Ron and Ruthanne Kehl have lived at 134 W. Ridge St., Coaldale, since 1993. They raised their children there, and have recently remodeled the kitchen and bathroom and installed a new roof.
But the Kehls well-kept home is under siege by mold and rats from the adjoining home at 132 W. Ridge, vacant and plagued with water leaks. It's a battle the Kehls are fighting largely alone: Their pleas for help from the borough and government agencies have had little result.
Their frustration has pushed them to tears and anger.
"There are laws in place that you can't smoke a cigarette in a restaurant because it's toxic. I'm living next door to a toxic dump, and there's nothing anyone can do for me? I don't understand that. But yet, if I was changing the oil in my car on the street or had an oil leak and it got into a drain, they'd be here with (protective) suits on," Ron says. "This is what's so frustrating. Nobody can help."
According to Schuylkill County property records, 132 W. Ridge is owned by Lisa M. O'Brien. She was forced to leave the house in April 2010, after a month's long water leak in the home's bathroom began running onto electrical wires, the Kehls said. The couple said the water was turned off about a month after the owner left.
O'Brien's current address is unknown, and so she could not be reached for comment for this story.
The mold grew as rain water accumulated in an adjacent lot and ran into the basement of 132 W. Ridge, according to the Kehls, borough council members and Fire Chief Richard Marek.
A hail storm in May exacerbated the leaks in the roof. The Kehls had a new roof installed, but that didn't keep the rain from coming through the damaged roof of 132 W. Ridge. During the torrential rain that fell on Sept. 8, volunteer firefighters placed a tarp on the roof to reduce the leak after firefighter Louie Mitchalk spotted Ruthanne standing on her front porch, weeping with frustration.
"The whole second floor (in 132) fell, and that was really a crash," she said. "It must have been coming down little by little with all the rain. We had water coming down between the walls in my upstairs, in my bathroom and my hallway. It came down between the walls, all the way down into my basement. The basement walls have mold all over," Ruthanne says.
The couple praised the firefighters for placing the tarp.
"In a matter of six minutes, that whole fire company was here," Ruthanne says. "They were the only people that have ever helped me. I still get water, but it's not pouring like it was."
Firefighters told the Kehls that the house at 132 was infested with mold. The basement was littered with car parts, ashes from a coal stove and other debris.
Looking through the front windows, the interior looks as though the occupants left with only the clothes on their backs. Cereal boxes sit on top of the refrigerator (the electricity has been off for more than a year), toys and other possessions are strewn about. A large jumble of fallen ceiling tiles sits in a heap in front of the refrigerator.
Ron said the mold has triggered lung problems. They considered having the mold tested to see what kind it is, but an expert in the field told them the expense of doing it would be money wasted if the source is not eradicated.
Begging for help
In addition to taking their case before borough council, the couple has contacted the federal Environmental Protection Agency, the state Department of Environmental Protection, and their insurance agency, all to no avail.
Schuylkill County Emergency Management Coordinator John Matz suggested accessing the EPA's website, which includes a section of combating mold and what health risks it poses.
Neither EPA nor DEP have the power to get involved in cases of residential mold, their spokespeople said.
Department of Health spokeswoman Christine Cronkright said "we do not have any regulations that specifically address regulating household mold. That is an issue that is typically handled by the local municipality."
"Everyone refers us back to our municipality," Ruthanne says.
But council President Susan Solt says there's not much the borough can do to help. The borough's part-time code enforcement officer, Mark Richards, resigned earlier this month. A replacement was hired Sept. 13 but quit days later.
Code enforcement officers have the power to cite homeowners and follow through with prosecution.
"We are between a rock and hard place without a code enforcement officer," Solt said.
She said the borough may have to hire a full-time officer, but as of now has only the $4,000 allocated for the part-time position.
"The borough doesn't have any money. We're wracking our brains to make this work," Solt says."I just don't know what we can do at this point, without having a code enforcement officer. We can only do so much with the limited funds we have."
The borough is doing what it can, given the house has an owner who apparently has paid the taxes. But without a code enforcement officer, and not knowing O'Brien's whereabouts, there's not much that can be done.
"We are taking every step we can to help the Kehls, but we are held back by red tape," Solt said. "Last year, we went above and beyond, we emptied out the garbage at the back of the property and cleaned up the yard and made the appearance better for the neighbors."
Borough solicitor Michael Greek has cautioned against having Coaldale workers enter the property for fear of liability or trespass charges.
There is a ray of hope, however.
"I'll be happy to do anything I can to help them," said state Sen. David G. Argall. "Some of our local communities have begun to make some real progress in our fight against blight. We have to fight this battle, building by building, block by block, town by town, all across our region."
At the edge
The Kehls are pushed to the limit.
"Somebody's got to get in there to see how bad that is," Ron said.
The mold and rats continue to multiply. The Kehls show a visitor pictures of a large rat in a debris-filled swimming pool, and a dead rat on the lawn. The couple has hired an exterminating company to set traps in their basement.
"Now it costs me all that money, because I had somebody that lived next door to me that didn't want to take care of their property," Ron says.
The Kehls had considered filing a lawsuit, but were advised by an attorney that it would likely not result in getting the situation remedied. The couple worries that O'Brien has abandoned the house.
"I don't know where to turn. No one wants to help," Ruthanne says. "What am I going to do? This is my home."