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Mt. Oliver residents rush to add insurance since coal mines destabilized homes

| Monday, Aug. 12, 2013, 11:59 p.m.
Jasmine Goldband | Tribune-Review
Joseph Mester, 63, of Mt. Oliver watches as workers from Coastal Drilling East work on his property on Monday, August 12, 2013.
Jasmine Goldband | Tribune-Review
Joseph Mester, 63, of Mt. Oliver watches as workers from Coastal Drilling East gauge the extent of mine subsidence on his property on Monday, August 12, 2013.

Hundreds of Mt. Oliver residents are rushing to buy extra insurance since an abandoned coal mine destabilized several homes on Frederick Street.

Borough property owners filed 540 coverage applications since July 14 with a mine-subsidence insurance program, the Department of Environmental Protection said on Monday. Sixty-one properties in Mt. Oliver had the coverage earlier, even though most of the borough sits on undermined ground, according to department records.

None of the five houses evacuated when the ground shifted on July 12 had subsidence insurance. Fifteen properties had lesser damage.

“If something happens now — minor or big — we're covered,” said Debbie McClean, 54, whose home on the 100 block of Frederick Street escaped the subsidence. She said her family won approval just hours after applying for the coverage when the ground slouched.

For McClean and her neighbor Joseph Mester, 63, the extra expense pays for peace of mind, they said. The low-cost program, started in 1961, offers $150,000 in annual coverage for about $83. A $500,000 policy runs about $258.

“If you would have told me 50 years ago that there was a coal mine here, I would have told you were full of” nonsense, said Mester, who has lived on Frederick Street for 37 years.

The DEP drummed up awareness through the weeklong run of a TV spot with Gov. Tom Corbett, a door-to-door campaign and targeted mailers, state officials said. They're looking to expand the push into nearby South Hills areas with long-ago mines, including Munhall and West Mifflin.

Most of the state's estimated 1 million structures at risk of mine subsidence are in Western Pennsylvania, according to the DEP. About 5 percent of them have insurance, insurance program administrator Lawrence Ruane said.

“I expect that will continue to increase. From this subsidence event (in Mt. Oliver), it's created quite an awareness,” Ruane said. He said the rarity of subsidence-related paid claims — about 25 a year — keeps premiums low.

Meanwhile, new technology is making it easier for property owners and environmental regulators to check on and alert residents to hazardous areas. A digital mapping project at lets many Pennsylvanians check their neighborhoods for subsidence on a street-by-street level.

In Mt. Oliver, a DEP contractor — Coastal Drilling East of Morgantown — is boring holes along Frederick Street to determine the scope of the subsidence. Workers have drilled 37 holes so far and identified a seam between two coal blocks that probably caused the ground movement, DEP spokesman John Poister said.

Coastal Drilling could finish its work this week. It's expected to fill the void with a grout mixture pumped 70 to 90 feet below the surface.

Once that's done, property owners whose houses were evacuated can hire engineers to evaluate the structural damage and determine whether to make repairs or start the demolition process, borough Council President Billie Michener said. She said low-interest loans might be available to help.

Adam Smeltz is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-380-5676 or

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