Flight 93 site ruled off limits to mining

By Saranac Hale Spencer The Legal Intelligencer

Nearly 300 acres in rural Pennsylvania where Flight 93 crashed on September 11, 2001, have been taken by eminent domain, but the rights to the coal underneath the land have been a point of contention.

A federal judge sided with the U.S.government last week, holding that Svonavec Inc. did not have a right to mine the coal across the great majority of the land, with the exception of an 8-acre parcel agreed to by the government at the time of the taking. Svonavec, a Somerset County mining and quarry company, has owned the land since 1961, well before it was taken by the government for a memorial park in 2009.

The issue has been in court since then.

Svonavec Inc. “relies primarily on missing, unrecorded and incomplete documents to support its chain of title for the alleged coal leases,” wrote U.S. District Senior Judge Donetta W. Ambrose of the Western District of Pennsylvania in United States v. 275.81 Acres of Land.

“Accordingly, I agree with the United States that Svonavec Inc. has not shown that it possessed any right to mine the coal underlying the property,” she said.

Svonavec, a family-owned mining company, has argued that it holds coal-mining rights to the property worth $1.7 million, according to court filings. In September 2009, Judge Ambrose, who was then the chief judge of the court, granted the government’s request for a “quick take” of the property under the Declaration of Taking Act and allowed it to deposit $611,000 as estimated just compensation in escrow.

Svonavec responded with a request for a jury trial to determine just compensation for the 275 acres.

At the time of the taking, Svonavec owned the surface area of the land but not the coal underneath it, according to Judge Ambrose’s recent opinion. In 2003, an organization called the Conservation Fund bought the coal from PBS Coals Inc., according to the opinion. Then, in 2010, “the Conservation Fund conveyed the coal to the United States via special warranty deed,” Judge Ambrose said.

The government agreed that if the court finds that Svonavec does have a right to mine, then the worth of that must be calculated into the fair-market value of the land, according to the opinion. But Judge Ambrose held that no such right belonged at Svonavec.

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