The sinkhole that opened June 15 in Neshannock Township was not expected — but it wasn't a surprise either.
"This community is undermined by coal mine shafts, as are a lot of communities in this area," said township supervisor Leslie Bucci. "This is not the first time we've seen this, it won't be the last."
When the sinkhole — about three feet deep and two feet wide — opened about 30 feet off the first base line at the lower youth ball field at Pearson Park, officials did what they could to resolve the situation.
"As soon as I got the call, I looked at it and gated the ball field," she said. "DEP came in and we took care of it. On Friday we got word that the field is safe to use. Safety is always our main concern. When we find (sinkholes) we take care of them."
Bucci said she immediately contacted Jon Smoyer, a professional geologist with the Bureau of Abandoned Mine Reclamation group of the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection in Ebensburg.
"DEP determined that an old mine had opened and they filled in the hole. This has been the site of considerable coal mining in the past and portions of the township now are honeycombed with mine shafts. Mine subsidence has been an issue as the area developed."
Tom Decker, community relations coordinator of the Department of Environmental Protection office in Meadville, said DEP makes repairs as it is contacted.
"You don't see sinkholes every day but they are not uncommon," he said, adding, "You can't guess where the next hole will open but when they pop up, we come and fill them in."
The ball field hole was filled with a slurry and crushed limestone. The ground, he said, was then vibrated to compact the filler.
"We use fly ash on some occasions, but did not use it here," he said.
Decker estimated the cost to fix the Pearson Park sinkhole at between $1,500 and $2,000.
"That is basically paying for the labor, materials and equipment to make the repair," he said. "That is funded by the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act — the primary federal law that regulates the environment effects of coal mining in the United States."
Decker noted that local townships and their residents don’t foot the bill for these repairs.
Bucci said Smoyer left information on mine subsidence insurance that is available to residents who live in areas where mining has occurred.
According to the brochure, mine subsidence insurance provides financial compensation for losses caused by the movement of the earth's surface that results from the collapse of underground coal and clay mines in Pennsylvania. This coverage is offered through the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania's Department of Environmental Protection. Damage due to mine subsidence or mine water breakouts is usually not covered by homeowner's insurance policy.
SAFETY A CONCERN
Bucci said the publicity accompanying the sinkhole created panic and she fielded "hundreds of calls" from people asking about the safety of the ball field.
"I told them we work with the state and do what we can as these holes are found," she said.
A brochure provided by the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection indicates that "mineable" coal exists in virtually all of Lawrence County and that it has possibly been mined. Indeed, the Mercer Road area from Faddis Avenue up to Maitland Lane is commonly known as Coaltown Hill.
Much of Neshannock Township is identified as a "known mined area." It states that residents are at risk for mine subsidence or mine water breaks and recommends they obtain mine subsidence insurance through the state.
However, the state has no record of what was mined, according to the brochure.
Bucci said a former Youngstown State University professor had attempted to map the township's mines.
"But her map is inaccurate," Bucci said. "She never verified her information."
As a result of local mining, Bucci said mine shafts have opened as sinkholes throughout the township. Some are found when developers or individuals construct houses. Others, like the ball field, open on their own. "Water doesn't help If we get hard rains. such as those that occurred recently, they open up. You never know," she said.
However, Bucci said. mine subsidence "won't change what we do here. Neshannock is not the only place that has mines or subsidence. We just have more development here.
"We have 4,600 residences and 250 businesses. We don't know when the next hole will open but we've dealt with them before and will again. DEP says the ball field is safe. We go by what they tell us. We're not experts."
She said sinkholes have been found on Shenango Road, Field Run Road and other areas including the Hess Ice Rink site. She added that she has lived for 35 years on Coaltown Hill — an area known to have been mined — but said she and her neighbors have not had a problem.