DEP determines mine subsidence caused Mt. Oliver homes' damage
State regulators plan to fill an abandoned underground coal mine in Mt. Oliver Borough this month to stop homes from sliding off their foundations, a Department of Environmental Protection spokesman said on Monday.
Department workers have identified a dozen damaged houses in the 100 block of Frederick Street since the ground began shifting last week, DEP spokesman John Poister said. Emergency responders initially blocked access on Friday to five houses that the borough has since condemned as unsafe.
“It became a little more complex, but we're still moving as fast as we can,” Poister said, calling the situation “not something you can leave alone, that's for sure.”
He said workers could see cracks Monday in the foundations and brick work of seven newly identified homes, some of which are near Walnut and Frederick streets. Damage at those houses was not serious enough to warrant evacuation.
Some residents at first suspected a water line break as a cause for the upheaval, a point that several of them raised at a packed borough council meeting on Monday night. Poister said state environmental officials are so certain the damage is from mine subsidence that they're fast-tracking their response.
“That's just honeycombed up in that area with mines,” said Harry Cook, 71, of Jefferson Hills, who lived on Arlington Avenue as a child. He said a huge hole appeared in a field adjacent to Frederick Street in the early 1950s, sounding like a bomb when it opened up.
“They dumped truckloads and truckloads — 24 hours a day for weeks — to fill that thing in,” Cook said.
Mt. Oliver residents interviewed on Monday couldn't remember anything that dramatic in recent years. Poister said the DEP is studying maps and compiling a report so that an independent contractor might start filling the mine by July 29 with a mixture of sand, concrete and fly ash. Crews can inject the mixture at each affected address where homeowners give the go-ahead for the stabilization, DEP appraiser Darryl Audia said.
State officials also need approval from the federal Office of Surface Mining to pay for the work, for which the department hopes to seek bids this week. Poister declined to speculate on the cost but said tax revenue from active coal mines elsewhere should cover that expense.
Billie Michener, the borough council president, said the municipality will help the residents however it can.
“I wouldn't know what I would do. I wouldn't be able to sleep. My God,” Michener said.
Stephen Thomas, 34, who lived with his fiancée and children in a now-condemned house, has been staying in a hotel since they were evacuated Friday. He said his family still doesn't know when it can return to collect belongings.
“I'm just taking it day by day,” Thomas said.
The displaced residents can return only when engineers confirm it's safe to go inside, said borough ordinance officer Steve Wilharm. He and Michener said that will happen as soon as possible, though they did not specify a date.
Meanwhile, the DEP is encouraging neighborhood residents to consider mine subsidence insurance that's available through the department. None of the five evacuated houses had the insurance, which means any building repairs will fall directly to homeowners.
“It's a shame. I know a lot of the people, and they might be losing everything because they didn't have insurance,” said Duke Winkowski, 71, a 40-year Mt. Oliver resident. He said he bought mine subsidence coverage several years ago when a dimple appeared in his driveway.
Now his neighbors “are rushing and getting it,” Winkowski said. Premiums for the insurance coverage run about $57 for $100,000 in coverage, according to the DEP website.
No one was living in two of the five Frederick Street houses evacuated Friday, according to borough firefighters. The American Red Cross has helped supply food and shelter to five adults and six children from the other three homes.