Undermining Lives

Longwall Mining Produces That Sinking Feeling

To step inside Lee Shields" greenhouse is to cloak your senses with the spectacular sights and smells of French lavender, lemon eucalyptus, curly spearmint and hundreds of other unusual plants. Tucked away in the far southwestern corner of Pennsylvania, this 50-acre organic herb and flower farm is just a stone’s throw from the West Virginia border.

When Shields and his wife purchased this land in 1968, unlimited groundwater and nutrient-rich soil made Greene County the perfect place to settle down and open a nursery. And for decades, this proved true. But the family’s utopia was shattered earlier this year when a longwall mining operation rumbled 500 feet below their property. The mining machine’s steel plow pushed tons of coal from the Earth, stealing the surface support as it advanced.

On March 18, the Shields" home, greenhouses, fields and everything else on the farm "subsided" nearly five feet within 48 hours. It was continuing to shift months later. "We see mini-slides all over the hillsides, and the fence posts move up and down," Lee Shields says. "The whole house is off-center and the roof leaks."

Throughout coal country, the manmade earthquakes caused by longwall mining transform perennial streams into parched creek beds, while previously dry fields become flooded. Wells that supplied drinking water for generations disappear overnight. Healthy trees topple to the ground after longwall mining causes their roots to "spring" and weaken.

Longwall mining is around 120 years old, but the practice was not widespread until about 1980. Imagine a 30-foot meat slicer with dozens of whirling blades that chomps into an underground seam of coal—up to 1,000 feet wide. Loosened chunks tumble onto a conveyor belt. A single longwall path can stretch for two miles, causing everything on the surface directly above it to collapse.

"Like Pac-Man, it munches away at everything in its way," says Anna Filippelli, administrative director for the Tri-State Citizens Mining Network, a grassroots group pushing for industry reforms.

Mine operators prefer longwalling over traditional room-and-pillar mining, contending the method is safer for miners and significantly more efficient. Along with this increased efficiency comes, of course, increased profits: mining companies are willing to shell out about $352,000 per mine annually to repair above-ground structures and replace water supplies, according to the Pennsylvania Bulletin.

While longwall mining is most common in Pennsylvania, it’s practiced in 10 other states. The majority of the mines—in Utah, Colorado, Alabama, Kentucky, West Virginia, Wyoming and New Mexico—are in rural areas. More than 40 percent of all coal mined from deep sources in the U.S. is obtained using longwall mining methods, according to the Department of Energy.

The damage to water supplies is alarming. Cruise through Greene County and you will see ugly 1,000-gallon tanks dotting the landscape. The coal companies supply residents with these so-called "water buffaloes" after longwall mining causes their groundwater to vanish, as most coal country residents aren’t hooked up to municipal water utilities. "My well was 10 feet deep when I first moved here," Shields says. "Now it’s 200 feet and the water is brackish. Even after treatment with chemicals, it tastes lousy." The tanks are no solution for the aquatic life that lived in the now-ruined springs, or the animals that drank from them, notes the Raymond Profitt Foundation, a Philadelphia-based nonprofit group that studies mining effects.

Pennsylvania’s current mining law stipulates that coal companies may destroy private property and water supplies if they fix them after the fact. Property owners contend, however, they must live in chaos while the mining companies legally take up to three years to complete repairs. Even then, homeowners often complain of shoddy workmanship.

Eighty-Four Mining Company plowed underneath Marian and Dan Plovics" Washington County, Pennsylvania home in 1997. The house began to tilt that Christmas Eve, finally resting at a 25-inch diagonal slant. Walls separated from floors, and hairline cracks looked like tiny veins along the ceilings. The Plovics" well water disappeared.

Living on a slope made Marian Plovic physically sick, she says. "It tore the scar tissue from my gall bladder surgery and gave me five hernias." Dan Plovic broke down in tears one evening at dinner, watching the peas roll off his tilted plate and onto the floor.

The mining company moved the couple out of the house while it patched up the damage, Marian Plovic says. "But my husband spent every day for two years repairing things that weren’t fixed properly. For 35 years, we’d never had more than a $40 gas bill, but for our first month back in the house, it was $184 because they hadn’t sealed all the cracks." Five years after being undermined, "numerous little things" remain out of whack, she says, adding that a six-page complaint with the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) was rejected. "They feel that because I can live in the house, it’s fine."

The Plovics blame the DEP for allowing mining tycoons to violate clean water laws and bring down property values. Filippelli agrees, joking that, under Republican leadership that has been slow to enforce mining regulations, the agency’s acronym should stand for the "Department of Environmental Pillage." She isn’t pushing for an end to mining; she simply wants to see Pennsylvania lawmakers amend longwall regulations to protect property owners.

And her group, the Tri-State Citizens Mining Network, may finally be making headway. Earlier this year, Pennsylvania State Representative Camille "Bud" George (D-Clearfield County) introduced the Coal Communities Fairness Act, which would require coal companies to investigate effects of longwall mining on property and water supplies before a project begins. It would also prohibit mining under most roads, historic properties and public utilities, and require permanent water supplies to be provided within 90 days when wells are disrupted.

But George Ellis, president of the Pennsylvania Coal Association, says that in his 20 years of working as a lobbyist for the industry, the status quo has ruled in Harrisburg. "I don’t see much change in how the department operates," Ellis notes.