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.
What 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.