Friday, November 24, 2006

Health Focus: More Unintended Consequences

Again, safety and health don't stop at the mine gate or at the boundaries of bureaucratic jurisdictions.

Don Hopey of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette recently covered a story that, among other things, touched on unintended health consequences, for one particular couple, of mining in their community. Subsidence is not uncommon in these coal fields, but in this case the consequences reportedly included illness from toxic mold -- and anxiety and panic attacks.

SPRAGGS, Pa. -- On Thanksgiving Day 2000, Roy and Diane Brendel had to eat turkey and trimmings down the road at her brother's house while Consol Energy carved a 6-foot-thick slab of the Pittsburgh coal seam out from under their National Historic Register-listed home.

It was the first time in 30 years that the Brendels couldn't host the Thanksgiving meal in what was then the finest example of Spanish Revival architecture in southwestern Pennsylvania. A family tradition was broken, and now, six agonizing, frustrating and painful years later, they have to admit that their home is too.

Known as the Ernest Thralls House in honor of its builder, the sandstone and stucco structure in Greene County fell more than four feet in the subsidence that followed Consol's Blacksville No. 2 longwall mine under the Brendels' 133 rural green acres. As it fell, the 12-room dwelling twisted, corkscrewing into the ground like some slow-motion version of Dorothy's house dropped on Munchkinland.

"When we came back from my brother's six years ago I sat here in the night listening to my entire house crack apart," Mrs. Brendel, 60, a retired elementary school teacher, said recently as she stood outside the severely damaged and soon-to-be-bulldozed home. "It was the most horrendous thing I'd ever been through." ....

As plaster walls cracked open wide enough to insert a fist, as doors went cockeyed and jammed shut, as stairs pulled off of their anchoring walls and hardwood floors buckled and humped, as water pipes burst and the ceramic tile roof leaked, the Brendels vowed to fight to the bitter end to get their historic home repaired.

...Although the state Department of Environmental Protection finally ordered Consol to repair the house this past spring, those repairs never happened. Black mold had by then infested the house so pervasively and produced such an unhealthy atmosphere their doctor told them to get out.

A month later the Brendels reluctantly agreed to an out-of-court settlement with Consol...

"We thought when the mining company got the repair order from the DEP they'd do something," Mrs. Brendel said. "When they failed to do anything yet again, I looked at Roy and he at me. Our eyes were watery red slits because of the mold. We had to move out." ...

The mold had its genesis, the Brendels say, when the home subsided and their basement sank below the local water table and flooded. It took Consol six months to install sump pumps. The mold permeated the house, inside the walls and under the floors. At the end it was so bad that this past summer they had to burn more than a third of their belongings -- furniture, clothes, books and bedding (and scrap most appliances) -- in the field out back.

"Our house is destroyed," said Mrs. Brendel, who felt so terrorized by the destruction of her home and the lack of help from state and federal agencies two years ago she suffered from anxiety and panic attacks." ...

Under terms of the settlement the Brendels received some money -- the amount hasn't been revealed because of a confidentiality agreement insisted on by Consol -- and the coal company bought the right to walk away without repairing the structure as required by the state's mining law, Act 54.

That still-controversial law, written in part by coal industry attorneys and quickly approved on the day before Christmas 1994, allowed coal companies to dig under homes and other structures built before 1966, provided the property owner was compensated for subsidence damage and water loss. Before 1994, coal companies had to leave pillars of coal to support such homes...

The law enables Consol and other coal companies to mine the rich Pittsburgh coal seam using longwall techniques. That full extraction method, used in seven massive mines in southwestern Pennsylvania, removes coal in horizontal "panels" 800 to 1,500 feet wide and two to three miles long, causing immediate subsidence on the surface...

Bethel Park-based Consol Energy, which had sued the Brendels, the U.S. Department of the Interior and the Keeper of the National Historic Register in U.S. District Court to remove the Thralls House from the Register of Historic Places, confirmed that the terms of the settlement are "confidential," but declined any substantive comment on what happened to the house. The settlement ended that court case...

Mr. Brendel said they plan to raze their historic home early next spring and then break ground in the field behind their old house ... The new home will be built on stilts, like a beach house, in an effort to mitigate any future subsidence.

For now, they've moved into a new 30-foot trailer set up on a cracked macadam basketball court just behind the old house and surrounded by insulating hay bales for the winter. Though they're not looking forward to winter in the trailer, both say they are relieved that the battle over the house is done.

Hopey reports a comment by the couple's attorney that it was difficult to see how the mining company in this case came out ahead in the long run. If reputation has value, the company certainly seems to have lost some.


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