Change of Mined | News | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

Change of Mined

Peter Blose beat the mining industry at its own game. Then they changed the rules.

"I've wandered all over the country but came back," says Peter Blose. "This is sacred ground to me."

Blose treads the mud road into Laurel Loop on the last cold day in April. "Laurel Loop" is what the locals call this oxbow of Crooked Creek near Apollo, just beyond the northeast corner of Allegheny County. The bend of wide brown water, a tributary of the Allegheny River, is shadowed on the outside by a high cliff. Inside the bend, hugging the creek, is a former hunting camp with about a dozen homes, mostly modest and hidden from each other by the woods. Few are inhabited year-round. There seems to be more varieties of oak here than human. Blose stoops by the side of the rutted road and quickly picks out four different kinds of oak leaves.

"My father used to bring me, like the old John Prine song, as an infant," says Blose. "I discovered a swinging bridge across the creek. I've canoed down the creek, floated the creek, wandered in the woods. I always wanted to own land on the creek."

Blose has never lived in Laurel Loop, but grew up in McKeesport and other small southwestern Pennsylvania towns, including Apollo. In the '90s he moved to Vermont for a few years when his children had grown up. But today, at 52, semi-retired from the building and remodeling business with a disability, he lives just a few miles down the road in Youngwood. He just loves Laurel Loop. Can't seem to stay away.

In 1996, Blose took a look around the Loop, hoping to purchase a few acres. "The place remained pretty undeveloped and isolated -- just the way I wanted it," he says. The old oak forest was "very rare. It made it a very special place. It was beautiful."

But when he approached the current landowners, they told him about the strip mine.

"And that's where I said, ‘No way.' They can strip mine the rest of the county, but not here."

Blose didn't think of himself as an environmentalist back then, and he's hardly a card-carrying member of Earth First! today. Yet for the past eight years he has tried to take on seemingly any role just to stop the mining of Laurel Loop: lawyer, archaeologist, property rights advocate and all-around scourge of government rule-breakers.

"I knew absolutely nothing about mining" in 1996, Blose says. In the course of his battle he has flailed in every direction, trying to stop the mine. He wrote letters to the state Department of Environmental Protection, which issues surface mining permits, questioning the sense of mining here. He asked local experts if any endangered animal species lived amid the oak trees. No luck. He asked local kids to search the woods for arrowheads. He wrote to state and federal authorities, reminding them of their obligation to check mine sites for archaeological and historical significance. Two state inspectors, armed with shovels, found a single stone tool in the woods.

The DEP issued its coal-mining permit on Jan. 30, 1998 to Seven Sisters Mining Company, of nearby Delmont, which has several active local mines. Blose knew that Seven Sisters had already tried once, unsuccessfully, to also get a limestone-mining permit for Laurel Loop and were likely to try again. The coal permit covered 93 acres, of which 34.5 would be strip mined, starting with a 6.2-acre parcel. The limestone permit would likely have covered the same acreage but would require a deeper mine active for a longer period, since limestone, used as a building material, runs in thick seams under the coal.

Less than a month later, Blose filed his appeal. In Pennsylvania, mining-permit appeals are heard by a special five-judge court, the Environmental Hearing Board. Blose's appeal shot in every direction, saying the mine would be neither economically feasible nor good for the land or creek. "The only purpose of [Seven Sisters'] permit is to coerce surface landowners into consenting to limestone mining at the same site at a future date," he alleged. What upset him most, of course, was that strip mines can disturb land they don't own, just to get at what's beneath.

Blose recalls being questioned by Seven Sisters lawyers during the pre-hearing process: "Boy, they really went after me," he says. "They had no idea who I was. They asked. ‘Are you opposed to all mining? Do you hate all coal miners?' I said, ‘I've got nothing against all miners, just this mine.'"

Before he made it to his hearing, Blose realized he couldn't prove his case without hiring hydrologists or mining engineers. "Most of them are employed by the [mining] industry," he shrugs. "It's like hiring a doctor to sue a doctor."

