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Homeowners urged to by subsidence insurance

Homeowners 'should have known better' about subsidence

Sunday, December 03, 2000

By Jan Ackerman, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

On the morning of Oct. 11, as Joan Waitkus was trying to sleep in her West Leechburg home, she kept hearing cracking sounds.

The yard of the Leo home on Eighth Street in West Leechburg was cordoned off after foundation damage from shifting soil was discovered in October. (Bob Donaldson, Post-Gazette)

"I thought it was the awnings," she said.

She heard a fire engine outside. She went to her front door to see what was going on and had a hard time opening it. Down in her basement, she saw huge cracks in the walls.

The noises were the sounds of her 53-year-old house cracking. Her front porch pulled away from the foundation as the ground shifted beneath it as if there had been an earthquake. The gradual deterioration of mine supports about 110 feet below the surface had culminated in subsidence that wrenched her home apart.

Across the street, the home of her neighbor, Dan Leo, suffered even more serious damage. "His basement floor looked like stacked dominos," she said.

Waitkus knew there had been coal mining in West Leechburg, the tiny Westmoreland County community near the boundaries of Allegheny and Armstrong counties.

But she never bothered to check to see whether there were abandoned mines under her house. Like 90 percent to 95 percent of Pennsylvanians who live over abandoned mines, she didn't have mine subsidence insurance.

"I should have known better. I just keep saying that," said Waitkus, 63, a retired school custodian and widow who has been staying with her sister and brother-in-law since the incident. Leo didn't have mine subsidence insurance, either.

"We can't help them," said Edward J. Motycki, chief of the Mine Subsidence section of the state Department of Environmental Protection, which has been selling mine subsidence insurance through a nonprofit insurance board since 1961 and has more than 2,000 maps showing the locations of abandoned mines.

The cost of a typical homeowner policy is less than $100 a year. About 5 percent to 10 percent of Pennsylvanians who live over abandoned mines have bought the insurance.

In recent years, state officials have hired a marketing firm to help them promote the insurance and try to raise the number of people who buy it. Motycki said mine subsidence in Shaler in 1996 clearly demonstrated that they hadn't been getting the word out in the past.

"The whole community of Shaler claimed they were not aware that there was mining, all the way down to the public officials," said Motycki, whose office had records showing that the mine that collapsed in Shaler was almost 300 feet deep and last operated in 1904.

"They lived there all their lives and didn't know the mine existed," Motycki said. "We did know. But no one ever checked with us."

'Likely to subside'

Using computers and maps, Motycki's office has calculated that 200,000 homes in Allegheny County were built above abandoned mines, but that 22,244 homeowners carry the insurance.

In Westmoreland County, about 37,000 homes are at risk and about 3,400 homeowners carry policies. In Washington County, about 30,000 homes were built above mines and about 5,000 homeowners carry the insurance.

Motycki said information about Beaver County was murky because "a lot of claim mining had not been recorded" in that county. Beaver County has not been without its subsidence problems. In 1997, blasting for a home improvement center in Center caused the ground to collapse, badly damaging numerous homes.

Mine subsidence is a movement of the ground surface as a result of the collapse or failure of underground mine workings. In abandoned mines, coal pillars are often left as supports in the catacombs left under the earth.

As the years go on, the pillars can fail, resulting in either sinkhole or trough subsidence. If a pillar fails, the weight can shift to other pillars, which may not be able to stand the stress.

Ground movement within a trough can result in damage to buildings, roads, railroads and underground pipelines. Shallow mines, at 20 or 30 feet, can subside as well as mines that are 300 or 400 feet deep.

While Motycki's office has one of the largest underground mine map repositories in Western Pennsylvania, many maps aren't detailed enough to show how much coal was removed or the potential size of pillars that remain.

"A lot of mining we had in Western Pennsylvania occurred prior to the 1900s," he said.

Maps from that era aren't standardized. Often, there are no clues about how much coal was extracted.

Motycki said many people had misconceptions about the mines under their houses. They mistakenly think that if a mine is old or deep or has never given them any problems, it never will.

Yet, there have been subsidence events in mines that are 400 or more feet deep. And the older the mine, the more likely it is to collapse.

"These mines are just like people. Things start to deteriorate and they weaken," Motycki said. "Over time, these mines are likely to subside."

Mine subsidence insurance costs $1 per thousand dollars worth of coverage a year. Private residences can be insured for $5,000 to $150,000. Other structures can be insured for up to $250,000.

The insurance has a $250 deductible for residences and $500 for other structures. Only the structure can be insured, not its contents.

"People find every excuse in the world not to buy the insurance," said Motycki, adding that homeowners sometimes regarded his staff as a bunch of insurance salespeople who are pushing a product that isn't needed.

