Old coal mine tunnels a new concern for BV Prep
Old coal mine tunnels a new concern for BV Prep
CUMBERLAND - State Rep. Jim McLaughlin continues this week to press concerns about abandoned 19th-century coal mine tunnels thought to crisscross underground in the general location of the newly-approved Blackstone Valley Prep elementary school.
Cave-ins in through the years have opened gaping holes in Valley Falls, and the town's own installation of a sewer line on Chase Street uncovered a void in 1978 that McLaughlin says took 45 truckloads of dirt to fill in.
McLaughlin is now pushing the U.S. Department of the Interior for more information even though Town Council members approved the zone change on Sept. 18 that permits construction of the three-story Rhode Island Mayoral Academies charter school. Their action was followed on Sept. 25 by the Planning Board's preliminary approval of the site plan.
McLaughlin said his fear is that building a three-story school atop an abandoned tunnel could trigger a cave-in that jeopardizes children's lives.
At mid-week he was awaiting documents he says were promised by the U.S. Department of the Interior.
The firm that will build the school and then lease it to BV Prep is Civic Builders of New York. Its engineering firm had completed borings and soil sampling before approaching the town for the zone change.
David Umbansky, chief executive officer of Civic Builders, told The Breeze this week that Pare Engineering of Lincoln is aware of McLaughlin's worries but "so far everything has been looked into and we've not had to change our course. There's nothing that calls for any concerns," he said.
This is the second elementary school for Blackstone Valley Prep. It will replace rental space at Our Lady of Fatima Church in September of 2014, and will serve 400 children in kindergarten to grade 4 from Pawtucket, Central Falls, Cumberland and Lincoln.
Its approval was accomplished during several lengthy hearings that saw questions focus on the loss of the playground, as well as traffic and parking concerns in this part of town.
Among the compromises offered, BV Prep secured extra parking spaces at the nearby Cadillac Mills, it agreed to open its play area for neighborhood children after school hours, and will set up a staggered busing schedule to keep buses from backing traffic up on Broad Street. It will also contribute to the relocation of the current playground, Umansky told the Town Council.
It's on the shoulders of Cumberland Building Commissioner Neil Hall to consider safety issues during inspections of this building that's virtually across the street from Town Hall.
Civic Builders will be eligible to pull a building permit once the Planning Board completes its review of the site plan, Hall said.
Meanwhile, Richard Greenwood, deputy director of the Rhode Island Rhode Island Historical Preservation and Heritage Commission, put together a map of the approximate locations of cave-ins at McLaughlin's request.
Greenwood described the documents as "information that had been sitting in our files but hadn't been summarized before."
Along with providing a short history of Valley Falls coal mining operations that spanned from about 1830s to 1880s, a map he produced locates the new school site and approximate locations cave-ins.
He notes a 1978 cave-in on Chase Street and 1981 cave-in at the Club Juventude Lusitana soccer field and parking lot.
Additionally, a Providence Journal story in January of 1984 details a secondary cave-in at the Lusitana Club that happened while the state Department of Environmental Management was working to stabilize and fill the 15-foot sinkhole of 1981 estimated to cover some six to eight acres underground.
A $230,000 grant had initially been allocated to that project, an amount augmented by an added $200,000 when officials discovered the void was larger than expected.
According to Greenwood, two coal mines were operated in southern Cumberland.
The first was the Dexter or Roger Williams mine on Dexter Street from about 1807 to 1850s. It's depicted on the town's 1838 map at the corner of today's Dexter and High streets.
And the second was the Valley Falls Mine, later Blackstone Coal Mining Company, that operated from about 1847 when Samuel Chace, while digging a cellar for a house or a well, hit coal.
Chace owned the sprawling Valley Falls Mill, where the Heritage Park is located today, and was likely erecting mill housing for his workers when he struck coal, historians surmise now.
In 1853, a geologist describing the coal operations describes shafts that extended some 375 feet vertically, with tunnels leading outward that followed the veins of coal. One nest of coal was some 30 feet square.
According to Greenwood, coal in this region had been deposited from South Kingstown to Mansfield, Mass., with operations in Portsmouth and the Garden City area of Warwick among the most active, along with Valley Falls.
As Greenwood describes it, coal was a loose term that really referred to veins of anthracite so hard it was virtually impossible to burn. Instead it was crushed into a powder for use by iron foundry making castings from sand molds. The powder was sprinkled inside the mold to assure the crafted piece would slip easily from its mold.