″There’s no way of knowing when the mines are going to go.″