WEST FINLEY, Pa. -- People in these pristine hills speak of "the longwall" digging endlessly 500 feet and more beneath them, a prodigious coal mining machine that has been extracting the lucrative Pittsburgh seam for 30 years in a continuation of this state's long history of reliance on King Coal.
The whirling blades of the longwall, which does not leave behind the support pillars of earlier, more labor-intensive mining methods, have produced mile-long caverns 7 feet high and 1,000 feet wide that remain invisible to the life above until the inevitable subsidence occurs. Then the topography drops 3 or 4 feet as the longwall's wake becomes clear, often as cracked houses, altered streams and disappearing water wells, effects long accepted as the cost of underpinning the state economy.
But lately, residents here in Greene and Washington counties have been organizing through litigation and newsletters against the longwall in a feat as earth-defying in its way as the high-speed mechanism tirelessly criss-crossing below.
"If people in the rest of the state knew about these houses and streams, they wouldn't tolerate it," said Ed Perry, assistant supervisor of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in State College, who complains that the longwall has been wreaking environmental disaster as it chews its way toward West Virginia.
The ground-level complaints, focused lately on some tilted and cracked houses, extend as well into the deep woods, where only a few critics like Perry have been marking the longwall's progress. But the state is beginning to pay attention, having ordered a private study to measure what has been happening to streams, springs and wetlands as the longwall burrows below.
"There's no debating that subsidence does occur," said Ted Kopas, spokesman for the state Department of Environmental Protection, which licenses the mining. "But we want to be able to document with scientific information longwall's effects on water resources, on the streams, wetlands and buffer areas," he said. "There's considerable debate about that."
Environmentalists and other critics who are attempting to rally the public say the damage has been devastating to water resources as well as hillside houses that can be severely tilted, cracked and wrenched as they subside.
But coal company officials insist the damage from ground-level subsidence has been repairable and within legal bounds. The companies maintain that they have complied with state laws requiring them to compensate homeowners and protect the environment.
Critics, however, say that state watchdogs give the industry free rein.
For weeks now, the immediate ground-level symptoms of longwall mining -- housing cracks and water supply losses -- have been the talk of Laurel Run hollow in Waynesburg, 10 miles to the east where the extractors have been burrowing around the clock beneath a pastoral setting. Homeowners, who are presented with a range of damage-control compensation and buyout options by the company, question why they must tolerate any change at all, particularly without public hearings. But the company emphasizes that mining rights, usually sold by earlier owners at the turn of the century, always stipulated the owner's obligation to acknowledge the company's undermining rights.
"There's nothing like spring water," lamented Dick Patterson, a 64-year-old cattle farmer at the top of the hollow who has been told he will lose all seven of his prime springs when the longwall soon goes through. He will have to buy water that he now gets free, he noted, whenever a municipal hook-up is built. Meantime, water will be trucked in at the mining company's expense, small comfort to Patterson and his neighbors.
"I already had a nervous medical condition before this thing came underneath, and now I'm overwhelmed," said Jerry Jewell, disturbed to see his house subsiding 6 inches more at the front than at the rear. "I took a company offer," he said of an undisclosed lump sum for repairs by which he chose to stay in the house and admittedly gamble, like other owners, that the cost of finally resetting his house would not be extravagant.
"It's a-crackin' again," warned Patterson, studying the excavation wounds around Jewell's house. "You'll never see the end of it."
The mining company, Consol Energy Inc., insists that 30 years' experience shows few scars will remain soon after the machines move onward.
"I understand the emotional aspect of the debate if I'm a homeowner," said Thomas F. Hoffman, Consol vice president, who insisted the effect was "sort of like having your bathroom and kitchen done at the same time." He maintained, however, that most damaged houses are either well repaired or purchased at a fair price, unless homeowners resist through lawsuits, with the result that unsightly standoffs dot the countryside. Otherwise, "there are just no long-term effects visible, " Hoffman said.
A state study in 1999 concluded that 59 percent of undermined structures were damaged and 70 percent of the damage claims were resolved, with the fate of the others not known, according to the Department of Environmental Protection.
"The longwall's been pretty disastrous," said Perry, who complains that the mining companies have long been damaging miles of vital stream and creek networks. "The sediment from longwall mining is a major pollutant of streams," added Perry, who is conducting a federal study of more than 100 local streams.
Chief among them lately is Enlow Fork, a principal feeder creek here, where Perry, an aquatic biologist, has done wildlife research for years. As miles of longwall mining criss-crossed beneath, he said, he has found serious disruption of the life of the creek bed, which dropped 3 feet as the surrounding land subsided. Thick sediment now covers cobble and gravel breeding grounds for various species, he said, while wide, stagnant pools have appeared, ballooning far beyond a healthy stream course of riffles, glides and runs. The creek's food chain is being stifled by sediment and reduced oxygen levels, Perry has concluded.
Consol Energy insists any damage is temporary and may even be a boon. "Change is not necessarily bad," Hoffman maintains. "One can have changes that are in fact an enhancement," he said in an interview, contending the pool effect might prove a benefit during droughts. And while fracture lines from undermining can detour a stream underground, Hoffman maintained that roiled sediment reseals the cracks so that "the stream will in effect heal itself."
Environmentalists are apoplectic at such pronouncements as the longwall wends its way through the Pittsburgh seam, one of one of the richest in the nation.
"This just keeps going on and on," said Joe Turner, director of the Raymond Profitt Foundation, a private, nonprofit environmental group in Langhorne that is suing the federal government for what it says is failure to enforce basic environment laws. "In West Virginia, at least you can see the strip mining damage to the mountain tops from the air, but here the damage is happening from underground. Where and when does it end?"
But coal extraction and the risk of subsidence are almost as old as Pennsylvania, Hoffman noted. Most residents have long accepted its economic benefits, he maintained, except for "a small group of people" now trying to mount a modern fight against an economic fact of life that, he said, is two centuries old.