October 15, 2001 12:00 PM

The day had finally arrived. A mining machine 400 feet beneath the historic home of Laurine and Murray Williams was about to chew away a pocket of coal that helped support their property. The house, which sits atop a rich vein known as the Pittsburgh seam, had been wrapped in nylon rope, and trenches were dug around the foundation in hopes that the damage could be minimized. But last March 25 the Williamses watched as their lovingly restored 150-year-old house outside Waynesburg, Pa., shuddered and sank nearly five feet into the ground. The walls, floors and ceilings cracked. Even the well, fed by an underground spring, sputtered to a stop. “We had a beautiful home,” says Laurine, 75. “I was so angry.”

The Williamses’ farmhouse was one of scores of local casualties of long-wall mining, in which remote-controlled equipment digs away huge reserves of coal hundreds of feet below ground. Ultimately the earth settles, causing dramatic shifts on the surface—and structures—above. Laurine wasn’t able to save their home, but she is determined to salvage as many others as she can. “Somebody can just go below you and destroy your property,” says the grandmother of nine who has galvanized residents of the southwestern corner of the state. “We’re not trying to kill the coal industry, but there’s something wrong with that.”

Her true target is a state law passed in 1994. Prior to then, a coal company had to obtain permission from residents of older homes before digging under their property. After-ward the company no longer needed consent, though it did promise to repair any damages it caused. In the spring of 1997 the Williamses received notice that a machine belonging to the RAG Emerald Resources Company was headed their way. Encouraged by dozens of angry neighbors, Laurine gave speeches and deluged officials with letters and phone calls demanding the law be revoked.

Her efforts are finally paying off. The department of environmental protection for Pennsylvania, a coal mining state since its beginnings, has agreed to conduct a review of long-wall tunneling. And a recent investigation by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service found “significant environmental impact,” says Jennifer Kagel, a biologist with the service. “We noticed diminished flow in some streams, and fish and bugs are unable to live there anymore.” That study is now being reviewed by the U.S. Department of the Interior, who may recommend new long-wall regulations.

Troubled by the study’s findings and by residents’ complaints, central Pennsylvania state Rep. Camille George will introduce a bill later this fall that would amend the 1994 law by protecting streams and requiring companies to obtain homeowners’ permission before mining. “Coal is important to this state and this country,” George says, “but the coal companies can no longer take advantage.” That’s music to the ears of people like Diane Brendel, a neighbor of Williams who is suing the company that tunneled under her land last fall because it failed to repair her home’s tilted floors, broken staircases and severed pipes. “If it weren’t for Mrs. Williams,” she says, “no one would be paying attention.”

The coal companies, however, say they have followed the letter of the law. “We recognize that our presence causes damage and creates stresses for people, but we also realize we can correct those problems,” says George Ellis, president of the Pennsylvania Coal Association, who also points out that the automated system is safer than traditional methods in which miners do the digging.

Williams is unimpressed. “When the cracks started appearing in my house,” she says, “I felt so frustrated.” RAG Emerald says they will fix the 1850 farmhouse once it has stabilized, a process that can take months, but she insists that it is beyond repair. “Years of hard work were knocked down the drain,” she says. “But the coal company person was outside my house telling the media the damage was cosmetic.”

Community heroine wasn’t a role Williams ever envisioned for herself. The daughter of a J.C. Penney store manager and a homemaker, she grew up in Clearfield, Pa., married Murray, her high school sweetheart, in 1946 and raised their four children in Bethel Park, near Pittsburgh. By 1977, with the kids grown, she was looking for something to keep her busy. “Murray was working long hours,” Williams says. “He’d get home and plop in front of the TV. I knew this would be a solemn retirement if we continued that way.”

To Williams, whose father had been an amateur carpenter, restoring an old house seemed the ideal solution. “I always had that itch,” she says. Murray wasn’t so sure. “I told him I was going to look for a farmhouse,” Williams recalls. “One day I came back and said, ‘I found one,’ and he said, ‘One what?’ I had to convince him it was a good thing.”

They paid $80,000 for the three-bedroom house on 102 acres, and before long Murray was cheerfully helping his wife construct a sitting room and a new kitchen. “I had trepidations,” says Murray, 78, “but it worked out.” Thanks mostly to Laurine’s diligence. “I did a great deal of studying,” she says. “The workmen down here were amazed at what I knew.”

Williams was aware that the house where she and Murray moved for good in 1986 sat above the Pittsburgh seam, one of the nation’s largest coal reserves. But state law forbade mining under houses built before 1966, and when the law changed in 1994, she didn’t take much notice. “I was involved in genealogical research at the time,” she says. “When I’m in with something, I’m in with both feet.”

She won’t get many arguments there. Taking up the anti-long-wall crusade in ’97, Williams succeeded in delaying the undermining of her house for months by having it listed with the National Register of Historic Places. RAG Emerald was able to proceed but was forced to take special preventive measures. Spokesman Mike Rounds has been impressed with Laurine’s zeal: “She’s an articulate and energetic lady. She’s doing what she feels she has to do.”

Even with increasing support she will have an uphill battle. “Long wall is a highly efficient system,” says Rounds, noting that 540,000 tons of coal—enough to provide a small city with electricity for 10 years—was recovered from the Williamses’ 102 acres in just one day. What’s more, says Wyona Coleman, president of the Tri-State Citizens Mining Network, “we have an Administration that’s been very friendly with the mining industry. But light on the subject will help sway opinion.”

Meanwhile, Laurine and Murray are waiting for RAG Emerald to begin repairs on their home. Other family members are waiting too. “That house is where we go for the holidays,” says the Williamses’ daughter Diane Aussman, 49, a homemaker. “We sing around the piano, take walks. We haven’t been able to do that for a while.” Worse still, she says, her mother’s crusade “has taken a toll on my parents. We can’t even get her to take a vacation.” That’s not likely to change anytime soon.

Kim Hubbard

Matt Birkbeck in Waynesburg