BLACK HAWK, S.D. (AP) — Hideaway Hills residents are tired of waiting for answers and, in some cases, feel abandoned by politicians who received their votes in previous elections.
“This was our nest egg,” Valerie Smith said this week. “We planned to sell and now that’s our house, our business. We’re ready to retire and we don’t know what to do. We’re in our 50s, so what do we do?”
Smith and her husband, Cole, still live in their home on Prairie Violet Lane in the Black Hawk neighborhood where a sinkhole exposed an abandoned gypsum mine on April 27, 2020. About 40 people from 15 homes were forced to evacuate.
Since the sinkhole opened, two law firms representing more than 100 residents filed lawsuits, performed tests and studies. One law firm is trying to receive class-action certification, the Rapid City Journal reported.
Smith said they haven’t heard from local or state governments officials, which only adds to the deepening frustration for the residents of Hideaway Hills.
“I wish our Gov. Kristi Noem would do something for us,” she said. “It wouldn’t take that much to fix our neighborhood versus worrying about big fireworks displays. Why don’t you take the millions (of tax dollars) and fix neighborhoods for the people that actually voted for you?”
Smith asked the same of the Meade County Commission. She said the entire experience has made her belief in the government and elected officials worse.
“We do like Kristi Noem, we agree with a lot of the things she does, but I just won’t understand why she won’t help these middle-class people that voted for her and are going to lose everything,” Smith said.
Courtney Ahrendt, who bought her house in November 2012 when her son was 8 years old, said no one with Meade County or the state has reached out or helped anyone in the neighborhood.
“It kind of feels like they turned their backs on us,” she said. “It’s like they threw their hands up and said, ‘Not me!’ … It’s nothing but a bunch of good ol’ boys scratching each other’s backs to make a buck.”
Ahrendt said she’s all for the government being less involved, but those who are involved should be vetted thoroughly.
She said all she wants from the county is a fair market value for her home and every dime she paid to the county in property taxes.
Ahrendt said her house, where she still lives, is in Rainier Court and has a basement that goes 12 feet underground. She said the master bedroom is on the bottom floor and it feels like the ground is hollow beneath her. She said she won’t sleep down there anymore and instead sleeps upstairs in her daughters’ room.
The Smiths bought their house around 2000 when it was brand new. She said when they found out about the sinkhole, they were in an absolute panic.
“We thought our home was also going to sink along with our business, everything we’ve worked for, and our retirement,” Smith said. “We’re too old to start over, and we really don’t feel that it’s fair that we should have to.”
The Smith’s home on a corner with its six bedrooms, three bathrooms and hot tub lot was valued at $222,000. It is now worth $111,000, Smith said.
Stephany Fischer said she and her family bought their house in September 2019. She said this is the second home for her and her husband and three kids. They have a yard, all the kids have their own room — it was going well.
When COVID-19 took over in 2020, the kids returned home and couldn’t go to school and “everything was just a complete nightmare,” Fischer said.
She said they knew nothing about the mine when they bought their home.
“I knew it was a good neighborhood from other people that live in Black Hawk,” she said. “All of a sudden a sinkhole opens up. … We just freaked out, like oh my gosh, what’s going on? I mean who would have thought, you know, a mine.”
Fischer said they’re now in a constant state of worry about their home, and seeing how big the mine could be from the initial mapping to the studies now leaves them with more questions.
She said since the sinkhole opened, the neighborhood has become divided.
“Everybody made their decisions as far as what they felt was best for them, but instead of people coming together as a community, there’s destruction happening where there’s people upset with one law firm and these people are upset with the other law firm,” Fischer said. “It’s like living in a battlefield. Your neighbors, everybody, everything that’s going on as far as who’s responsible.”
Fischer is one of three voting members on the Northdale Sanitary District Board, which governs the streets, sidewalks and utilities for the Hideaway Hills and Northdale subdivisions.
At the September meeting for the board, Fischer, the lone Hideaway Hills resident, was the only board member to vote against allowing Fox Rothschild and its contractors to continue drilling to find out what’s truly beneath the surface.
She said she voted no because of a lack of communication and concerns that if utilities were hit, service would be disrupted.
Geologic consultant Nick Anderson, retained by Fox Rothschild, a national law firm trying to reach class-action certification, said drilling is the only way to confirm what’s actually in the ground.
He said three organizations have done surface studies for the mine and all had different interpretations of the data. He said when they spoke with Western Engineers and Geologists of Rock Springs, Wyoming, they said drilling was the only way to confirm what the data was showing.
Anderson said Western Engineers and Geologists regularly works with complicated coal mines, some of which are on fire, and have a tested and true method for drilling while taking safety precautions. Drilling began the first week of September but was stopped due to residents’ concerns.
After a 2-1 vote, Anderson and the drilling team resumed work this week.
The second of two studies commissioned by the Rapid City-based Fitzgerald Law Firm shows an additional 30 homes in the neighborhood could be at risk, along with a section of Interstate 90.
Mohamed Khalil, the geoscientist for the study, said the seasonal fluctuation of the groundwater table over the past few decades created conditions for a sinkhole in any weak spot.
Smith said right now their house is OK, but they don’t know how long it will be. She said the drilling concerns her and her husband because of the dueling information from both law firms.
She also said there was drilling in front of her house recently and they were worried about the utilities.
Fischer said having the competing information and recommendations is nerve-racking.
“Who’s right, who’s wrong, and that’s not our job. That’s what I originally thought, it wasn’t our job to determine which scientist is correct,” Fischer said. “None of this is normal. When it comes to any kind of decision-making, this is unheard of.”
She said all she and her family do now is live their lives, take care of their kids, and compartmentalize what they can.
“There’s nothing I can do about it, so when the information comes, you deal with it,” she said. “I guess you just try to stay focused on your job, your kids, what’s for dinner tonight. You can’t let it consume you because I have absolutely no control over it and there’s nothing I can do. It’s a never-ending story of more bad news.”