He couldn't even afford a lawyer. At the hearing, he decided to focus on one allegation: that Crooked Creek was in danger of being fouled by acid mine drainage. It would seem a safe bet: Even the DEP says that's the top cause of water pollution in Pennsylvania. But it didn't work.

Blose was left with only one issue: State law says mines have to stay 300 feet away from homes unless the mining company gets a waiver from the homeowners. On a map of Laurel Loop, Blose points to the Crooked Creek oxbow with 300-foot circles drawn around each home as a no-mining zone. The circles nearly overlap down the oxbow's middle. "If these were all 300-foot barriers," he says, "it essentially eliminated most of the mine. It changes everything."

Most mining companies seek waivers to better situate access roads, to store equipment, to put in pollution control ponds or piles for topsoil and waste, or simply to extract every bit of coal. Seven Sisters' plan for the Laurel Loop mine placed such mining activities within 300 feet of Loop houses. But the DEP had issued its permit before Seven Sisters had a single waiver it sought.

Blose hadn't merely caught the company and the DEP on some technicality. The DEP had received 20 letters from Laurel Loop residents and landowners in 1996 protesting this mining application. How likely were those families to sign a waiver and let the mining company come closer than the law permitted?

"If the mining company has the permit first," Blose explains, "it's much easier for them to intimidate home owners" into signing waivers: We're going to be mining all around your house for years. You might as well cooperate.

"It's such an uphill fight," says Blose. "The odds are so against you. I think they were quite surprised at the hearing."

Perhaps the only thing that surprised everyone, from the judge on down, was Blose's costume. He wore green pants, a green shirt, a green tie and sneakers. It's doubtful a real environmentalist would ever dress that way for court. Kids dressed as "Nature" for elementary school Earth Day celebrations probably look more dignified.

"I went to court and made a complete ass of myself," Blose says. "The reason I did it -- 'cause I knew I was likely to lose. I let them think I was some butterfly-loving environmentalist or some damn thing."

If that was his strategy, it worked perfectly. "The judge threw me out of court on that [waiver] issue," he says. His best chance, Blose thought, was just one stop up the legal ladder.

Every piece of land in Pennsylvania can have at least two owners: the surface owner (you or your landlord) and the owner of the mineral rights. To those in Laurel Loop, it seems as if the mineral owner's rights are stronger. While Seven Sisters was still seeking waivers to work closer than 300 feet to Loop homes, Seven Sisters lawyer Robert Lambert sent at least one property owner a letter saying: "You are, accordingly, hereby notified to refrain from making any future use of the surface that would impede the mining operations." Seven Sisters successfully sued at least three residents into removing outbuildings such as storage sheds. From Seven Sisters' point of view, those outbuildings only served to widen the untouchable 300-foot barriers around a home -- and take away potential profits.

In 2002, Seven Sisters commissioned a commercial assessment of a combined Laurel Loop coal and limestone mine that said it would last a decade. That may be a conservative estimate. Local coal comes in seams just a few feet thick, but limestone can be dozens of feet deep. Strip mining coal often takes just two to five years, since coal sells year-round, says DEP's Karl Lasher. But a limestone quarry averages 15-40 years, Lasher says, since limestone sells only in spring and summer.

According to DEP records from January 2003, Seven Sisters has 17 state surface-mining permits. Nine are "active" -- mining is permitted, although no mining may actually be taking place today -- including Laurel Loop.

Laurel Loop residents "really shouldn't" be concerned about a mine coming close, says Lambert. "Seven Sisters Mining Company is one of the most environmentally conscious mine operators …" Indeed, the company, its directors and the other mining concerns they own have been cited for one minor and very technical violation of DEP regulations.

But Laurel Loop residents aren't primarily concerned with pollution or something so abstract as "the environment" or indeed anything DEP might prevent. They're concerned about what the DEP is charged with permitting: making a mine their next-door neighbor.

