Another metro-east school is sinking as a result of human activity 100 years earlier.
Wolf Branch Middle School is the latest in a long list of local schools to find itself sinking into an abandoned coal mine. Harmony School sank in the 1970s and was abandoned. Same with Belle Valley North and Dorris Elementary in Collinsville. Others have lived with the damage and been repaired when the ground finally settled. The middle school is now empty and its future a question.
The economics of it all are astounding. When the Belleville region started mining coal in 1839 to feed the furnaces of St. Louis, it shipped 6,000 tons by wagon. The price would have been about $5 a ton for a total of $30,000. That would be $747,000 in today’s dollars.
So compare that gross amount, minus labor and other costs, to the cost of replacing or just repairing a school. Too bad they didn’t have FutureVision back in 1839.
Look at the mining maps of our area and there is a lot of pink showing undermined property. We cannot buy homeowner’s insurance without being offered mine subsidence coverage, and woe unto he who refuses it.
Even the places that don’t “show” undermining are vulnerable, as the folks in Shiloh and at Dierberg’s supermarket found out. No pink under them, but an $8 million repair job. Wolf Branch Middle is mapped on the edge of a mine, but the weight of a school and deterioration of the mine pushed it over the edge.
The maps depend on the accuracy and honesty of mining companies during a period of more than 175 years, when you could cut and paste maps together to suddenly own mineral rights. You cannot totally trust them.
Illinois offers relief in the form of a subsidence insurance program created in 1978 by the state legislature, back when Republicans and Democrats worked together for the common good. About 100 homes were damaged in the Canterbury Manor subdivision, surrounding St. Augustine of Canterbury Catholic Church — even the church was built with big steel beams and jacks to adjust for subsidence. Homeowners organized and got the old mine experimentally back filled, plus they got local state lawmakers to look at the issue. State Rep. Celeste Stiehl, R-Belleville, and Rep. Monroe Flynn, D-Cahokia, sponsored legislation creating the insurance fund.
Since it was signed into law the fund has paid 2,000 property owners $175 million.
So if you are new to the area or just haven’t paid attention to the issue, the Wolf Branch experience should caution you against feeling too safe and prompt you to ensure you’ve got the right insurance to cover your home. You never know when you’ll get that sinking feeling.