Pennsylvania says mining destroyed lake dam in park

Consol Energy sued for $58 million to fix Greene Co. damage

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The state has sued Consol Energy Inc. claiming it lied about the risks of mining under Ryerson Station State Park in Greene County and caused the failure of Ryerson Dam, necessitating the draining of Duke Lake, a popular swimming, boating and fishing spot.

The state Department of Conservation and Natural Resources is seeking compensatory damages in excess of $58 million, plus unspecified punitive damages, from the Upper St. Clair-based mining company, according to the lawsuit, filed in Allegheny County Common Pleas Court yesterday afternoon.

The lawsuit said the cost to replace Ryerson Dam may exceed $30 million, the cost to restore Duke Lake will be more than $8 million and the damage to the park's natural resources is more than $20 million.

It is believed to be the first time that a state park has been damaged by mine subsidence.

The 28-page civil complaint alleges that Consol knew it was risky to mine near the 62-acre lake and its 45-year-old concrete dam, and falsely represented the level of the risk to the DCNR both before and after the damage to the dam occurred in April 2005.

The state is requesting a jury trial.

"Given the increased risk of catastrophic damages, which did in fact occur, the conscious decision by Consol to not advise DCNR of the true facts was irresponsible, reckless and indifferent," the complaint states.

"The actions of Consol employees with regard to the misrepresentations and concealment were incurred within the scope of their duties and were carried out with the intent to further Consol's 'for profit' interests at the expense of public safety and protected public natural resources."

The complaint did not specify the misrepresentations, and Chris Novak, a DCNR spokeswoman, declined to comment on its allegations or provide details.

Although mines are regulated by the state Department of Environmental Protection, DCNR is responsible for the state's park lands.

Tom Hoffman, a Consol spokesman, also declined comment on the lawsuit late yesterday afternoon, saying the company had not seen it.

"We were a significant distance away from the [dam] site, more than 1,200 feet," Mr. Hoffman said. "As far as I know, no evidence has been presented that shows mining was the cause."

Cracks were first discovered in the face of Ryerson Dam in April 2005, according to state Department of Environmental Protection Bureau of Mining and Reclamation records. Those same records state that Consol's Bailey Mine was then operating its longwall mining machinery 1,850 feet from the dam and 350 feet below the surface.

After the cracks expanded on the face of Ryerson Dam in the spring and early summer of 2005, it was judged unsafe and Duke Lake was drained in July. At the time the lake was drained, the Bailey Mine longwall machinery was less than 1,000 feet from the lake and advancing toward it.

Longwall mining is a full extraction deep mining technique that causes immediate surface subsidence of up to 4 feet. The subsidence occurs directly above the space where the coal is removed and also extends into adjacent surface land, similar to how a wider area of sand in an hourglass funnels to the bottom.

According to state mining bureau records, the dam was outside the area where subsidence would be expected to cause problems on the surface -- the so-called "angle of influence."

But a $1.2 million investigation of the dam failure done for the DCNR by independent consultant Gannett Fleming, ruled out natural causes.

Environmental groups have called on DCNR to release the complete findings of the study, which was finished eight months ago. But the department has refused to do so during months of private negotiations with Consol and because of the possibility of legal action against the state's largest coal company.

If mining caused the damage to the dam, even though the dam was outside the Bailey Mine's presumed angle of influence, it could mean that state regulators should expand the surface area within which mining companies should be held liable for damages to surface property owners.

"I'm not surprised one of the charges is fraud by Consol," said Michael Nixon, an environmental attorney and chair of the mining issues committee for the Pennsylvania Chapter of the Sierra Club. "This is a chronic problem and once again reveals that it's a flim-flam to say that such subsidence can be controlled. This is a demonstration of that."

William Plassio, the DEP's district mining manager, said he's seen nothing to indicate that the mining had any effect on the dam. He also has not seen the DCNR consultant's report.

"The mining was beyond the area where we would expect to see a problem," Mr. Plassio said in an interview last month.

Duke Lake was the centerpiece for the 1,164-acre Ryerson Station State Park which attracted 160,000 visitors a year.

In 2004, the year before it was drawn down, more than 2,200 fishermen encircled the lake on the opening day of trout season. Since the lake was drained, the area has been little more than a muddy field with a stream running through it.

The dam was built across the Dunkard Fork of Wheeling Creek in 1960.

The DCNR announced in November that it has begun design work to replace the dam.


Don Hopey can be reached at dhopey@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1983.


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