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GREEN RIVER, Wyo. — The final engineers' report from reinspections of homes damaged during a controversial mine subsidence project doesn't support making new offers to homeowners to pay for repairs, state officials say.

More than a dozen residents in the downtown Tree Street neighborhood have been battling the state over the new inspections after residents rejected the state's first settlement offers in 2008.

Homeowners had hoped the reinspections by the Centennial, Colo.-based J.A. Cesare and Associates would serve as the basis for new settlement offers from Attorney General Bruce Salzburg, where warranted.

"There aren't going to be new offers," Salzburg said.

Salzburg said he could find no basis in the engineer's report upon which to make any settlement offers to residents.

"We had a legislative mandate to have a new engineering report done and to make new offers based on that report, if appropriate," Salzburg said.

"When you look at the report, you will see that this report does not support any (new) offers to be made," he said in a phone interview.

Tree Street spokeswoman Becky Kelley said residents are severely disappointed that no new offers will be made.

"We pretty much figured we wouldn't be getting new offers when we didn't hear back from the AG," Kelley said.

"I personally am way beyond disappointed ... I'm very disgusted," Kelley said in a phone interview. "It's been a never-ending nightmare."

She said residents will now pin their hopes on their lawsuit filed by 15 plaintiffs against the state of Wyoming in Sweetwater County District Court in Green River in July.

The lawsuit was filed by attorney James Phillips of Evanston and names the Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality as a co-defendant. The DEQ oversees Wyoming's Abandoned Mine Lands Division.

"I don't care whether dynamic compaction caused it or not ... but the damage to our homes is AML mine-related," Kelley said. "They can say anything they want, but we know better."

 

No buyout

Homeowners on a half-dozen streets in the downtown neighborhood contend their houses were severely damaged during a three-week subsidence project by the AML Division in July 2007 that employed a pilot reclamation technique known as dynamic compaction.

City officials had been working for years to free up previously undeveloped lands for much-needed housing projects. But most of the vacant lands in the city are located over old, underground mine voids.

However, state DEQ rules forbid the AML Division from conducting any subsidence mitigation work on undeveloped lands. So the city sought and received special permission from Gov. Dave Freudenthal and the AML Division to conduct a unique reclamation project within a 61-acre tract identified by city officials as most suitable.

A key component of the project was the use of dynamic compaction, a reclamation technique that had not been used on this scale in Wyoming before.

For three weeks beginning in late July 2007, cranes pounded the ground with 25-ton and 35-ton weights to collapse the underground mine voids on the vacant tract of land that bordered the Tree Street neighborhood.

Contractors dropped the huge weights more than 2,000 times before the project was halted in mid-August after complaints from residents.

Homeowners contended the shock waves from the ground pounding shook houses, severely damaged many homes in the area and needlessly accelerated ongoing subsidence in the neighborhood.

At a contentious town meeting in late August 2007, AML Division officials said they would pay for any damage to homes resulting from the dynamic compaction portion of the project.

The state sent in engineers to assess the 19 damaged claims filed by homeowners under a settlement process established by the AML Division in 2008. The state then sent settlement offers to each homeowner based on the engineer's report.

So far, only three homeowners have accepted the offers. The other homeowners said the offers were way too low and would not adequately compensate them for needed repairs to homes.

In May, state-contracted engineers performed a second round of inspections on the damaged homes at the behest of Wyoming legislators. State lawmakers allocated $120,000 during the 2010 session to pay for the new damage assessments.

Kelley said most homeowners are at the point now where they just want to move out of the neighborhood because of the fears of ongoing subsidence caused by the project and the occasional new damage they're still discovering as a result.

However, AML Division officials say there are no provisions in state rules that allow the agency to purchase land or homes, and that buying damaged homes outright is not a viable option.

The federal AML program taxes coal production to raise money to clean up abandoned coal mine sites and for other projects.

In Wyoming, the funds have gone to cleaning up old mines as well as to projects related to coal gasification, carbon sequestration and the University of Wyoming School of Energy Resources.

Congress passed the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act in 1997. Wyoming has received about $600 million in AML funds since then.

The federal government still collects a 35-cent tax on each ton of coal produced in the state for the AML fund.

 

Contact Jeff Gearino at gearino@tribcsp.com or 307-875-5359.

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