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Reclaiming Mt. Oliver home 'not even worth it,' owner says

| Saturday, July 20, 2013, 12:03 a.m.

Stephen Thomas said on Friday he doesn't think he'll ever move back to his Frederick Street home in Mt. Oliver.

“The value of the house and what it is going to cost to fix it, it's not even worth it,” said Thomas, 34, who lived in one of five Frederick Street homes condemned this week for safety concerns.

Subsidence from abandoned underground coal mines damaged a dozen homes since ground began shifting last week.

Authorities did not evacuate seven of them. Two of the condemned homes are vacant, while the other three — including Thomas' — housed a total of 11 people.

Thomas and other owners of condemned homes have not been allowed to return to them to retrieve belongings. Aside from clothes and other personal items, Thomas said he'd like to get the houseful of new furniture he and his fiancee bought with income tax returns.

“It literally still has the tags on it,” Thomas said of the furniture.

Mt. Oliver officials promised to help those affected, but Thomas said they've stopped taking his calls.

Numerous messages left for borough officials by the Tribune-Review were not returned.

“It's so frustrating,” said Thomas, who is living with his fiancee and two children in his mother's Scott home. “No one is listening, and I can't get answers.”

The Department of Environmental Protection is seeking contractors to fill the abandoned mine with a mixture of sand, concrete and fly ash. They have until Tuesday to submit bids. The DEP wants work to begin by the end of next week, spokesman John Poister said.

“You feel for the people,” Poister said. “That's why we're moving so quickly.”

Officials with DEP went door-to-door informing residents about the state's mine-subsidence insurance program. None of the owners of the five condemned homes had such coverage, Poister said.

Since 1961, the state's Mine Subsidence Insurance Fund has paid more than $26 million in claims. Residential coverage costs about 55 cents for every $1,000 of coverage, available up to $500,000.

Of about 1 million properties that are undermined across Pennsylvania, mine subsidence insurance covered 56,628 of them as of July 1, according to DEP data.

“If I would have known that for $60 a year I could have had peace of mind, I would have had that insurance,” Thomas said. “There's no question about it.”

Thomas said he did not know his home sat over an abandoned mine. The home has been in his fiancee's family for 120 years.

Mt. Oliver, like most areas along Pittsburgh's southern hillside and suburbs in the South Hills and to the east, experienced heavy mining, Poister said.

“A lot of these are very, very old mines going back to the 1800s, and they are shallow,” he said.

One project could help homeowners more easily pinpoint old mines.

Seven colleges and universities are receiving a combined $1.65 million in state funding to digitize the state's mine maps, including the University of Pittsburgh, California University of Pennsylvania and Indiana University of Pennsylvania. The project will enable people to find out online whether mines are under their land.

Jason Cato is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7936 or jcato@tribweb.com.

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