13 INVESTIGATES: Undermining your property - Alabamas13.com WVTM-TV Birmingham, AL

13 INVESTIGATES: Undermining your property

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JEFFERSON COUNTY, AL -  When Rayme Bryson bought his house in the Cross Creek subdivision, he knew it was built on a former strip mine, but believed all mining near his home was history.

“This was a point where we actually thought that they were done with the mining ourselves.  We didn't know that they were going to be long wall mining underneath,” Bryson pointed out.

Then he says last year he received word that Oak Grove Resources would be mining coal under his house.

The Oak Grove Mine is one of thirteen underground coal mines in the State and one of four in Jefferson County.

Over the last several months, Bryson claims one of his doors would no longer close, he started noticing cracks in the walls and the house as a whole appeared off-level.

“The house is leaning downhill six inches from one end to the other.  On one wall where the wall is broken, it is leaning out almost an inch.  The house is not safe to live in,” Bryson said.

So Bryson and his family moved out and the mine paid for a rental house for them to live in until the mining was complete.

However, the Brysons are not alone.

Attorney Matthew Gosney represents the owners of seven other Cross Creek homes.

In April, they filed a lawsuit against the mine.

The complaint states, "Plaintiffs' real property and homes began experiencing cracks and subsidence that had not existed prior to the mining operation."  

“My main purpose is to make sure that these people are treated fairly and going forward, the mining company should play by the rules, just like everybody that i represent played by the rules up to this point,” Gosney told Alabama’s 13 in an interview.

In their legal response, the mine's attorneys argued the owner of the mineral rights under the subdivision give the mine, "the right to enter beneath the surface of and mine, dig and remove the coal...and released any claim for damage to property or injury to person which might result from such mining."

That means the homeowners in the Cross Creek neighborhood own the land their house sits on but not the rights to the valuable minerals under the surface.

“Most people, whether they realize it or not, do not own their mineral rights.  It's owned by a big corporation,” Gosney claimed.

Randy Johnson is the Director of the Alabama Surface Mining Commission.

“In 99 percent of the cases here in the State, where you have small pieces of land, tracts of land, the mineral rights have been reserved by somebody or are owned by somebody else, not the surface owner,” Johnson said.

That's right.

Most Alabama homeowners do not own the minerals under their house, and that includes me.

When I took my deed to the Bessemer-Cutoff Courthouse and brought it to the Tax Assessor's Office, they looked up my parcel and the corresponding mineral rights number.

It turns out the mineral rights under my humble abode belong to U.S. Steel Corporation.

What that means for me, and more importantly the residents of the Cross Creek subdivision, is a mining company has as much right to the coal under their homes as the homeowners do to the sod in their yard.

You can't stop them, by underground mining methods. But they can't just sink your house willy-nilly.  They have to provide support.  If they do not provide support, they have to provide compensation,” Johnson stated.

Alabama law requires a mining company to, “restore or replace the damaged structure...” or pays the homeowner "the full amount of the decrease in value resulting from subsidence-related damage."

So, just how much subsidence, or sinking, are we talking about in the Cross Creek subdivision?

According to records from the Alabama Surface Mining Commission, the underground coal mining could cause the 17 homes to sink an average of 1.4 feet.

They could subside from a minimum of three inches to a maximum of three feet.

Rayme Bryson's home is expected to sink 2.3 feet.

When we contacted Oak Grove Resources about the potential damage to the homes in the Cross Creek subdivision, they sent us statement claiming, "Oak Grove recognizes the burden that subsidence may cause property owners and is committed to reaching satisfactory resolutions with all affected property owners in a safe, timely and consistent manner."

Since our interview with Bryson, the mining company offered to buy his house plus 15 percent or pay him the amount of depreciated value plus 15 percent.

He chose a depreciated payout of $211,000.

“A home is the largest investment you're going to make in your life for the most part as far as something you are putting your money into and to find out that, it's a gamble as to whether that long wall mining is going to damage your house or not,” Bryson concluded.

The lawsuit filed by seven other Cross Creek subdivision homeowners is still pending in Federal Court.

Rayme Bryson told me when he bought his house the developer never warned him about the underground mine.

We could not question the developer because he has since passed away.
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