After going down in green flames before the Environmental Hearing Board, Blose took his appeal to Commonwealth Court.

"I knew that on the merits the law was so crystal clear," he says: no waivers yet, no permits allowed. But now he faced a mining company attorney and a DEP attorney -- again, without a lawyer of his own.

It was unusual for the courts even to accept a legal challenge from someone who didn't live within the proposed mining area, someone who only used the place for recreation. Harry Klodowski, Seven Sisters' lawyer facing Blose, still finds that galling today: "I don't think Mr. Blose, because he didn't own property within 100 miles of that mine site, had any standing to complain."

Blose took, as he recalls, a few liberties with courtroom decorum. "I used some very extreme language before the Commonwealth Court, and the Commonwealth Court agreed with me....And I buried them."

As the court found: "[E]ach owner...has no intention of voluntarily granting a dwelling barrier waiver, release or variance or to otherwise permit any mining activities of any kind within 300 feet of their dwelling."

His case was sent back to the Environmental Hearing Board.

"This time I cut my hair, put on my business suit," he says.

The DEP argued that, despite the law -- and despite having nagged Seven Sisters for waivers prior to issuing its permit -- it was business-as-usual to give mining companies permission to mine before they got the OK from homeowners to encroach on their property. Not to worry, DEP argued: Mining companies still had to get waivers before actually starting to dig.

That interpretation of the law, Seven Sisters told the hearing board, was "well known within the mining community."

The everybody-does-it argument got nowhere with the hearing board. "The Department abused its discretion," the board ruled, "and should not have granted the permit." Seven Sisters' permit was suspended. Blose had played the game by the rules and won.

It was a clear victory for Blose, but one which would prove to be short-lived.

Citing Peter Blose v. DEP and Seven Sisters Mining Company as the sole reason, the DEP in 2001 changed the state mining code to allow mining companies to do what Seven Sisters had wanted: seek waivers to the 300-foot no-mining zone around homes only after permits were issued. As long as the mining company has not yet secured its bond, which pays ahead of time for land reclamation and is the last step before the land is actually stripped, they can keep pressuring homeowners for waivers.

"It was a very clever way to get around a ruling DEP didn't like," says environmental lawyer Robert P. Ging Jr. (See sidebar: "What's Mined and What's Yours.") "A guy goes and wins the case, they say, ‘OK, we'll go ahead and change the rules. All right, Peter, you won one but you'll never win another one.' It's perfectly devious."

The new rule also revived Seven Sisters' permit. Now the company went on the offensive. In 2002, Seven Sisters threatened to sue some Laurel Loop residents for the cost of the coal they couldn't extract without those waivers.

About a mile inside Laurel Loop, Peter Blose stands before the road's first house. He had to slow down at least once on this trek, but he faced the frozen April afternoon in only a sweatshirt and jeans, ballcap pulled over his graying hair. He seems ready to rally Laurel Loop residents again, although he is reluctant to make himself the symbol of the fight -- to sit for a newspaper photographer, for instance.

Blose knocks on the door. Two beagles, Boggle and Fancy, bay at visitors. Inside, their pup Pudge begs for attention.

Rich "Rusty" Lane and his wife Doris bought this home a decade ago. At first, they used it as a summer place while living in nearby Lower Burrell. Now they're here full time with their two kids. Their home has a full gun rack near the fireplace, a deer head on one wall, and orange coats and caps hung in several spots, including a tree trunk that runs floor to ceiling. Rich has been hunting in Laurel Loop since 1982.

Behind their house flows the widest, shallowest section of Crooked Creek, maybe a foot deep. They've seen ducks, geese, muskrats, a soft-shell turtle, blue gill, bass, chubs, minnows and bullfrogs in the water, baby deer and wild turkey flocks beside it. "We saw a bear last year, Fourth of July. Big black bear," says Doris. In a muddy tank beside the kitchen table the kids are raising a catfish they caught when it was pinky-sized.

Rich, 44, is a plumber, Doris, 39, a homemaker. They're homeschooling both children.

