Mary Wildfire

A Home Undermined

In 1971, Roy and Diane Brendel fell in love with the beautiful old Thralls home, one of the few examples of Spanish Revival architecture in southwest Pennsylvania.

"It was beautiful, peaceful, serene," says Diane, "a little piece of heaven." Sandstone walls curved around stained-glass windows and a covered well. Two interior doors featured hand-painted scenes of Mexican village life, and there were two tile rugs -- rugs painted onto large sections of tile. Deep green arborvitae and juniper trees nestled against the stone walls in a graceful embrace. A verandah looked out over red tile ledges to the garden, which soon produced much of the food the Brendels ate.

"We hiked every inch of the 133 acres," Diane says. "We knew every spring, every big oak. We were just ecstatic that it was ours. And we shepherded the place, stewarded it, whatever you want to call it."

The Brendels did some maintenance, adding gutters and downspouts and storm windows. When the roof leaked, they got an estimate to have the terra cotta roofing tiles replaced -- $22,000. Reluctantly, they replaced it with a conventional roof. They added a swimming pool for their daughter. Extended family joined them for Thanksgiving dinners under the chandelier in the living room. And then, in March of 1997, came a letter from the CONSOL coal company.

The notice said the company had been granted a permit by the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection, and would soon be moving under their property with a longwall mining machine. This method is very efficient, taking all the coal and using only a few workers. As the machine progresses, the earth falls behind it -- and the surface above it collapses, falling roughly four feet. Most of this subsidence happens within a week, but it can continue in smaller increments for years -- and it doesn't necessarily fall evenly. Structures twist and crack, floors go out of level, doors refuse to close, or to open. Cracks open in fields and highways, streams turn into puddles and fields turn into bogs. Wells go dry.

Everything that made the Thralls House so beautiful now threatened it. Stone, tile, glass -- these are all rigid, breakable materials. On Thanksgiving Day of the year 2000, the longwall undermined this exquisite home, despite the fact that it was listed on the National Register of Historic Places, despite all the years of fighting to preserve it.

Four and a half years later, the Brendels' home is still held together by a network of heavy wooden supports and steel braces, still surrounded by orange hazard fencing. They must step through a half dozen wooden braces to move through the garage to go out to feed the cat; they can't park in the garage; most of the rooms in the house are unusable. The swimming pool is cracked and dry. Both wells dried up immediately -- some of the water eventually came back, but it was undrinkable. Many of the Brendels' possessions have been stored in a couple of trailers parked in their field; unfortunately, the mining changed the water table and these trailers were partially submerged for months. Now they smell intensely of mold.

Completely restoring this property, Roy says, would require essentially tearing down each wall and rebuilding it from scratch. Two barns and a log cabin were also damaged. Meanwhile, CONSOL is paying for the Brendels' water, and their heat, and exterminators -- because myriad cracks leak heat and let bugs and rodents in.

In the end, it seems likely that CONSOL will lose the legal battle, but they have lots of lawyers and could drag it out for years. Roy thinks the company is hoping they'll go the way of others who've been through this stress -- some have had nervous breakdowns, others got divorced and some just caved in to end the headaches. Quite possibly, though, it will end up costing CONSOL more than if they had maneuvered that mining machine around under their house. So why didn't they?

"They didn't want to set a precedent," explained Roy. Had they spared that house, they would have had to justify damaging every subsequent house in their path whose owners saw it as valuable and special. CONSOL may spend more on mitigation, repair and legal costs associated with the Brendels' house than they got from the coal under it, but CONSOL must consider the big picture, the long view -- in terms of time, that is. Their view must be long yet exceedingly narrow, considering only profit.

And they intend to keep amassing profit, by running that longwall machine through many more "panels" under the Pittsburgh coal seam underlying southwestern Pennsylvania and adjacent sections of northern West Virginia and eastern Ohio -- perhaps the richest mineral seam in the world.

The Brendels, of course, are not the only victims. Thousands of people have had, or soon will have, their homes undermined and damaged. Thousands have lost, or will lose, water supplies. In nearby Fallowfield Township, an elderly couple had to stay in a motel while their home underwent the subsidence and subsequent repair, wondering when High Quality Mine would reimburse their hotel bills. Children experience nightmares and dropping grades. People look at their nearby streams and wonder how they'll look after the mine passes underneath -- will their creek turn into a series of pools, like Enlow Creek in Greene County? Will it dry up entirely like Laurel Run -- or, as the local people call it now, Laurel Doesn't Run?

Brandon Hudock underwent a 69-day hunger strike on the steps of the Pennsylvania state Capitol in an attempt to bring attention to one aspect of the defective law -- it doesn't cover compensation for lost business. His family's greenhouse business was severely damaged by mining in '97 and '98, and they still have not been fully compensated.

It's also not a problem exclusive to Pennsylvania; mines are causing subsidence in northern West Virginia as well, and in western Ohio, where one of the last snips of virgin forest in the state, the Dysart woods, is about to be undermined. The primary threat there is to the stream that runs through the woods. There are plans afoot for longwall mining in Illinois, and it's expanding in Australia.

As with the better-known mountaintop removal method of mining, this destruction is justified on the grounds of jobs and economics. Both methods are claimed to be necessary because they are so "efficient" -- but unfortunately, "efficient" means that a great deal of coal can be taken quickly with very few men. The result has been massive layoffs of coal miners. However, this has created a sense of desperation in the coalfields, leaving many unwilling to look too closely at the damage. These remaining jobs pay much better than anything likely to replace them.

Unfortunately the United Mine Workers, like other unions, is weak now. Perhaps this explains why they can't see their way to oppose the methods that have cost four out of five miners their jobs in the last 30 years. Their support has not only helped the coal companies get away with these destructive new methods of mining, but also welcomed the scores of new coal-fired power plants looming on the horizon. These are slated primarily for the same places already suffering from coal mining of the past and present, as well as a plethora of dirty existing power plants.

With a Republican administration in Washington eager to give coal companies anything they want, and Democratic administrations in Pennsylvania and West Virginia that want the same thing, the people of the coalfields face an uphill battle to defend their land and homes.

Mary Wildfire is a writer in West Virginia and former activist with Tri-State Citizens Mining Network, which deals with the effects of mining, especially longwall mining. Email For more about longwall mining, email

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