Federal judge: Pa. company cannot mine coal underneath Flight 93 memorial land

By Jon Campisi | Oct 19, 2012

A federal judge sitting in western Pennsylvania has upheld the United State’s

government’s contention that a Keystone State company does not have the right to mine coal that sits underneath the Flight 93 crash site memorial.

“I find that the record evidence is insufficient to establish that, at the time of the taking on September 2, 2009, Defendant, Svonavec, Inc. possessed the right to mine coal underlying any part of the subject property other than the eight acres previously identified by the parties,” U.S. District Judge Donetta W. Ambrose, of the Western District of Pennsylvania, wrote in an Oct. 16 order.

Svonavec Inc., which is based in Somerset County, Pa., owned the 275.81 acres of land at the time it was taken by the U.S. Government through eminent domain action back in the fall of 2009 for the purposes of creating a national memorial dedicated to the victims of the Flight 93 crash that occurred during the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

The site includes the approximately six acres of land on which the crash of the United Airlines flight occurred.

In 2009, the federal government filed a motion to determine Svonavec’s rights to mine coal underlying the entire property.

In short, the government sought a determination that, at the time of the taking, the company did not possess the right to mine coal underlying any part of the property except eight acres of coal that the parties agreed the defendant owns.

After reviewing the evidence, Ambrose wrote that the defendant has not proved that it possessed any such mining rights.

“Putting aside questions regarding the timing of, and variations in, Defendant’s position on the mining rights issue, I find that neither the documentation on which Defendant now purports to rely nor any other documentation of record supports its mining rights claim,” Ambrose wrote in her opinion and order.

Ambrose wrote that Svonavec relied on missing, unrecorded and incomplete documents to support its chain of title for the alleged coal leases in question.

“The existence, terms and/or validity of these documents are unknown and unknowable to the Court,” the judge wrote. “Accordingly, I agree with the United States that Svonavec, Inc. has not shown that it possessed any right to mine coal underlying the property at issue at the time of the taking other than the eight acres that are not in dispute.”

Court records show that at the time of the eminent domain taking, Svonavec owned the surface area of the land but not the coal below.

In 2009, Ambrose granted a government request for a “quick take” of the property under the Declaration of Taking Act, allowing it to deposit $611,000 in escrow as just compensation for the land, according to a report on the matter in the Legal Intelligencer.

The company, however, had sought a jury trial to determine just compensation for the entire acreage.

The paper further reported that Svonavec, which is a family-owned company, argued that the coal-mining rights it asserted it held to the property were worth about $1.7 million.

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