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The Akron Beacon Journal Bob Dyer column

By Bob Dyer, The Akron Beacon Journal
McClatchy-Tribune Information Services

March 11--With the possible exception of a few lucky people in casinos, this was quite likely the best $5 anyone in Ohio spent last year.

Roger Polk never would have guessed that at the time, but he figured it was a small sum of money, and, well, you just never know.

Now he knows.

Polk owns half a dozen properties in Wadsworth Township, four of them on Johnson Road between Medina Line Road and Silver Creek. He and his wife live in one, and his son, Alex, lives next door with his fiancee, Laura.

Or at least they did until a couple of Sundays ago.

Laura was just getting out of the shower that evening when she heard a loud noise she describes as a snap. She phoned Alex and said, "You need to come home now! I think our house exploded! I'm scared to leave the bathroom and I can hear water pouring everywhere in the basement!"

Alex drove home, figuring he would have to deal with a broken pipe, which would be inconvenient but not catastrophic.

As he headed down the basement steps of the small, 75-year-old house, he discovered that the overhead light was burned out. But he managed to work his way through the darkness to the main water valve and shut it off.

He replaced the bulb and flipped on the light. Because the new bulb was a CFL, the darkness lifted gradually. When Alex could finally make out his surroundings, he felt like throwing up.

The entire foundation had snapped in half. The west side of the house had dropped two feet into the ground.

When Alex looked to the west, where he would normally see a wall, he had a clear view of his father's house through an 8-inch gap between the top course of block and the wall.

The Polks had been victimized by an abandoned coal mine built in the 1800s.

Most of the folks in that area of Medina County are well-aware of their area's geologic history. Abandoned mines run all over the neighborhood, and you can still see the hollow through which a railroad spur once carried out the coal.

Roger Polk is not exactly a stranger to the area. His great-great-grandfather lived just a charcoal briquette's throw away, on Silver Creek.

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But when he bought the now-unlivable house in 2006, "I didn't worry about it. Everybody else built here. You don't think anything about it."

From time to time, a hole would open up back in the woods, some of them large and deep enough to gobble up a deer. Johnson Road occasionally would develop a world-class pothole. But no one had seen anything like this.

Alex and Laura swiftly gathered their essentials and got out of the house. He moved in with his parents and she went to her parents.

They won't be back in the rental house anytime soon.

The Ohio Department of Natural Resources is coming this week to stabilize the house. Once steel I-beams are installed to hold up the living area, holes will be punched into the ground to enable the pumping of grout -- a mixture of fly ash, cement and sand -- down into the mine.

The number of cubic yards required is anyone's guess.

"We just pump until it comes up to the surface," says Tom Zechman, an environmental specialist for ODNR in New Philadelphia. "We have no idea where it's going when we start pumping it in."

Rare incident

Zechman says he encounters these types of problems four or five times a year in his jurisdiction, which technically runs from New Philly to Lake Erie but essentially ends in Youngstown. In most cases, however, a house doesn't buckle and drop.

Wadsworth Township is "not one of the worst areas, but the problem is it's one of those unmapped mines," Zechman says.

"A lot of times in the 1860s, people dug them on their own -- a farmer in the wintertime. Nothing to do, so he would get out there and dig."

As you might imagine, those mines were not exactly the epitome of long-term structural health. "There was nothing up above it, no stone to hold the roof or anything," Zechman says.

Meanwhile, Roger Polk has become not only a true believer in mine insurance, but a crusader.

"These mines could be anywhere in Medina County," he says. "For five bucks a year, you need to be part of it. Everybody should be on it."

Although he might sound like an insurance salesman, he's not. He works for the post office and also runs one of the largest concealed-carry training programs in the area.

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Mine insurance was not required to stabilize the house. That work is funded by a national tax on coal suppliers and distributed through ODNR. But because the Polks bought the optional Mine Subsidence Insurance for five bucks, a statewide insurer will pay to rebuild the whole house.

Slow going

That won't happen quickly, even though the process has started.

Says Zechman: "[The insurance company] will put some gauges on it and monitor it for a few months to make sure it's not moving, then come in and do whatever they have to do to repair it."

The maximum payment for MSI claims recently was raised to $300,000, he says.

MSI insurance is mandatory in 26 Ohio counties, including Stark. Eleven other counties offer it as an option, including Summit, Portage and Wayne.

In the days leading up to the collapse, Alex and Laura had some warning signs -- at least in retrospect.

"During a big thaw," says Roger Polk, "they were hearing creaking and moaning. Just like an old house, they thought. Well ..."

Now they know.

Bob Dyer can be reached at 330-996-3580 or


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BRAMCO & Prudential: An Alliance For Life