"Staying up here, you keep the kids under that wing," says Doris. "They don't get into trouble, like in the town. You can let the kids out and no matter where they go, they will come back. It's quiet. It's just the woods, and beautiful."

"It won't be quiet once they start digging," says Rich. If mining begins, "You still pay taxes on all that land that is a dirt pile. Meanwhile, 20 years ago you bought woods. This'll be a big old hayfield when they're done. It'll be a big old rock field with sticks when they're done."

Although mining hasn't started, mining's effects are already evident. In 1998, the partnership that owns most of the land in Laurel Loop, including the woods across from the Lanes, sold some of the timber. Many acres were practically clear-cut.

"When you look at it from over top, it looks like a bomb blew up over it," Doris says. "It used to be so green."

"That road you walked in on," says Rich. "It was like a tunnel."

"Take a topographic map," says Blose. "On these maps you can see fairly clearly what areas have been strip mined, even if they've been reclaimed" -- that is, planted with ground cover in the original topsoil. "You will notice, in several counties, including Armstrong, there's a hell of a lot of strip mining. There are thousands and thousands of acres. Even if this land is reclaimed, what does this mean?"

Regulations governing reclamation of strip-mine sites have improved in the last 25 years. Mining companies are now required to preserve and return the original topsoil, for instance. They're also required -- barring signed waivers -- to replace the ground to its "approximate original contour," within about 10 feet of the original landscape. But the Lanes point to Pinetop Farm, a former mine site just outside Laurel Loop. Doris calls it "Pineless-top Farm." The hillside, though green again, has a line of skinny young pines on its crest that hardly makes a dent in the sky.

"It will take thousands of years for that land to be back the way it was," Blose says. That is perhaps an exaggeration, but certainly an oak forest cannot re-grow in one person's lifetime.

On Seven Sisters' latest map of Laurel Loop, the mine descends 50 feet in spots, 100 feet in others. The Lanes, isolated among gradually rising ground on three sides, may eventually find themselves on the highest ground around.

Rich and Doris Lane were the only Loop residents who held off signing their waiver long enough for Seven Sisters to take them to court.

"The first time they came in," says Doris Lane, recalling a visit from Seven Sisters lawyer Robert Lambert, "they said we're going to lose everything we own. They said it in front of the kids."

Rich, who has met with Seven Sisters Vice President Terrence Jacobs, says, "He's not a bad guy to sit there and talk to. He's a nice guy. But it's his business -- I don't like him trying to step on the little guy. For us to go to another court hearing to fight comes down to how much money are you going to spend to keep it" -- to preserve the house and its environs.

The Lanes eventually lost their case. The court's reasoning: Seven Sisters' mineral rights deed, which called for only 150-foot home barriers, predated the homeowners' deeds -- and predated the state law that created the 300-foot no-mining zone. Seven Sisters sued the Lanes for more than $100,000 in lost profits. The Lanes had paid only $15,000 for their property. Seven Sisters got all it wanted -- and more.

"They threatened to take us to court and sue us for damages if we didn't sign the waiver," says Harry Beckwith, a Loop resident with wife Andrea for 15 years. The Beckwiths signed, allowing Seven Sisters to come within 100 feet of their home in some instances.

"They took us one by one and threatened court," says Diana Basalyga, who with husband Russell and the rest of her family has used their Laurel Loop home as a weekend spot for the past nine years. It sits on the other end of the Loop from the Lanes. "We just didn't have the finances. [Blose] tried his darnedest to help." The Basalygas eventually signed a waiver down to 100 feet as well.

The Lanes' now have only 100-foot barriers too. They also signed away the requirement that their land be put back to its "approximate original contour." On Seven Sisters' current mine maps, the mining area circles the Lanes as closely as possible, surrounding them at front and extending down both sides toward the creek. It stops only where the creek itself demands, by state rules, a 100-foot barrier of its own. Across the mine from the Lanes, the map indicates a "crusher/processing/reclamation stockpile area" that dwarfs their acreage. The Beckwiths have mining in their front yard too. The Basalygas are luckier -- despite their waiver, they have a bit of woods between them and the mine. But nearly everything was in place to allow Seven Sisters to mine.

