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Pennsylvania leads nation in abandoned mines, but feds see light at the end of the tunnel

A group of men and women stand under umbrellas during a rainstorm while wearing raincoats.
Oliver Morrison
90.5 WESA
Lt. Gov. Austin Davis (left) and Interior Secretary Deb Haaland tour the site of a $6 million contract that will prevent more than 100 homes from being impacted by abandoned mine subsidence.

Pennsylvania is receiving another quarter-billion dollars from the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law this year – the latest federal investment in helping communities respond to environmental problems caused by abandoned mines.

Pennsylvania has more abandoned coal mines than any other state, and the potential danger was made clear to Lt. Gov. Austin Davis and U.S. Interior Secretary Deb Haaland as they toured a neighborhood above an abandoned mine in Bovard, Westmoreland County.

“Whenever that mine drops, you see all the cracking in the foundations, doors won’t open, windows won’t open, we have to shut off utilities like gas and water,” said Department of Environmental Protection program manager Roger Rummel, who served as their tour guide. And communities can be undermined in another way, as home values sink when new buyers are scared off.

More than 100 homes in a 35-acre portion of Bovard are in danger, according to the DEP. The agency has already had to take emergency measures to help two homes in the area from becoming unlivable. And several homes in the area were showing additional damage, like cracks in the foundation.

Heavy rains prevented Haaland from seeing those homes directly – and also precluded Gov. Josh Shapiro from attending – but Haaland said the Biden Administration was ready to meet the challenge.

Biden’s signature Bipartisan Infrastructure Act allocates $11 billion to address abandoned mines nationwide. “Overall, this funding is expected to enable reclamation of nearly all current inventoried abandoned mine lands in this country” within 15 years, said Haaland. “I'll say that again: nearly all.”

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In Bovard, the contract to stabilize homes was awarded to Howard Concrete Pumping. The company will dig 4-inch holes beneath the homes between 20 and 120 feet deep, and then pump a concrete mixture underneath until the space beneath those homes is filled.

An average home will require about 10 mixer trucks of concrete to fill the hole underneath, and DEP will spend $6 million to remediate all 109 homes in Bovard. But that’s a bargain compared to what it could cost to stabilize a home after it has begun to sink can be expensive. For example, Rummel said, it will cost around $150,000 for the DEP to remediate a single home in Mount Pleasant this week.

Haaland said the administration’s long-term commitment would allow communities to be proactive about the threat.

“Thanks to the scale and foresight of the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, there will be many more years of reliable funding that Pennsylvania can count on in the future,” she said.

Pennsylvania stands to benefit more from that commitment than any other state. In the latest round of funding, the Keystone State received $244 million according to the announcement, while 16 other states received a combined $295 million.

Although mine subsidence was featured during Wednesday’s announcement, the $11 billion allocated in the bipartisan infrastructure act can go to other kinds of remediation including closing dangerous mine shafts, reclaiming unstable slopes and improving water quality by treating acid mine drainage.

The mine beneath Bovard was abandoned by the Keystone Coal and Coke company sometime before the year 1936, according to the DEP. Davis said that while Pennsylvania’s energy economy once thrived on the coal taken out of mines just like it, now they were a burden.

“A lot of those abandoned mines weren't properly closed up, which can lead to a lot of problems,” he said. “from hazardous chemicals draining into our streams and rivers, to sudden shifts in the ground that can cause sinkholes to open up beneath those homes and businesses.”

Oliver Morrison is a general assignment reporter at WESA. He previously covered education, environment and health for PublicSource in Pittsburgh and, before that, breaking news and weekend features for the Wichita Eagle in Kansas.