Dream home turns money pit

SIX years ago Andrew and Kylie Neale invested everything they had into building their dream home at Figtree Lane, Gillieston Heights.

Today, the Neales say the house is worth almost nothing and they are facing financial ruin after unknowingly building their home above an old mine. 

Mr Neale said the front of the four-bedroom brick home had shifted, creating cracks in walls and lifting tiles. Doors had become difficult to close. There is a ‘‘dip’’ in the lounge room floor about 25millimetres deep.

Pot or sink holes up to four metres wide have appeared on and around the property. A leading Australian geotechnical engineer warned there ‘‘is a very high likelihood of catastrophic subsidence which could cause personal injury or death’’.

Mr Neale said drilling was conducted by a Mine Subsidence Board consultant in 2009 to determine the extent of the old mine workings, and a geyser of water shot from a drill hole in the backyard well over the roof of the house.

When a second hole was drilled in the front yard, water once again shot high into the air from the back hole.

He said during rain, water bubbled to the surface from the drill holes, about 100 millimetres wide, and pooled around the house.

"The old mine workings are filled with water, when you drop a rock down one of the dozen or so drill holes, you eventually hear it splash at the bottom," he said.

"The whole yard is sinking, it has changed so much since we first bought the place. They took video footage down the holes, but they haven't released any of that to us. "

For more than five years the Neales have been fighting the Mine Subsidence Board (MSB) - a Hunter-based state government statutory body that administers a compensation fund paid for by coal companies - and they are still fighting.

Their property does not fall within a mine subsidence district and they had no idea it stood above the East Greta coal mine, that closed in the 1920s, until Mr Neale stepped out of his vehicle and fell in a large pothole in front of the house in 2007.

Real estate agents recently valued the property around $800,000 without the mine workings below, but said it would be almost impossible to sell as is.

"Ultimately something that we will be paying off forever is worth absolutely nothing," Mr Neale said.

"We have been told that this is clearly a mine subsidence issue and we just want the Mine Subsidence Board to deal with it fairly.

"The biggest joke in the world is their slogan, 'Putting service and the needs of people first'."

Over the past five years the Neales have lodged several unsuccessful compensation claims with the MSB and earlier this month lodged an appeal in the Land and Environment Court.

They estimate to have spent $200,000 on legal costs, expert reports and rent after being advised in 2008 to move out of the home due to danger.

They moved back in last year because they could not afford to keep renting.

It is estimated it would cost more than $3 million to fill the mine workings.

MSB chief executive officer Greg Cole-Clark said the board had done "everything we can under the act" and "we did a lot of stuff to help them".

Mr Cole-Clark said after Mr Neale fell in the pothole in 2007, the MSB filled it at no cost to the family.

He said this was done in good grace and MSB could have said 'go fence it'.

"The court and not the media and not the owner will decide what is appropriate . . . " he said.

"We are surprised at the suggestion that there is anything the board has to do."

Leading geotechnical engineer Dr Philip Pells, who examined the property in 2008, described the case this week as an "open and shut case of mine subsidence".

Dr Pells, who has previously worked as a consultant for the MSB, said he had no choice but to warn the family of the possibility of injury or death if a large hole opened up.

"There is no doubt there is a mine directly beneath their property and through no fault of their own these people have been left up a creek without a paddle and the whole things seems unreasonable," he said.

"I am bewildered why this has not been resolved and the only reason I can think of is that there are fears it would set a precedent . . . this could have happened to anyone and it's so unfortunate that our system cannot be big enough to deal with it."

NSW Opposition spokesman for mineral resources Steve Whan called on the minister Chris Hartcher to intervene in the case.

"These people are clearly not at fault, despite what rules and technicalities the MSB is relying on, something needs to be done to assist them," he said.

After being contacted by the Newcastle Herald about the case Mr Hartcher said his office would meet with the Neales to "directly hear their concerns".

He said the compensation act had no requirements relating to property purchase and compensated people when improvements on the surface were damaged.

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