A Coaldale family which has been waging a fruitless battle to clean up the vacant, mold-infested house attached to their home has a new ally.
State Sen. David G. Argall last Friday visited Ron and Ruthanne Kehl to learn more about the problem and see how he could help.
"I've spoken to the borough solicitor, and we'll talk to him again," he said. "In my mind, the first step needs to be to get some kind of temporary barrier on the roof so that at least the problem stops getting worse. Then, we go to the tougher issue, which is how do you remove the mold that's already there."
The house at 132 W. Ridge, has been vacant since its owner was evicted in April 2010. But long before that, water leaks from the plumbing and roof were making the place uninhabitable. Water poured through electrical wiring in the Kehl's home, damaged drywall and carpets and infiltrated the basement.
The smell of mold during humid summer months was so bad the couple refused to allow their grandchild to visit.
Ron Kehl has been off work due to respiratory problems since Sept. 12.
"To me, what everybody seems to missing is that this is a health hazard," he said. "This place is a toxic dump. And as a taxpayer, I don't feel I should have to suffer. I think something should have been done immediately."
The Kehl's have asked the borough, the state Department of Environmental Protection and even the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for help, but have gotten nowhere. Neither the state nor federal government agencies become involved in private homes with mold issues, and the borough until recently had only a part-time code enforcement officer.
It was that officer, Mark Richardson, who has since resigned, who evicted the owner of 132 W. Ridge because of the ongoing water leaks.
Solicitor Michael Greek has repeatedly told the Kehls and council that the code enforcement officer needs to send a letter to the owner, then begin citing her. Or, he said, the Kehls could file a civil suit.
The house, which has been vacant since then, is up for tax sale.
In June 2008, $1,144.16 in delinquent taxes was owed to the Panther Valley School District. An additional $981.79 was added in 2009, and $985.46 in 2010, according to Schuylkill County court records.
According to the county Tax Claim Bureau, the house was offered at upset sale in Sept. 2010, but there were no buyers. The next step would be a prospective buyer to offer a bid for a private sale. Failing that, the house may go to judicial sale next year.
Council president Susan Solt said at a public meeting Oct. 11 that there was a prospective buyer for the house.
"I know the borough has hopes that a new owner will resolve the problem. I guess we'll find out the answer to that question soon. If that's not the solution, then we need to go to Plan B," Argall said.
"The state has given the local governments some new tools, but it's up to the local governments to decide whether or not they fit their needs," he said.
Among the tools Argall was referring to was blight legislation that went into effect in April. The law, called the Neighborhood Blight Revitalization and Reclamation Act, gives more strength to communities to raze dilapidated structures. The borough's new Code Enforcement Officer, Jamie Lee Nicholas, accompanied Argall to the Kehls.
"This is my first time up here at this residence. I don't know what I can do as of right now. I have to look at the codes and go from there. I can't promise anything," he said.
He said he'd like to get together with the prospective new owner to determine how he plans to remediate.
"If that doesn't pan out, we'll have to take bigger measures," Nicholas said.
Nicholas, who had been on the job for about a week, did not enter the vacant house on Friday. Nor did Argall, citing a recent bout with pneumonia.
"The crazy thing is, from the outside it doesn't look bad at all," Argall said. "Then you look at the pictures (of the interior) and you know you have a real problem. The problem gets worse every time it rains."
After listening to the Kehls recounting the chain of events, Argall said he would do whatever he could.
"I can't fix anything that's happened in the last two years, but I'm going to try and help you from this point on," he said.
On Oct. 21, Argall stood on the porch of 132 W. Ridge St. as Ruthanne Kehl pushed open the front door, which had been left unlocked. The smell of mold, mildew wafted out the door and was evident at least five feet away.
"Our office has been in contact with borough officials and council," Argall said Thursday. "I toured the Kehls home to inspect and experience firsthand the damage. Our office will continue to advise the Kehls on the proper steps to take with the borough as well as encourage council to resolve this horrible issue."
On Wednesday, Ruthanne said they have heard nothing from the borough. However, they contacted a mold remediation specialist, who said it could cost about $1,000 to find out the extent of the infestation and what type of mold it is.
"This is a nightmare," she said.