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July 2, 2014

Supervisors feeling heat from residents

Safety fix not fast enough for Shoemaker Circle families

PORTAGE — Portage Township supervisors remain mired between the commercial interests of a locally operating coal company and the residents whose safety they swore to protect.

Public outcry against routines of Amfire Mining Co. LLC deemed hazardous by residents is, if anything, rising to a boil.

For over a year, residents of Shoemaker Circle in Portage Township have complained not only about noise and pervasive coal dust speckling everything black but also reckless Amfire drivers barreling down the narrow, one-lane road on their way to the nearby Dulancey Drive mine.

“We went swimming in my (brother-in-law’s) pool and there was just black flakes all through it,” resident Renee Maul said at the supervisors’ meeting Wednesday.

Maul said she took a personal day off from work to count the number of trucks passing through the small neighborhood on days when drivers can’t take Mine Road, since it’s blocked by a rail transport line. She said she counted over 70 trucks in one hour.

Township supervisors have repeatedly asked for the community’s patience as they conduct engineering studies to determine road safety and the feasibility of forcing Amfire to build an alternate route for its trucks. But that’s not good enough for residents, who say they fear for the safety and health of their children.

“(Supervisors) are doing what they can, but when you’re in our position and you live that every day – fast isn’t fast enough,” Maul said.

Supervisors have eyed allowing Amfire to bond the road, forming a maintenance agreement of sorts in which the company would be held liable for any damage or destruction of the township road.

The results of the aforementioned study, conducted with the intention of placing a 10-ton weight limit on the road, have yet to be revealed. It is expected, however, that the road will be deemed unsafe for vehicles over 10 tons.

Supervisors’ attention was drawn to a township weight limit ordinance that allows the board to refuse a permit or bond for exceeding the weight limit if township engineers deem the situation unsafe.

Supervisor Bill Cooper said he’s surveyed Amfire’s operations. As he understands it, the trucks routinely cross the narrow lane by using CB radio: Four trucks head out to dump and four return to load at a time.

“I’ll agree with them 100 percent, the road’s not safe, but that’s the way they’ve been doing this for a long time,” he said.

The township would, ultimately, like to have an alternate route in place – built on Amfire’s dime – but that will take years, Cooper said.

Supervisor Rick Olshavsky said the board still can’t refuse Amfire’s request to bond. He said he sees that heading only one way – to court – and is leery of a drawn-out and expensive legal battle with a commercial entity.

“Do we want to spend $100,000 for this company that’s gonna’ go and say, ‘They’ve been riding this road for 50 years,’ ” he said. “And what do you think the judge is gonna’ say?”

As of Wednesday’s meeting, the supervisors said they were unclear how the discovery would affect the Shoemaker Circle situation, if at all. Nevertheless, township Solicitor Calvin Webb will review the ordinance, as well as the engineering study. Supervisors said they will wait for Webb’s determination.

But for Maul, either Amfire plays nice or gets out of town. If they’re to be neighbors, Amfire should respect the community, she feels.

“Our house has been passed down through generations of (my husband’s) family,” she said. “We’re not leaving.”

Justin Dennis covers Portage Township for The Tribune-Democrat. Follow him on Twitter at @JustinDennis.

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