Drainage from old mines not an easy fix
Squirrel Hill resident Dale Carney talks to Bruce Golden, left, of the Western Pennsylvania Coalition for Abandoned Mine Reclamation.
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At the base of a sloping driveway behind a row of houses at Denniston Street and Aylesboro Avenue in Squirrel Hill, a sign placed by frustrated residents reads, "Abandoned Mine Hazard."
In dry weather, the site is innocuous. But when it rains, water from an old mine site seeps out and joins a pool that extends halfway across Aylesboro and to the corner 30 feet away.
The water has been a neighborhood headache for many years, but it has wider implications in a region that sits atop sprawling honeycombs of abandoned mines. And as numerous individual property owners are finding out, money for reclamation won't fix the bulk of the problems old mines are causing.
Mine subsidence is a growing threat as old mine supports decay, according to Eric Cavazza, design section chief for the Bureau of Abandoned Mine Reclamation.
But of 1,000 inquiries a year to the state's Bureau of Abandoned Mine Reclamation, 50 to 100 rate as imminent danger hazards that the bureau and the federal Office of Surface Mining send teams out to stabilize, said Scott Horrell, environmental program manager at the state bureau. One was the 10,000-gallon-a-minute blow-out of water from a '30s-era mine into the streets of McDonald last winter. Another was a $4 million project to shore up land beneath 350 homes in Chartiers Township several years ago, he said.
The water on Aylesboro isn't even contaminated enough for reclamation dollars. And, mine drainage or not, if it pools in a municipal right of way, money that's set aside to remediate mine subsidence and drainage cannot be used to fix the problem, said Ron Ruman, a spokesman for the Department of Environmental Protection. Such a situation is a municipal issue, he said.
The city of Pittsburgh and Allegheny County, however, put the onus on owners of the property above the mine, contending that it is a private property issue.
Mines that played out in the 1930s and 1940s -- long before reclamation laws were enacted in the mid-1970s -- lie beneath the suburbs ringing Pittsburgh, DEP maps show. The Hill District, Polish Hill and neighborhoods south of the Monongahela River are also densely undermined; Greenfield and Hazelwoodto a lesser degree, and smaller parts of Squirrel Hill, Stanton Heights and North Side hillsides have scattered abandoned mines beneath them.
"Most were propped up with timbers, and as they decay and collapse, there is definitely more potential for subsidence," said Mr. Cavazza. "We have seen a gradual increase, and I have been here for 23-plus years. It's slowly growing."
Land-use lawyers differ on whether the property owner is responsible when underground water seeps into a municipal right-of-way.
Ira Weiss, a specialist in municipal and land-use law, said property owners are not allowed to divert water from a natural course for discharge elsewhere, but in the case of water seeping out -- not redirected by anyone's efforts -- the owners should not be faulted.
In fact, he said, because the water pools on a city street, government should be responsible, out of obligation for public safety.
"That is a basic service of government," Mr. Weiss said.
Guy Costa, director of the Department of Public Works, said the city has offered help. City engineers studied the problem and offered property owners a remediation plan this year that would cost them an estimated $7,000. But the property owners "are responsible for not getting the water on city streets," he said.
They could be cited, since the water does impede the flow of traffic, but the city has refrained from citing, not knowing the exact source.
Dave Wheitner, a Denniston Street resident, and several of his neighbors have committed to pay half the $7,000 estimate.The state DEP is presenting no obstacles. "You'd think the city would take us up on our offer to pay half the estimate," said Mr. Wheitner. "The DEP told us that if [water] blew out like at the church in the Hill, they would step in."
Before DEP's cleanup in 2004, 25 gallons a minute had found exit points from an old mine into and around the John Wesley African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church on Herron Avenue. DEP rerouted the water's channels and drained the church basement of 18 inches of water at a cost of $67,000.
Jim Holden, supervisor of the DEP's mine subsidence insurance program, said that "probably a million structures are at risk" throughout the state, but only 58,000 insurance policies have been written, both by the state and individual insurance agents. The state's program is a nonprofit.
Mr. Wheitner and many of his neighbors have the insurance. It covers only foundational damage, which includes retaining walls, driveways, fences and swimming pools. It does not include impediments on municipal rights of way, such as water on Aylesboro.
Bruce Golden, regional coordinator of the Western Pennsylvania Coalition for Abandoned Mine Reclamation, visited the neighbors on Aylesboro one recent morning. A lab report showed that aluminum is on the high side, with an acidic pH, he said. But the water was not contaminated enough to be a priority for federal remediation money; there was not even the orange staining that's a telltale sign of metals that leech out from old mine sites.
"I do think you have an issue here," Mr. Golden told the neighbors who grouped around him at the base of the driveway. "It's just a matter of who might address it."
As a result of mining before the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act of 1977, he said, "we've got a legacy problem, and we've all inherited it."
For more information about mine subsidence where you live, call toll free 1-800-922-1678, or visit the Department of Environmental Protection's Mine Subsidence Insurance Web site at www.pamsi.org. Click on the orange bar that reads "online maps" then click on the county, then the municipality you live in.
First Published November 18, 2007 12:00 am