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 are still a point of contention.
A federal judge has sided with the U.S. government this week, holding that Svonavec Inc. did not have a right to mine the coal spreading 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 had owned the land before it was taken by the government for a memorial park in 2009 — the issue has been in court since then.
Svonavec “relies primarily on missing, unrecorded, and incomplete documents to support its chain of title for the alleged coal leases. The existence, terms and/or validity of these documents are unknown and unknowable to the court,” U.S. District Senior Judge Donetta W. Ambrose of the Western District of Pennsylvania said 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 at issue at the time of the taking other than the 8 acres that are not in dispute,” she said.
Svonavec, a family-owned mining company in Somerset, Pa., has argued that it holds coal-mining rights to the property worth $1.7 million, according to court filings.
“In this specific instance, defendant’s claim to mining rights may affect the potential amount of just compensation owed by the United States,” the government said in its motion to determine Svonavec’s rights to mine the coal under the property, which Ambrose was answering in her opinion issued Tuesday.
In September 2009, 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 of land.
At the time of the taking, Svonavec owned the surface area of the land, but not the coal underneath it, according to 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,” Ambrose said.
The government, though, 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.
However, Ambrose held that no such right belonged at Svonavec.
“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 said.
Detailing Svonavec’s lineage of deeds regarding coal on the property, starting with a 1956 lease from Wilmore Coal Co. to Cambria Fuel Co., Ambrose laid out the background of the case. However, Svonavec didn’t supply the actual lease, but, rather, submitted to the court two documents referencing the lease. Both documents were from 1962; one was called a “supplemental agreement” and the other was called an “assignment of rents and royalties under mineral leases as collateral security.”
“Other than the references in these two documents, I do not have any evidence of the existence of the Wilmore-Cambria lease or its terms,” Ambrose said.
The line of rights to the coal moved to Svonavec’s predecessor, Svonavec Coal Co., in 1961 when it signed a lease with Cambria, according to the opinion. Svonavec “cites this lease agreement as the direct source of its claimed mining rights,” Ambrose said.
In 1968, Svonavec’s predecessor granted its exclusive mining rights to Ma-Ro Mining Co., which later subleased those rights to PBS coals, Svonavec argued, without providing the court with final documentation of either transaction, according to the opinion.
“Even accepting defendant’s version of the chain of possession of the coal mining rights, there is no evidence that Svonavec Inc. held those mining rights at the time of the taking,” Ambrose said in a footnote.
Neither the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Pittsburgh, which represented the government, nor Vincent Barbera, of Barbera, Clapper, Beener, Rullo & Melvin in Somerset, who represented Svonavec, could be reached for comment.
(Copies of the 10-page opinion in United States v. 275.81 Acres of Land, PICS No. 12-1993, are available from The Legal Intelligencer. Please call the Pennsylvania Instant Case Service at 800-276-PICS to order or for information.) •