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 Post subject: Ringwood: Old mines make homes unsafe, insurers won't pay
PostPosted: Wed Apr 16, 2008 10:03 pm 
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Location: Above the Sterling Hill Mine
Old mines make homes unsafe, but insurers won't pay
Saturday, April 12, 2008
Last updated: Saturday April 12, 2008, EDT 10:11 AM
BY BARBARA WILLIAMS AND JAN BARRY
STAFF WRITERS


Rodney Mann's insurance company says his rental house in Ringwood may be surrounded by sinkholes, but it's safe, so there's no need to pay his damages claim.
BETH BALBIERZ / THE RECORD
Roger DeGroat has lived with a minehole in his yard since 2005 and is still waiting for assistance in filling it.

Borough officials, on the other hand, say the danger's so great that nobody can live in the house, and everybody should wait for the state to tell them what to do.

As for the state, it's waiting for the borough to send it a copy of testing that it commissioned.
FAST FACTS

Sinkholes form when soil erodes and collapses into an underground void. In Ringwood, old mines were filled with soil and various debris, including wood and other material that can rot and compress. Investigators are trying to determine the underground conditions below the sinkholes that have appeared near homes.

To listen to Roger DeGroat describe his experience with sinkholes, go to toxiclegacy.com, click on videos in the Media bar and then select Roger DeGroat from the list.

All that leaves Mann stuck — a landlord paying the mortgage on a house no one's lived in for 16 months and now being sued by his insurance carrier.

It's what can happen when you live above filled-in ancient mines.

"I don't know who has the answers. The last bit of hope I had was the insurance company," Mann said. He's in financial straits, he said, falling behind on mortgage payments on the ranch-style house, which he rented to his brother's family. They are now living with him at his home nearby.

"It's taken a toll on my health," he added. "Right now my stomach is in knots."

Ringwood ordered residents at Mann's and an adjacent home on Van Dunk Lane in Upper Ringwood to leave in December 2006. That was after sinkholes the size of basketballs opened around the homes, built in the 1970s on the site of an old iron mining complex. Owners of the home next to Mann's are living in Riverdale, with the town temporarily paying their rent.

Geological tests in 2006 and 2007 found voids under the yards, Gary Gartenberg, an engineer hired by the town, said in a recent report.

Noting there are old mine shafts near both homes, his report said "additional testing and probable remediation" would be needed to deal with mining-related dangers before anyone can occupy the houses.

A third house once sat next to the two empty homes — until it collapsed from a massive sinkhole in 1979 and was demolished. Ringwood officials say Gartenberg's testing shows continuing potential for danger to the homes, which the town fenced off.

Other homes on a ridge across the street appear to be safe. But the sinkhole problem extends beyond Mann's property: One swallowed much of a front yard on a nearby street in July 2005 while homeowner Roger DeGroat was mowing his lawn.

Now the size of a swimming pool, that hole's been filled with dirt, but it's still a hazard, Gartenberg found.

He said it is connected to a mine pit that runs by DeGroat's home and underneath adjacent Sheehan Drive, extending under Peters Mine Road.

The latter road is at the entrance to an area of Ringwood State Park where Ford has been excavating thousands of tons of paint waste since 2004.

Ford says its cleanup and the sinkholes are unrelated, and no one has raised evidence to the contrary.

No one knows how much it might cost to fill the sinkholes by Rodney Mann's house and protect the homes, which were built with federal grants on land previously owned by mining companies and then the town. No one knows if it can even be done.

"Will these people ever return to their homes? That's the big question," Mayor Walter Davison said.

Meanwhile, with so many unknowns, the New Jersey Insurance Underwriting Association, for one, has concluded the sinkholes caused no damage to Mann's house. So it's gone to court, asking for a declaratory judgment — a court ruling that it had made the right decision in denying the claim by Mann and his mortgage company, Chase.

NJIUA's own investigation found "no signs of collapse and nothing sinking," said Richard Nichols, an attorney for the insurance group. "Actually, the company thinks the town jumped the gun in making them move out. We sincerely hope they can return to their home soon."

NJIUA is an association created by the state Legislature to provide property insurance to people unable to obtain insurance. Mann's policy includes mine coverage. But the company says there is no basis for a claim, because the mining activities have not caused visible damage to the home.

The engineer's report commissioned by NJIUA did state that a sinkhole was noticed next to the driveway. But it also deemed reviewing Gartenberg's test results "beyond the scope of this investigation," and Nichols said the insurer could not pay a claim "based on sheer speculation of the town."

But given the history and progression of sinkholes, Borough Manager Kelley Rohde expressed certainty, not speculation: "We want to do additional testing to see if the houses are safe. Their property around their houses is not safe."

Councilman John Speer, an engineer, said the next step is up to the state Department of Environmental Protection, which directed Ringwood to investigate the sinkholes.

"The municipality is waiting for the DEP to give us their thoughts on that [Gartenberg] report and tell us what to do," Speer said.

A DEP spokesman, Larry Hajna, said his agency is waiting for a copy of the report from Ringwood.

Meanwhile, Mann is seeking legal help in his defense against the insurance company.


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