Recent damage to Wolf Branch Middle School’s building was caused by mine subsidence, the Illinois Department of Natural Resources stated Tuesday.
The agency’s Office of Mines and Minerals was notified Monday after school officials noticed the effects of the ground moving underneath the building. Cracks and buckling floor tiles beyond a building’s normal settling prompted them to call the experts, according to District 113 Superintendent Scott Harres.
IDNR released a statement Tuesday afternoon that said Wolf Branch Middle School sits on top of the abandoned Summit Mine, which operated from 1894 to 1940.
The subsidence, or gradual sinking, is affecting about three acres of land, according to IDNR.
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IDNR’s statement noted that it will be at the school daily in the short term and could continue monitoring it on a less frequent basis for several months.
“The situation is a dynamic one that IDNR will continue to monitor until subsidence movements have stopped or become negligible,” the agency stated.
Wolf Branch District 113 decided to close off portions of the middle school building starting on Monday, including the cafeteria and gym, locker rooms and weight room. Harres said at the time that district officials believed the rest of the building was safe.
In the past, other metro-east schools have also been affected by mines under their floors.
Joseph Arthur Middle School in O’Fallon is still being monitored after a crack developed in the floor of a hallway four years ago, according to Central District 104 Superintendent Dawn Elser.
The school was built in 2007. Officials first noticed the crack in 2013, and Elser said it got bigger in 2016.
Last year, the district contacted SCI Engineering to assess the damage, according to Elser.
The engineers believe the subsidence was caused by a mine outside the building to the northwest, which is where an unused field sits. Elser said engineers told school officials there wasn’t a safety concern.
“Kids were still able to go up and down the hallway,” she said. “We did not have to shut off any classrooms or hallway spaces.”
Between August 2016 and July 2017, Elser said the engineers monitored the crack monthly but didn’t see any more movement. Now, she said they’ll monitor it quarterly. If there’s no change, Elser said the district could repair the floor by next summer. District 104’s subsidence insurance would be used to pay for it, she said.
Because there was no additional movement, Elser said the district didn’t need to contact IDNR like Wolf Branch did.
Belle Valley District 119 has also dealt with subsidence. In 2007, officials started seeing damage at the old Belle Valley North elementary school in Belleville. Students have since moved into the district’s newly constructed building, where no mines have been detected.
Bob Gibson, an abandoned mines expert for IDNR, told the News-Democrat in 2008 that Belle Valley North’s building was damaged by a collapse 150 feet below the ground in the Ell-Rich Coal Mine.
District 119’s Business Manger Joan McKay remembers that the school evacuated and eventually demolished eight classrooms and the multipurpose room, which served as a gym and cafeteria, as a result.
She said teachers had to get creative to find replacement classroom space.
“When those eight classrooms were removed from that building, we had to use every available space that was left. ... Anything that could be used as a classroom was used,” including the library, McKay said.
Other school districts in the area reached out to Belle Valley 119 to help with the space issue it was experiencing, according to McKay.
“I do believe there were several area schools that had offered some available classrooms. ... But they wanted to try to keep the children all in our school,” she said of district officials at the time.
Today, Belleville District 118 is offering to let Wolf Branch students use Belleville gym space while the subsidence prevents them from using their own gym in Swansea, according to Superintendent Matt Klosterman.
In a letter sent to Wolf Branch parents on Monday, Superintendent Harres mentioned that the middle school athletes could practice and play in the district’s elementary school gym or multi-purpose room.
When basketball season starts, he said eight teams will be sharing that space: girls and boys teams for fifth through eighth grades. That means some practices could go later into the evening and some could overlap with other teams, according to Harres.
Wolf Branch Middle School’s cafeteria is also closed off, so students are eating lunch at tables outside or in hallways in the meantime.
When Belle Valley North’s cafeteria was unavailable, McKay said the students ate lunch in their classrooms.
“Since we lost the capability of using that cafeteria, they had to deliver all the lunches to the classrooms in Styrofoam boxes” until the students moved into the new building in 2012, she said.
Another Belleville school’s buildings sit on top of abandoned mines, but it hasn’t experienced the effects of subsidence.
Superintendent Jeff Dosier said Belleville District 201 staff haven’t noticed any significant cracks at Belleville East High School that would be evidence of subsidence. The campus is entirely undermined.
Dosier said the builders back in the 1960s planned for a stabilization technique that could be used if the some of the campus’ 26 buildings ever experienced sinking.
“That’s something we hope we never have to deal with,” Dosier said.