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Pennsylvania Couple Fights Longwall Mine

January 22, 2003

WAYNESBURG, Pa. (AP) _ For nearly two years, Murray and Laurine Williams have looked on as workers repaired cracks in their house and removed, and carefully replaced, the bricks that made up an entire corner of the structure.

The project isn’t an ordinary fixer-upper. The couple’s home was badly damaged when it dropped and tilted seven inches during coal mining hundreds of feet below its foundation.

The Williamses say most repairs are done at their historic farmhouse, but the couple, both in their 70s, wonder if their lives will ever completely return to normal. Laurine has developed asthma, which she attributes to dust from the repairs; she also has high blood pressure. Murray developed an ulcer.

``I was going slightly crazy,″ Laurine Williams said Friday. ``These were difficult circumstances. This was sheer chaos.″

Now the Williamses are fighting for changes in state law to give property owners more control over where mining companies dig.

In March 2001, RAG Emerald Resources’ mining machines chewed the coal out of a 7-foot-high seam that passed 500 feet below the Williams’ house. The company used a technique called longwall mining, in which machines remove all the coal in a seam and the overlying areas collapse or subside as the machines move forward.

The mining company took precautions to minimize damage to the farmhouse, which dates back to at least 1850 and is part of the Thomas Kent Farm, a property listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Trenches were dug and the house was wrapped in high-tension cables.

Still, the mining caused the home to drop and tilt. Cracks formed in the plaster walls in every room of the house, and the brickwork _ made of old clay bricks fired on the farm itself _ was damaged.

The coal company paid for the repairs, bringing in a historical restoration firm to do the work, and the Williamses say they haven’t had any trouble working with RAG. But there is still work to be done at the house, and it is unclear whether a pond on the property will ever be fed by native springs again.

When he thinks about the past two years, Murray Williams puts an imaginary pistol to his head and pulls the trigger.

``It’s been very, very stressful,″ said Laurine.

RAG spokesman Mike Rounds said the company won’t say how much was spent on restoring the house. But he suggested it was worth it, noting the number of people employed by the mine and the value of the mineral, much of which is sold as fuel for power companies.

Rounds said enough coal was taken out of the seam ``to electrify a pretty good-sized city for a number of years.″

The Williamses, meanwhile, are pushing for reforms to give property owners more authority in protecting their land. Under state law, coal companies _ which in many cases purchase mining rights on the properties years, or even decades, before they break ground _ are allowed to mine as long as they pay for repairs or reimburse the landowners.

The Williamses also take issue with a report released by the state Department of Environmental Protection suggesting that longwall mining hasn’t really affected property values in Greene and Washington counties and that any damage has been offset by taxes the companies pay.

The couple said their assessment decreased by about one-third, and that if they sold the property they’d never recoup their investment.

Laurine Williams wonders what would happen if she and Murray went into a nursing home. ``We couldn’t sell this house for what it’s worth. The sad thing about that is, maybe it would be needed to pay our bills.″

The Williamses say the property has lost value because there’s no guarantee the house won’t subside even more.

``I doubt you could sell it unless you were giving it away,″ said Murray, shaking his head.

For now, the Williamses plan to get the finishing touches done on the house. They also intend to press ahead with their push to change a law they say leaves property owners at the mercy of mining companies.

``I have no plans to stop, period,″ said Laurine. ``There’s something not right in the mix.″

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