HARTSHORNE — Tanya Spears had taken her first sip of morning coffee when suddenly her feet felt as if they were on wheels. The house creaked. The floor swayed. Her caffeine fix sloshed in its mug. Tanya’s husband, Clint, said at first they thought their house had settled, but it was soon apparent that within seconds its concrete slab had moved four inches. It turns out it wasn’t the house giving way, but an old coal mine underneath it. "By the end of day we were pretty much homeless,” said Clint Spears, 50. They moved out that night, fearing the worst — that the ground would swallow the house with them in it, he said. The Spearses are casualities of the long-gone, booming coal industry that abandoned a maze of tunnels under their hometown. And for the past four decades, the problems have been up to the government to fix. In Oklahoma, there is an estimated $100 million in needed repairs caused by coal mining, said Mike Kastl, director of the Oklahoma Conservation Commission’s Abandoned Mine Reclamation Program. There are 40,000 acres of abandoned underground mines in eastern Oklahoma, spanning 16 counties but primarily in Pittsburg and Latimer counties, Kastl said. This year, the U.S. Interior Department allocated about $2.4 million for projects, and while officials expect a slight increase in future funds there is concern that money once available for emergencies has been cut. Kastl said those emergency dollars were critical to the program. "We do our best to keep up with the day-to-day stuff, but there are problems that are unpredictable and require immediate attention,” he said. One project is underway now.
Emergency projectWhat is thought to be the most costly emergency project in state history is under way on U.S. 270 near Alderson in Pittsburg County. The state has received $800,000 in emergency funding from the U.S. Office of Surface Mining to keep portions of the highway from sinking. The allocation is eight times greater than the state’s usual annual appropriation for such work, Kastl said. Most emergency projects cost $8,000 to $12,000, he said. Henry Roye, project manager, can point out every patch on the stretch of highway compromised by the underground voids. He said the solution was to fix what lies underneath. Holes, some as deep as 23 feet, are dug in the highway, and the voids filled with grout. "Every cave-in poses a different set of problems, so there’s no blueprint of solutions,” Roye said.
Finding solutionsRoye inspects nearly all reports of cave-ins, whether they’re in the middle of a farmer’s field or under a home, like the Spearses’. He said the spring rainy season is the worst. The moisture softens the earth, and antique timbers that supported the tunnels crumble from decay. The Spearses’ home couldn’t be salvaged, but reclamation officials were able to save a neighbor’s home, Roye said. "I still feel bad for them, but it was too far gone too quick,” he said. The program’s money can only be used to repair a problem and not to compensate property owners, he said. Clint Spears said for years he wrangled with the mortgage company that financed his home before he was free of the $47,000 debt. He said his homeowner’s insurance didn’t cover sinking mines, and he virtually walked away from the house. The successes outnumber the losses, Roye said. At Haileyville Public Schools, a sinkhole opened on a playground, almost collapsing the campus agricultural education building. He said they were able to stop it a few feet from the building. In McAlester, a horse was saved after slipping into a mining void filled with water, he said. They’ve even built conservation ponds to clean water that’s been tainted by the minerals and metals prevalent in old mines, Roye said. Maps show entire towns are built over old coal mines, some mines dating back to the late 1800s. Kastl said while it may seem Oklahoma has its share of problems caused by abandoned mines, it’s nothing compared to larger coal mining states. In Pennsylvania alone, about $43 million a year is spent on reclamation. The proceeds for the mining reclamation programs come from a tax on coal, he said. The Oklahoman’s Watchdog Team: Looking out for you. Visit NewsOK.com/watchdog.