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Longwalling plan called threat to historic Avella farm

| Thursday, June 16, 2011

The National Trust for Historic Preservation named a 214-year-old Washington County farm as one of the country's 11 most endangered historic places in hopes of preventing longwall mining operations beneath it.

Alliance Resources of Tulsa, Okla., which owns mineral rights at the 400-acre Isaac Manchester farm in Avella, applied to the state Department of Environmental Protection to mine beneath all but three acres using longwall mining.

"Very few small, independent farms remain in the hands of the family who founded them," Stephanie Meeks, president of the trust, said on Wednesday in a statement. "We cannot allow two centuries of history to sink into the ground."

Alliance Resources did not return phone calls.

Longwall mining extracts coal in underground panels or blocks that can be hundreds of feet wide and miles long, said Carol Raulston, a spokeswoman for the National Mining Association in Washington. The technique can make the ground sink 4 to 6 feet, said Raulston and representatives of the trust, a nonprofit advocacy group.

The same family has owned the 400-acre farm since 1797 and it is still a working farm. It has been home to eight generations of the Manchester family. The heart of the farm is a brick Georgian manor house finished in 1815. The home and surrounding three acres are listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

In 1917, three Manchester sisters -- Alice, Cora and Francena -- sold mineral rights to most of the farm.The National Historic Trust would like Alliance Resources to mine the property using the room and pillar method, in which beams are left underground so there is more support.

"We hope this will bring us to the table with state and federal mining and environmental regulators," said Mindy Crawford, executive director of Preservation Pennsylvania, which nominated the farm for the annual national list.

"I can see why people want to insure that legacy. But Pennsylvania is the heart of U.S. longwall mining, and companies that do it have a lot of experience," Raulston said.

No mining operations have started on the Manchester farm. DEP spokesman Kevin Sunday said the company's application was being reviewed, and he did not know long the permitting process would take.

Mining in Somerset, Indiana and Armstrong counties is done with the more costly room and pillar method, but George Ellis, president of the Pennsylvania Coal Association, a trade group representing the state's coal companies, said room and pillar mining "would not make economic sense" in Greene and Washington counties because of the geology.

"We have done this (longwall mining) before and have preserved the surface and surface structure," Ellis said.

But not always. In 2000, a Consol Energy longwall mining operation led to subsidence that destroyed a historic Spanish revival home in Spraggs, Greene County.

The Isaac Manchester farmhouse does not resemble most Pennsylvania farmhouses.

"It's Newport come to Western Pennsylvania," said Walter Gallas, director of the Northeast office for the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

In 1797, Isaac Manchester, his wife Phebe and the first five of their 12 children moved from Newport, R.I., to Western Pennsylvania to establish a homestead. After building a barn and workshop, Manchester spent 20 years building the three-story home.

The family meticulously preserved items from daily life, including 19th century sewing patterns, looms and clothing, as well as letters and notes that reference everything from major historic events to day-to-day farm business.

The trust has made the list of endangered historic sites each year since 1988. The farm is the only property listed this year that is threatened by mining.

"Our organization began working with the owners in 2004 to find ways to protect the property, and we are pleased that Preservation Pennsylvania and the National Trust for Historic Preservation recognize its value and are providing support for our cooperative work with the family to preserve it," said Arthur ZiegIer, president of the Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation.

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