"They don't think it will happen to them. They claim they have too much insurance," he said.

Each year, an average of 200 claims are filed statewide with the mine subsidence offices in McMurray and Wilkes-Barre. About 35 of those claims are paid each year. The average payout is about $25,000, said Ted Kopas, a spokesman for the state Department of Environmental Protection.

In Pennsylvania, buying mine subsidence insurance is voluntary, Motycki said.

"A lot of states have mandatory coverage," Motycki said. "They identify counties within the state and it is automatically tacked on to homeowners' insurance in those counties."

In Illinois, for example, insurance companies are required to put this coverage on a homeowner's policy in 34 counties that are identified as having significant mine subsidence exposure problems. Illinois homeowners who want to remove the mine subsidence insurance can do so by signing a waiver.

In neighboring Ohio, state law requires that mine subsidence insurance be automatically put on homes in 26 counties that have been designated high-risk areas. Homeowners in Ohio do not have the option of removing the mine subsidence insurance from their policy.

Drilling and filling

In Western Pennsylvania, all mining is for bituminous, or soft coal. The deepest mines are about 1,000 feet in Greene County, where there's still active mining going on. Motycki said there was no active mining in Allegheny County, but plenty of abandoned mines.

"The entire southern half of the county is undermined," he said, including Munhall, West Mifflin, Jefferson Hills, Pleasant Hills, Baldwin Borough, Bethel Park and South Park. There also was mining around Russellton and Harmarville, in Shaler and in the North Park vicinity.

In Penn Hills and Plum, two coal seams were undermined by two coal companies, creating problems that have shown up in such places as Regency Park in Plum, Motycki said.

The Regency Park subsidence problem is so serious that the state Bureau of Abandoned Mine Reclamation is planning to start a major project to shore up the mine cavities sometime next year.

At the same time the bureau is planning to start a project in Plum, it is finishing one in Leechburg, Armstrong County, a community across the Allegheny River from West Leechburg with a long history of mine subsidence.

Kopas said the Leechburg stabilization project cost $15 million, took 20 years to complete and will "positively affect 500 homes."

Kopas said the state agency worked on long-range problems, while the federal Office of Surface Mining handled such emergencies as the recent mine subsidence incidents in West Leechburg and North Huntingdon.

When mine subsidence happens, the federal Office of Surface Mining sometimes decides to do an emergency project to stabilize the ground.

In North Huntingdon, 22 families were forced to leave the Colonial Manor Apartments in September after a 6-inch crack that proved to be caused by mine subsidence appeared in the three-story building's exterior brick wall. In October, the Office of Surface Mining paid Howard Pumping Concrete of Cuddy $134,397 to stabilize the property just off Route 30 where the apartment building sits.

George Popper, project manager for OSM, said the contractor bored holes into the ground and poured in a mixture of cement and fly ash, a filler material made of the ash from coal. It also did borings to determine how badly the rocks under the ground were fractured.

The ground now is stabilized, but the families have not been able to return because the building has not been repaired.

"The building is not habitable," said John Shepherd, North Huntingdon manager. Whether it will be repaired is not known.

The owner, Joseph Skaro of Monroeville, told officials he did not have mine subsidence insurance. Skaro could not be reached for comment for this article.

The federal government also is doing an emergency stabilization project in West Leechburg, where workers are pouring a mixture of fly ash and cement into the ground between the Leo and Waitkus houses.

"We will probably be up there another month, drilling and filling," said Dan Pollock, a project manager for the U.S. Office of Surface Mining in Green Tree.

His office is overseeing a contract with a private contractor, Pennsylvania Earth Tech Inc. of McMurray, which is filling in portions of an abandoned mine that collapsed under two homes Oct. 11. The contract price is $180,266, but that number could be adjusted by the time the project is finished.

"It's a real mess," said Waitkus, looking out at the work from her sister's house.

Waitkus plans to move back into her house and get it repaired. She already has gotten the utilities turned back on. She is getting estimates on the cost of the repairs.

"It won't be cheap," she said.

Over the years, the state or federal governments have done subsidence stabilization projects in Arnold, North Belle Vernon, Rostraver, Peters, Shaler, New Kensington and Port Vue, to name a few.

Motycki said mine subsidence didn't happen often, but that when it does, the claims can cost a bundle.

"In a number of cases, damages were in excess of $100,000," he said.

Anyone who wants more information can call the mine subsidence section of the state Department of Environmental Protection at (800) 922-1678 to find out if a home or other structure was built over an abandoned mine.

Appointments also can be made to visit the office, in Donaldson's Crossroads Plaza in McMurray, Washington County, to look at the maps and information about property.

Information also is available on the Department of Environmental Protection Internet site, www.dep.state.pa.us, where online applications for mine subsidence insurance can be made.



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