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Shifting ground above abandoned mine damages Swansea school

Shifting ground above abandoned mine damages Swansea school

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An abandoned mine is causing the ground beneath a Swansea middle school to sink and tear cracks throughout the building, officials said this week.

The number of cracks and the severity of buckling in the ground at Wolf Branch Middle School indicate damage so severe that engineers have declared the school unsafe for students and staff, Wolf Branch Superintendent Scott Harres said.

On Thursday, staff and volunteers will begin the arduous task of taking nearly everything out of the Wolf Branch Middle School — desks, chairs, Promethean white boards, computers and supplies — and transporting them to the Wolf Branch Elementary School about half a mile away, Harres said.

The middle school will have no classes Thursday and Friday during the move, and beginning Monday, all students and staff will hold class at Branch Elementary until engineers determine whether the middle school can be structurally repaired. Harres said the elementary school barely had enough room for the middle school’s approximately 450 students because it used to be a K-8 school.

“It’s going to be tight and there’s going to be a lot of growing pains until we can get this thing at the middle school straightened out, but we think we’re going to be able to make it,” Harres said.

The middle school sits on top of the Summit Mine, which operated from 1894 to 1940, according to the Illinois Department of Natural Resources. The mine subsidence is affecting about three acres of land under and around the school, the department said in a statement released Tuesday. School officials first noticed “out-of-the-ordinary” cracks last month.

Mine subsidence — which is ground movement caused by the collapse of tunnels in abandoned underground mines — in the past has led school districts to abandon schools for safety reasons.

The Wolf Branch School District has mine subsidence insurance, but it covers only $750,000, the maximum provided by the Illinois Mine Subsidence Insurance Fund.

In 2014, the Gillespie School District was awarded almost $10 million after it sued a railroad for mine subsidence that damaged its Benld Elementary School, which the district abandoned after its walls and floors began to crack.

Harres said he hoped engineers would tell him that his middle school was fixable and that he wouldn’t have to build a new school.

“I’m trying to be optimistic here and hoping that we can get this situation underhand as quickly as possible,” Harres said.

A map by the Illinois State Geological Survey shows underground mines beneath wide swaths of the Metro East, including all or parts of Belleville, Fairview Heights, Collinsville, Maryville, Edwardsville, Troy, Glen Carbon and Lumaghi Heights.

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Kristen Taketa is the K-12 education reporter for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

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