"We've all come to the realization -- we've lost," says Doris Lane. She wonders, in fact, why the mining operator hasn't started yet. Seven Sisters VP Terrence Jacobs "got everything he wanted. Why isn't he here?"

Answers Pete Blose: "I think it's the pipeline."

"I about peed my pants when I found out" about the pipeline, says Blose.

While he was winning his original appeals in the late '90s, Dominion Transmissions of Clarksville, W.Va. (a relative of Dominion Peoples, a natural-gas company that serves Pittsburgh) ran a 30-inch high-pressure gas pipeline underground "right down through the middle of the damn mine," in Blose's words.

Someone concerned for broader environmental issues might have opposed the pipeline, Blose says. "I welcomed it. I thought that was the end of it. No way they can build this mine. I thought there was no room." In perhaps his most quixotic move, Blose had already started another court case, appealing his own previous victory, asking the court to go beyond suspending Seven Sisters' permit to revoke it altogether. With the pipeline in place -- and Seven Sisters also appealing Blose's victory -- he decided to settle, agreeing to drop his appeal while the mining company dropped theirs, at least for the moment.

Dominion already had a few smaller pipelines through the mine site when Seven Sisters applied for its mining permit. In 1996, Peoples Natural Gas Company (Dominion's predecessor) gave Seven Sisters the OK to blast as close as 100 feet from their pipelines, as long as Peoples would not be sued if something went wrong.

But Dominion's newer, larger pipeline posed a greater hazard, as Seven Sisters was told in a 2002 mining assessment the firm commissioned: "The blasting contractor has affirmatively advised that safety cannot be insured if blasting occurs within 200 feet of the [30-inch] pipeline. As of this date, Dominion has refused to provide the requested indemnification....A rupture of the large high pressure pipeline, with the resulting explosion and fire in close proximity to the occupied dwellings and area residents, would be catastrophic."

Today, Seven Sisters is suing Dominion in federal court in Pittsburgh, much as it sued Rich and Doris Lane, for lost profits, contending that Dominion is preventing them from mining "a considerably large portion of the mineral reserve," says Seven Sisters lawyer Robert Lambert. They're still waiting for a court date.

Seven Sisters isn't the only one waiting. While pursuing the lawsuit against Dominion, Seven Sisters applied again for a limestone-mining permit at Laurel Loop. The firm just received DEP approval. Now the state is waiting for Seven Sisters to come up with the bond that guarantees the land will be restored. The company has a year to get bonded, says the DEP.

Sometimes Blose seems certain mining will come to Laurel Loop, perhaps not in spite of him but because of him: "I'd guess that one of the reasons they haven't given up is because of me. They've been as resolute as possible." And sometimes Blose isn't at all sure what moves the game will bring. "I can't figure out what the hell they're doing. After all these years, I still don't know what the hell to expect next."

Even if mining starts, given the depth of the limestone Laurel Loop residents may be waiting forever to see their land replanted with grass, never mind the oaks, says local environmental lawyer Robert Ging. "If they're going to be mining a lot of limestone," he says, "a lot of these people could be dead by the time they do this reclamation."

To Seven Sisters, Peter Blose is "ancient history," says Lambert. "We just hope he's gone on with his life. We've gone on with ours."

Blose says he still hopes to retire in Laurel Loop. "Hopefully in my old age I'll canoe down Crooked Creek," he says.

"Now it's just a waiting thing," concludes Rich Lane, sitting at his kitchen table.

"So now we know a little bit more about mining," says Doris.

"And we still can't do anything about it," says Rich. "Let [them] mine all around us and get out of here. I ain't going back to court."

Pete Blose doesn't hesitate before adding: "Well, I am," he says.

What's Mined and What's Yours

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