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Mining documentary debuts to packed house with promise of activism

Sunday, September 28, 2003

By Don Hopey, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

A documentary film showing the damage inflicted on surface property owners, communities, streams and watersheds by subsidence from longwall mining debuted Tuesday in the heart of the southwestern Pennsylvania coalfields.

A standing-room-only crowd of nearly 400 people packed the Waynesburg Theatre for the premier of "Subsided Ground ... Fallen Futures." Another 50 people were turned away.

It was no surprise that a film about the controversial mining method, which causes subsidence that rips apart the homes and lives of those living above longwall mining operations while at the same time providing good jobs to 3,400 people, generated such interest in southwestern Pennsylvania, where coal mining has long been king.

Local residents and activists only hope it plays as well on the road, especially in Harrisburg.

Laurine Williams, who with her husband, Murray, owns the Kent Farm, a 150-year-old red brick farmhouse that was undermined and damaged by mining company RAG despite its listing in the National Register of Historic Places, said the video will be used as the centerpiece of a campaign to educate legislators from other parts of the state about the problems caused by longwall mining in Washington and Greene counties.

"This was nice, but it's important we get to the next step, which is to get information about our problems out to all the legislators from across the state," said Williams, whose property was featured in the film. "The only legislators that understand longwall mining live here, and most of those won't cross the coal companies."

Williams said the coalition of five local and statewide environmental groups will send copies of the film to each of the legislators and set up private screenings for small groups of lawmakers.

"Maybe we'll have breakfast meetings for small groups of legislators where we'll show the film and answer their questions," she said. "There has to be a way to get the word to all of them that we need better laws and better enforcement when it comes to longwall mining."

George Ellis, president of the Pennsylvania Coal Association, said the coalition of groups backing the film -- including the Raymond Proffitt Foundation, Citizens for Pennsylvania's Future and Tri-State Citizens Mining Network -- are trying to shut down the mining industry, which directly employs about 3,400 people in the two counties.

Ellis was part of a 75-person contingent of coal industry spokesmen and miners who attended the screening, many wearing white T-shirts supplied by German-owned RAG that bore the message, "Coal: America's Energy Source."

"If Pennsylvania is going to continue to have a stable, reliable supply of energy, it's going to have to continue to rely on coal, which now supplies about 60 percent of that energy," Ellis said.

Longwall mining is a deep-mining technique that removes all the coal from large sections of the 6-foot-thick Pittsburgh seam that runs underneath much of the southwestern part of the state. When the coal is removed in "panels" that are 1,000 feet wide and as long as 3 miles, immediate surface subsidence of as much as 5 feet occurs, damaging buildings, landscapes, water supplies and streams.

With coal industry support, an amendment to the state mining law known as Act 54 was passed in 1994 to better accommodate the longwall method by allowing coal companies that own the subterranean mineral rights to dig beneath homes and other structures as long as the mining company fixes the damage and replaces the water or compensates the surface property owner.

The 15-minute documentary film, written and directed by Terri Taylor, a former television news reporter at KDKA-TV and Emmy award-winning journalist, uses pictures of damage to homes and streams, and interviews with undermined residents, to make the argument that the law and its enforcement are inadequate to protect the natural resources or the people of the region and should be amended.

The film was followed by a parade of coalfield residents who spoke from the theater's stage about the damage to their homes and the unhealthy stress that they experienced after being undermined, and by activists who urged action by state legislators, none of whom were in attendance.

"We need to change this law," said Jeanne Clark, a spokeswoman for PennFuture. "It's time for some fairness. It's time to say to the Pennsylvania Coal Association that it no longer owns the state capitol. It's time to take care of the people."


Don Hopey can be reached at dhopey@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1983.

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