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Hill District mine drainage targeted

| Saturday, Nov. 17, 2007

The hill behind Johnny Delaney's Hill District home has been getting soggier for five decades, but state workers hope to dry it out over the next few months.

Delaney, 67, of Herron Avenue said the water has been flowing even in the driest weather since his family moved in when he was 14 years old. His neighbor's backyard has become a swamp, and this summer the ground between their two homes became sodden.

"This summer, I was mowing over there," he said, pointing at the strip of land between the two houses. "I noticed my lawn mower was leaving tracks."

Last week, a state Department of Environmental Protection crew began opening up the hillside to drain an estimated 200,000-gallon pool of water that has collected in an abandoned coal mine.

The bituminous coal seams found throughout Western Pennsylvania become conduits for water filtering through a hillside because the porous coal usually sits on a waterproof bed of clay and shale. Unable to sink further into the ground, the water follows the seam until it reaches an outcropping.

The water gathered above Herron Avenue threatened homes in two ways: The waterlogged ground below the mine could have slid into the houses, or part of the ground around the mine could have suddenly collapsed and released a flood of water down the hillside.

Earl Hord, who lives two houses up from Delaney, said the volume of water running through the French drains around his house has dropped by about half since the DEP started its work.

"So far, we're pretty pleased with what's going on," he said. "The water in my basement has slowed down significantly."

Hord, 47, has lived in the house for 12 years. His family has lived in it for 80 years.

At night, he can hear the running water from his living room. "You can hear it come through the side walls in the basement," he said.

Once most of the water is gone, the agency plans to install a permanent drainage system from the mine that will keep the water from accumulating again.

Coal mining on the Pittsburgh coal seam took place in the Upper Hill District in the mid- to late-1800s, according to the DEP. Few of the mines were documented, much less mapped, so the agency doesn't know the size or age of the mine above Herron Avenue.

DEP spokeswoman Holly Cairns said the agency tested the water coming from the mine and determined it is safe to discharge into the city's storm drainage system.

A federal tax on coal mining pays for a Cambria County-based DEP construction crew that's handling the project. The state estimates that eliminating the threat will cost about $100,000.

Dave Hochstein, the crew chief, said he saw how swampy the ground beneath the mine had become when he was taking an initial look at the problem this summer.

"I never got bit by so many mosquitoes since I was a kid," he said.

The water level has dropped about three to four feet this week, he said.

Hochstein said his eight-man crew should have the drain completed by next week, and will be back in the spring to landscape the hill. The crew handles small mine reclamation projects in 32 Pennsylvania counties.

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